When it comes to the National Conservation Council and its potential conflicts, we feel that concerns over fishing methods and fish species may end up being just “the tip of the spear.”
The Cayman Islands’ National Conservation Law is such a labyrinthine, complex and far-reaching piece of legislation — placing wide-ranging powers in the hands of the appointed council — that it virtually guarantees that problems would arise — and they have.
The question of spearfishing presents a salient example.
As was written in a story published in Monday’s Compass, the council is struggling with how to approach two conflicting responsibilities: on the one hand, to grant approvals for spearfishing licenses, and, on the other, to protect fish species that would be targeted by those spearfishermen.
We’re sure that if we were to do a survey of the members of the Conservation Council (or, more broadly, the “pro-Nature” individuals who championed the council’s formation in the first place), there would be near universal condemnation of spearfishing.
Nevertheless, thanks to the power of bureaucracy, the council now finds itself with a legal responsibility to enable an activity its members almost certainly oppose.
In addition to the internal conflict within the council, the issue of spearfishing — and marine conservation zones — sets up another conflict: between the council and the “old-time” “pro-Caymanian traditionalists” who argue that spearfishing — or any type of fishing, anywhere and at any time — is a cultural right bequeathed by generations of practice.
We don’t see an easy way out of this conundrum.
For years, Cayman’s government has pursued a characteristically lukewarm approach to the problem of spearfishing (the “problem” being that it is a highly effective and efficient way to selectively hunt large fish). The government has allowed hundreds of already-licensed spearfishermen to continue the tradition, but has not allowed the approval of any new spearfishing licenses, and has not allowed the importation of replacement parts for existing spearguns already on island.
Although we would argue that government’s strategy has been absurdly contradictory (spearguns, yes; speargun parts, no), it did appear to achieve a sort of equilibrium between those who love fish and those who love to fish.
And then along came the Conservation Law.
When the legislation was being discussed in Parliament, lawmakers inserted language that overturned the ban on replacement parts for spearguns — and transferred the responsibility for spearfishing from the now-defunct Marine Conservation Board to the new Conservation Council.
Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie has presented a possible solution, stating that it would be difficult for the council to issue licenses for spearfishing if Cabinet does not approve an expanded system of marine parks that is now under consideration.
Make no mistake. Though Ms. Ebanks-Petrie couches this trade-off in ecological terms, in actuality it is a thinly veiled attempt at political deal-making. If the council gets what it wants (expanded marine parks), then it will give a segment of voters what they want (spearguns).
That deal may not be sweet enough for our politicians, particularly those who have heavy concentrations of constituents who are engaged in commercial or serious recreational fishing, for instance in West Bay, East End, North Side or the Sister Islands.
We shall see how the chips will fall soon enough, because the next election is fast approaching.
Many documentaries on ocean life begin with the observation that, although things may appear calm on the surface, the real activity is taking place beneath the waves. In this case, the meaningful activity is occurring on land — and behind closed doors.