As much as I appreciate and support the National Conservation Council’s dedication to and faithful efforts toward preserving our environment, I respectfully and fervently disagree with their proposed change in plans to phase out spearfishing (aside from licensed lionfish spears).
I grew up fishing and spearfishing in California, but gave up both after witnessing how devastating my own spearfishing was on reef fish, which are territorial and much longer lived than I had thought in my youthful ignorance.
My own destructiveness was most evident in a private cove in which I was the only spearfisherman over a three-year period in the 1970s. After three summers, I had cleaned out all of the nooks and crannies in that cove and they were not replenished. Most of the large reef species live in excess of 25 years, so as I removed them from their lairs, that reef remained empty for years afterward.
Mature fish do not cross pelagic waters, so there is no new stream of them coming in from the deep sea. The edge of our shelf acts like an aquarium wall to them.
Studying marine biology, I learned that egg production increases exponentially with a fish’s age and size. Unlike us, they never stop growing as they age. The older and bigger, the more valuable they are to any restoration effort. It is human nature to go for the largest fish you can find, so spearfishing, which affords selectivity, is very effective at reducing replenishment. This is especially problematic on our reefs, which are severely over-fished from roughly 40 years of unsustainable take by a wide variety of methods … not just from spearfishing!
My argument is not about how we got into this dilemma, but what we must now do to resolve it. Having moved to Cayman in 1983 as a scuba instructor/underwater photographer, I heard our most experienced divemasters grumbling and moaning about how quickly all of the big fish and big schools of fish were disappearing, and soon saw it for myself. The big old territorial masters that I had gotten to know intimately and could count on greeting the divers I was leading, were not returning after spawning season. With thousands of dives since, I have seen our most valuable tourism attraction vanishing before my eyes.
Although I quit the dive industry when I went full time as a photographer in 1988, I continue to dive regularly to this day. The decrease in reef fish population has been at least as dramatic and obvious as the increase in human population has been during this same period. Imagine paying to visit Seaworld in Florida and discovering that nearly all of the big fish and well more than half of the rest were missing. Would you go back? Would you recommend it? This is why our dive tourism numbers are not more than double what they are today.
Certainly, taking fish (of any species) while spawning has been the singularly most devastating of all methods of capture, but at this point in time our reef fish populations are so depressed that every individual of our rarest species removed today is a significant loss to restoration. Spearfishing is only one part of a large variety of ways that I believe we must change our take from the reefs if we hope to solve this problem before it is too late for our most important, most endangered species.
Enhancing enforcement of all marine resource laws, expanding the marine parks and seeking even more ways to reduce our take is rapidly becoming more necessary and dire the longer we continue denying the urgency of this issue. Effectively stopping poaching is recognized by all as an imperative. Eliminating spearguns would make stopping poaching with illegal guns much easier than it is today.
There is more at stake than merely what is currently tens of millions of dollars per year in diving tourism income if we fail. This is a significant, potentially perpetually sustainable food stock for all future generations of Caymanians that we are losing. When your herd of 10,000 cattle has been reduced to less than 500, you’d better reconsider how you are managing your stocks. If you want to know more about my observations and thoughts about what must soon be done to reverse this loss, please watch my brief, 18-minute TEDx talk. At the very least, every resident should download the Department of Environment’s easy-to-use phone app called “Siren” available on its website, which makes all of the regulations immediately accessible to you so that you can become part of the solution. Use it to help stop poachers and to avoid unknowingly becoming one yourself. He hath founded it upon the seas and then He made us His stewards.