Six stingrays got their first taste of freedom in more than a year Friday when Cayman Islands Department of Environment officers released them back into the wild after transporting them from Dolphin Discovery.
DoE staff tagged, measured and weighed the five males and one female before carefully placing them into the water at the Sandbar in the North Sound.
The Southern stingrays had been at the dolphin tourism attraction in Grand Cayman since last year when fishermen who had caught them swapped them for bait from Dolphin Discovery, which has included the rays as part of its animal attractions.
This is the second release of stingrays from Dolphin Discovery. In October last year, the company handed over four other rays for release to the Department of Environment after it was discovered that those rays had earlier been tagged at the Sandbar during a census in January 2012. It is illegal to take any animal from the Sandbar or Stingray City, both of which are Wildlife Interaction Zones.
An amendment to the Marine Conservation Law that was passed in March and came into effect in May makes it illegal to take certain species of stingrays, including Southern Stingrays, from any part of Cayman waters.
Gene Thompson, owner of Dolphin Discovery initially refused to release the six rays, saying that he considered that since the rays were in Dolphin Discovery’s possession before the Marine Conservation Law was changed in May, the facility was “grandfathered” in and would not be required to release them. The Department of Environment, however, disagreed and sought advice from the Legal Department which determined that the law did apply in this case.
“The Legal Department said the amendment does not grandfather the rays that were in captivity prior to the amendment being passed,” said the director of the Department of Environment, Gina Ebanks-Petrie. “This means that anyone who has rays in their possession is in breach of the Marine Conservation Law.”
Dale Crighton, who owns Dolphin Discovery along with Mr. Thompson, agrees with his business partner that the amended Marine Conservation Law is not retroactive.
“I know of no law in the Cayman Islands that is retroactive … That would be like saying if you increase the driving age to 18, people who are now 17 who have licences would not be able to drive.” He added that he had also spoken to attorneys on the issue and they have agreed with this argument.
“But that’s not really the issue. We are releasing the stingrays … The whole reason for us having the stingrays in the beginning is that we were saving them initially,” Mr. Crighton said.
He added that Dolphin Discovery “did not want to keep them indefinitely”.
“It was an additional burden on us. We had to hire more people to keep them,” he said.
Asked if the stingrays were being released because possible legal action against the dolphinarium, Mr. Crighton responded, “It didn’t reach that stage.”
However, he said that Dolphin Discovery had sold packages to tourists that included visiting with the stingrays and there may be “some repercussions” because the rays are no longer at the facility.
Department of Environment staff and interns picked the stingrays up from Dolphin Discovery early Friday morning – a quiet day for the attraction as no cruise ships were in town.
With the help of Dolphin Discovery staff, they placed the rays one by one in a wheelbarrow and took them to water-filled containers on a waiting DoE truck. They were then driven to Billy Farrington’s Marine Diesel dock in West Bay and transferred to a large round tank on a DoE boat.
When the team got to the Sandbar – where vets from Georgia Aquarium were carrying out a census of rays – DoE research officer Jessica Harvey climbed in the tank and, after a check and note was made of the rays’ tags, lifted each one onto a net. The rays were quickly weighed and then taken to the back of the boat in the net by DoE chief conservation officer Mark Orr, while Dolphin Discovery’s Roque Velarde was waiting in the water to take the rays in his arms and lower them into the sea.
“The DoE is very happy to now have a situation where all the facilities on the island are compliant, as far as stingrays are concerned, with the Marine Conservation Law which was amended in March,” said Ms Ebanks-Petrie, speaking on board the boat immediately after the release.
“From the stingray population perspective, one of the good things about what we have done is we have now got five more males out there in the Sandbar because the census so far shows that the ratio of males to females is actually quite low,” she added.
However, she admitted that there was no way of knowing immediately if the six rays would hang around the Sandbar or move on, but because they are now tagged, if they do stick around, they can be identified during the next census.
The Georgia Aquarium vets gave the six rays a clean bill of health early last week after they checked them at Dolphin Discovery to determine if they were ready to be released.
DoE staff tagged, measured and weighed the five males and one female before carefully placing them in the water at the Sandbar in the North Sound Friday morning.