Police say they will clamp down on overloaded boats at attractions like Stingray City during what is expected to be Cayman’s busiest-ever tourist season.
Complaints about boats crammed with passengers have been an ongoing concern, particularly at the North Sound sandbar, for several years.
Now the Joint Marine Unit is warning tour operators they could face fines if they do not comply with weight and passenger limits specified in their operators’ licenses.
“These limits exist for a very good reason,” said Chief Inspector Brad Ebanks, head of Specialist Units, “because as the choppier water at this time of year already can make boats less stable, failing to adhere to passenger limits on top of this presents a clear danger to passengers and crew. Boat operators risk penalties if they do not comply with these regulations.”
Some tour operators have been complaining for several years about lack of enforcement at the sandbar, while environmentalists like Guy Harvey have warned that Cayman risks the reputation of its number one tourist attraction by not better managing the experience at the sandbar.
Shaun Ebanks, president of the Land and Sea Cooperative Society, believes there needs to be a permanent officer stationed at the site.
While most operators obey the rules, he said, a few rogue skippers overload boats. He said anyone who worked with the cooperative or who booked tours through the cruise ships would not risk losing their contracts or violating insurance agreements to squeeze on a few extra passengers.
“Sometimes you can look at a boat and it might look like it is overloaded, but it is actually carrying its capacity. If you have a boat for 70 people and it is carrying 70 people, it can look full but it might actually be OK.
“I am not saying it doesn’t happen, but when you book through the cruise ships, you tell them what your capacity is and that is how many passengers they give you.
“I would say there are maybe two or three operators that don’t have contracts with the cruise lines and are outside the gates booking passengers that do this sort of thing and we all end up getting blamed.”
He believes the marine police and the Department of Environment should work together to station a dedicated officer at the sandbar with responsibility for managing the attraction.
“We pay our license fees. I would have thought they could keep one patrol guy out there. It is very hard for any industry to self police.”
He said he was not aware of any occasions when police had stopped a boat for being overloaded or that the DoE had revoked anyone’s license.
Mr. Ebanks also raised concerns that too many licenses were being given out.
“I believe there needs to be a moratorium on new licenses for the time being,” he said.
Tim Austin, deputy chief officer at the Department of Environment, said the department had received numerous complaints about various violations at the sandbar, including overloaded boats. He said the department had a conservation officer who checked in at the site every hour while on patrol in the North Sound.
But he acknowledged that it may be time to station an officer there full-time, something the DoE used to do. He said a limit on the number of licenses handed out was also under consideration. Currently the Wildlife Interaction Zone regulations curtail the number of boats at the sandbar at any given time to 20, with the number of visitors capped at 1,500. There is no limit on the number of operators that can be licensed.
“We are looking at doing a review of the management system there,” said Mr. Austin.
One boat operator, who asked not to be named, said overloaded boats have been a perennial problem at the sandbar for several years.
He said some smaller operators used adapted fishing boats, meant for 8 to 10 people, stuffing them with passengers from bow to stern.
“It is an ongoing issue from a number of boat operators,” he said.
West Bay legislator McKeeva Bush said he believes there needs to be proper enforcement. He said operators who break the rules risk damaging the reputation of the attraction for everyone.
“Everybody has to be able to make a living, but we have to make sure people are not overloading their boats and creating bad publicity for the tourism sector, which helps no one.”
He said representatives of the Land and Sea Cooperative Society previously were paid a stipend to keep an eye on the attraction and suggested that policy be renewed.
Those who wish to report overloaded vessels may contact the Joint Marine Unit during regular business hours at 649-7710 or George Town Police Station anytime at 949-4222.