Revised marine parks plan put forward

A new system of marine parks, turning 40 percent of Cayman’s coastal waters into no-fishing zones, has gone to Cabinet for approval.

Amended by the Department of Environment after extensive public consultation over several years, the proposals were approved by the National Conservation Council on Wednesday.

The amended plans involve some compromises with anglers, including expanded fishing areas in Barker’s National Park in West Bay.

If approved, the new system will almost triple the “no-take” fishing zones around Grand Cayman. No-take zones will also be significantly expanded around Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, said the proposal is “balanced and effective” and reflects input from every section of the community. She said research shows that greater protection is needed to reverse the decline of Cayman’s marine environment.

“We believe that should these proposals for enhanced marine parks, which have been widely discussed for the last several years, not be implemented, we risk ecosystem collapse, local fishery extinctions, coastal infrastructure exposure and negative impacts on our tourism and economic growth,” she said.

The revised proposals, presented at Wednesday’s meeting, follow a series of public meetings last year. In West Bay, in particular, the original plans proved controversial, with some fishermen upset at the extent of the no-take zones.

“People must have recreation,” West Bay MLA McKeeva Bush said at the meeting. “Many people still go out to catch a meal.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said the department had shifted some of the no-fishing zones, particularly along the West Bay coastline, in an effort to compromise with anglers.

Council member Davey Ebanks said he was happy with the changes.

“As the most avid fisherman on the council and the representative for West Bay, I can say that every single concern that was raised at the meetings has been addressed in an amicable fashion. Congratulations on a great job.”

Ms. Ebanks-Petrie accepted that not everyone would be satisfied. But she said the revised proposals represent the best efforts of the department to accommodate concerns, without losing the environmental benefit.

A Department of Environment report on the feedback from public meetings and written consultations outlines the key themes that emerged during the consultation process.

One common suggestion was for fishing restrictions to be placed on non-Caymanians only, through an enhanced licensing system. But the Department of Environment said this was not likely to be effective and would be difficult to police and costly to implement.

“Heavy fishing pressure had been identified as the largest directly manageable impact on our marine resources. A truly conservation-oriented licensing system will therefore require restricting not only non-Caymanian fishers but also Caymanians,” the report stated.

Others suggested species-specific controls such as exist for conch and lobster, rather than large no-take zones.

The DoE stated this “dizzying array” of regulations would be hard for the public to follow and would require constant monitoring of fishermen on all three islands.

“Our firm position is that marine reserves are the most effective and efficient tool for the protection of our marine resources,” said Ms. Ebanks-Petrie.

Addressing concerns about enforcement, she said the proposals did not change the area that the department’s enforcement officers had to cover.

Expansion of no-fishing areas has been achieved in large part through upgrading “replenishment zones” where line-fishing was previously allowed, to what will now be known as “marine reserves.” The new regulations for marine reserves extend the definition of “no-take” from the shoreline to a depth of 150 feet.

The boundaries of the marine reserves will be clearly marked, once approved. The DoE is also working on a GPS-enabled smartphone app which will allow boaters to check if they are in a marine reserve at any time and view the regulations that apply.

“Given that they have a variety of biological, fishing, economic and management benefits, the DoE believes that an enhanced system of marine parks is the optimal management tool to ensure the Cayman Islands marine resources are better able to resist or recover from existing and emerging threats,” Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said.