The National Conservation Council has raised concerns that its responsibility for renewing spear fishing licenses may conflict with its legal duty to protect threatened fish species.
The council approved a new regulatory regime for licensing of all kinds of marine activity, including spearfishing, last week, paving the way for the final sections of the National Conservation Law to be brought into force. Those changes move responsibility for licensing spearfishing from the Marine Conservation Board, which will no longer exist, to the council.
During its meeting Wednesday, council members raised concerns that granting such licenses may be difficult, given the existing pressures of overfishing and its primary role to protect species that would be targeted by spearfishermen.
“The current level of fishing is unsustainable. It would be very difficult for us as a council to license new spearguns or renew existing spearguns in the absence of an expansion of the marine parks,” said council member Fred Burton.
Council members agreed to write to the minister asking how it should handle speargun applications in the face of its dual responsibility to license the activity and to protect the targeted species.
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, said the council could only issue licenses for activities like spearfishing if it were satisfied those activities would not negatively impact a threatened species or its habitat.
She said it would be hard to satisfy those conditions without the extra protection that would come from an expanded system of marine parks. A recommended new system of marine parks, turning 40 percent of Cayman’s coastal waters into no-fishing zones, is currently awaiting Cabinet approval.
Were those restrictions in place, the conservation council suggested it would not be as concerned about the impact of limited, licensed spearfishing on local fish stocks.
For a number of years, Cayman has allowed only current spearfishing license holders to renew their permits and has not allowed replacement parts to be imported or for new licenses to be obtained. The position represented a compromise, preserving the tradition of spearfishing for a few hundred license holders, while slowly phasing out the activity, which is feared to have a high impact, particularly on large breeding fish.
However, amendments to the conservation law, introduced at the committee stage as a compromise with opposition legislators, now allow for replacement parts to be brought into the Cayman Islands, raising the prospect of an increase in activity.
Mike Joseph, a regular recreational spearfisherman, said he understood the concerns over the sport and acknowledged overfishing had an impact on the environment.
He said he supported the expanded marine parks system but feels spearfishing should continue to be allowed, under well-policed restrictions. He said it was logical for those that were licensed to spearfish to be allowed to buy replacement parts for their equipment.
He said spearfishermen who stuck to size and species restrictions and dove on breath-hold did not represent a serious threat to the environment. He said increased enforcement and penalties for those who do not comply with the regulations would deal with many of the issues.
“I’m maybe not the best spokesperson as a third-generation Caymanian, but this is a Cayman tradition that people have done for generations, originally to put food on the table. It is very important to respect that cultural heritage. Fathers have passed their [spear]guns down to their sons and so on.
“Cayman spearfishermen deserve the right to continue but they have to appreciate the law is there for a reason. If we don’t respect the restrictions then our own children won’t be able to carry on the tradition.”