Expanded legal protection to stingrays in Cayman Islands waters came into effect Friday.
Amendments to the Marine Conservation Law affording protection to three species of rays, including stingrays, was gazetted Friday, 17 May, almost two months after it was approved by legislators in March.
The law was amended following reports that wild stingrays had been removed from local waters and were being housed in a tank at Dolphin Discovery in West Bay. Four of the 10 stingrays were found to have been tagged at the Sandbar in North Sound by scientists working with conservationist Guy Harvey on compiling a census of the animals. Those four were subsequently released back to the Sandbar in September, but six rays still remain in captivity at Dolphin Discovery.
The facility’s owner, Gene Thompson, has said that he does not intend to release the rays, despite the amended law, because he believes Dolphin Discovery has been “grandfathered in” and the law that outlaws the possession of rays does not apply in this case as it did not exist when the stingrays were brought to the facility.
At the time, a visiting marine veterinarian alerted Mr. Harvey and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment that southern stingrays were in tanks at Dolphin Discovery. Previously, the only legislation protecting the animals was part of the Marine Conservation Law prohibiting the removal of any wildlife from the Sandbar or Stingray City, which are designated as Wildlife Interaction Zones, and from marine parks or designated environmental zones. Under that law, it was legal to take stingrays from any other area.
The Department of Environment has approached the Legal Department for advice on taking legal action against Dolphin Discovery for keeping the stingrays and by Friday was still awaiting a response from legal advisers. Since the law did not officially come into force until Friday, no action could have been taken prior to then.
The Cayman Islands Tourism Association on Friday welcomed the amendment to the law, which lawmakers passed in the Legislative Assembly in March.
“Protecting the southern stingrays and ‘rays’ in the Cayman Islands is a forward step in a positive direction, not only for our marine environment, but also for our tourism product,” said Jane van der Bol, executive director of Cayman Islands Tourism Association.
Asked if the tourism association would urge Dolphin Discovery, which is a member of the organisation, to free the stingrays in its possession, which were reportedly taken from the sea by fishermen and given to the facility in exchange for bait, Mrs. van der Bol said CITA was “certainly looking into this, but I cannot give you a definitive answer at this time”.
In the release issued by CITA, the association said its members supported efforts to protect the southern stingray and were pleased that the Cayman Islands government had announced that the southern stingray is now protected under the Marine Conservation Law (Amended) 2013.
Under the amended law, anyone in Cayman waters, who takes, injures or possesses rays, chitons, periwinkles, or bleeding teeth is guilty of an offence. The amended law covers southern stingrays, eagle rays and manta rays.
“The Cayman Islands Tourism Association would like to thank all those who have worked on this project and the Cayman Islands Government for recognising the importance of these beautiful creatures to our tourism product, marine environment and economic stability,” the association’s release continued.
The population of southern stingrays at the Sandbar has been decreasing in recent years, according to censuses taken of the population.
A census of the ray population in January 2012 found 61 stingrays at the Sandbar. Another census done six months later found 57 stingrays. Censuses in earlier years had found 100 or more stingrays at the Sandbar.