A proposal to dramatically expand no-fishing zones in Cayman’s waters has been revived as the National Conservation Council seeks to introduce a new system of marine parks.
Environment officials say more restrictions are needed to protect marine wildlife and habitats from the threats posed by overfishing and coastal development.
The proposal on the table would increase “no-take” zones, where all fishing is banned, to nearly half of the “marine shelf”. Currently just over ten percent of the marine shelf, the coastal waters enclosed by the reef around the Cayman Islands, is completely protected from fishing.
The recommendations, approved unanimously by the National Conservation Council on Tuesday, will go through another round of public consultation later this year.
Once that process, required by the National Conservation Law, is complete it would be down to Cabinet to legally designate the new marine park boundaries.
Similar proposals were discussed previously but the initiative was sidelined until the new law could be introduced and implemented.
In a presentation to the council, Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks Petrie said the DoE was now ready to recommend the implementation of an expanded marine protection regime. She said Cayman had been a world conservation leader when it first introduced marine parks in the 1980s, but had now fallen behind international standards.
She said the park boundaries no longer offered sufficient protection to the islands’ valuable marine ecosystem.
The new system, if approved, would extend the boundaries of marine parks from the current outer limit at a depth of 80 ft to a depth of 150 ft. It would also simplify the regulations, which currently contain a mix of restrictions on different types of fishing, to make marine parks strictly “no-take” zones.
“We believe the areas proposed are feasible to protect and manage. It will actually be easier because there are not as many different zones. When you see somebody in a marine reserve and they are fishing they are breaking the law.
She said reefs across the Caribbean, including around Cayman, had declined in coral cover and abundance of marine life over the past three decades. She added,
“We have already had some consultation, but what we are seeking to do is to take the proposals back to the public for some final input and bring them back for approval by Cabinet.”
She said some of the concerns raised in district meetings during the previous period of consultation had been taken on board and “fishing concessions” had been included in the new plan.
The proposal also includes additional regulations for critically important sites where several species, most notably grouper, are known to aggregate to mate.
Council member Davey Ebanks took issue with the restrictions at the aggregation sites, which extend no-fishing zones out to a depth of 600 feet around these areas, saying they were over the top and would prevent any kind of fishing in those areas.
He said he was in “total agreement” with 99 per cent of the proposals but said the proposals on aggregation sites were unworkable and unreasonable. Tim Austin, deputy director of the DoE, acknowledged that aspect may have to be tweaked depending on public feedback, saying it was not the intention of the legislation to prevent trawling for pelagic species at those sites.