Daily stingray feedings draw on DoE resources, personnel

Austin welcomes lifting of restrictions, says it can’t come soon enough

From 19 July, restrictions on the Sandbar and Stingray City will come to an end, and for deputy director of the Department of Environment, Tim Austin, that day cannot come fast enough.

“I would love to see people start coming back so we can relax our responsibilities,” Austin said on Thursday as he conducted the daily feeding of the stingrays at the Sandbar.

Since government implemented restrictions on both Wildlife Interaction Zones in the North Sound, the DoE has been feeding the stingrays and recording data on the population. He said initially the boat operators volunteered to feed the stingrays, but the DoE felt that it would be more natural for its team to take on that responsibility.

“We have a boat, we had enforcement officers on the Sound every day. We had a supply of food and we basically would help with kind of managing the project,” he said. “One unit was designated responsibility. So we took that on very early, I think, at the beginning of April, and we haven’t missed a day since. We’ve been out there every day feeding them and we’ve taken the opportunity to document what we’ve done.”

According to the last stingray report posted on the DoE website, between 25 to 28 rays were counted at the daily feedings. As of 31 May, the DoE had conducted 51 feedings, distributing 769 pounds of food to the animals.

Restrictions to be lifted

Last week, Premier Alden McLaughlin announced that from 19 July the Sandbar and Stingray City will reopen. The two popular sites, along with Starfish Point, were closed to the public when the curfew and restrictions on water activities were introduced.

While Austin said he was pleased the restrictions were being lifted, he said it was “unfortunate” that it was a month away as he would have preferred the removal sooner.

He said, with the reopening date still a month away, the DoE will have to get more food to feed the stingrays, which he said has been a strain on resources from personnel to finances.

“We’re working with Guy Harvey and his group, and hopefully we’ll be able to involve more of the local operators as we move forward so that they can come out and get a firsthand experience with how the Sandbar is, so they are fully prepared when they get back to the business to taking people here,” Austin said.

He said the DoE has been using food seized during various enforcement exercises.

“Ordinarily, when we’d get fresh food, we would take it to the Pines [retirement home], but we weren’t able to do that at the moment because of the shelter-in-place regulations, but we have a whole pile 800 or 900 pounds of food that we were ready to get rid of. We’ve been gradually defrosting that and putting it in there. It was no longer fit for human consumption, so, giving it to the rays seemed like the best solution,” he said.

The deputy director, who took the Cayman Compass along for the daily feeding at the Sandbar on Thursday, said that that supply now  has run out so the department has to purchase food to feed the stingrays.

He said the exercise has been “expensive”.

Stingray population ‘healthy’

Speaking as he approached the Sandbar by boat on Thursday, Austin said, “We feed them at first, get that kind of initial frenzy out of the way, do our accounts, do our assessments, do our filming. Then we get into the water and feed from them the remainder of the food.”

A total of 30 stingrays were counted during the feeding.

He said when the DoE started the feeding, it was definitely slow.

“When we started [feeding] the rays, there were a few around still. But then once they got used to the fact that boats were in fact coming back, the numbers picked up very, very quickly and then they’ve remained pretty consistent here between 25 and 30 rays a day,” he said.

Because of some rays bearing distinctive markings, Austin said the department can monitor if some rays are consistently returning to the site for site for feedings.

“We’re able to watch them come and go, and we’ll see where they’ll come in for two or three days, then leave for a week, or two or three days,” he said.

Midway through the feeding on Thursday, Austin also got into the water and interacted with the rays before tossing the last of the meal for them.

During the exercise, different species of fish joined the feeding frenzy, including an excited ‘hound fish’ which jumped out of the water to get its share of the food.

“We want it to try to use this as an opportunity to get them [stingrays] the most healthy, balanced diet we could think of. Squid typically, although the rays love it, isn’t a food source that they would naturally eat, and some of the previous studies that we’ve done have shown that it was in fact impacting their immune system. So, we’re seeing this as a little bit of a diet for the rays and, you know, to be honest, they look healthy,” Austin added.

As the DoE prepares to welcome back the public to the Wildlife Interaction Zones, Austin urged those who plan to visit to reacquaint themselves on the DoE’s rules.

“There are various WIZ rules that relates to that interaction with stingrays, try to make sure you’re familiar with those,” he said.

“You are not allowed to wear fins or any footwear when you’re on the Sandbar, not allowed to anchor in less than four feet of water, those kinds of things. So, try to get familiar with the rules, but certainly come out and enjoy it because it’s still here. It’s still an amazing, amazing attraction.”

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  1. First, the fact that they are recording some 25-30 stingrays per feeding is concerning as the average count used to be 75.

    Secondly, this article highlights the distrust by the government of Caymanians, something I intend to speak about in greater detail soon.

    There was absolutely NO justification for DOE taking on this task; there were trustworthy Caymanian operators who had been doing so, were willing to continue to do so and were very qualified to do so, having done so for years and even having personal relationships with the stingrays, many of whom have names. There were many trustworthy Caymanians who could have carried this mantle.

    Captain Marvin Ebanks pioneered the first stingray and reef snorkeling in the north sound in 1951 although the stingray interaction took some years to develop. His son Charles is respected as a Captain and an upstanding, outstanding citizen, who immediately following Hurricane Ivan and following the onset of the COVID19 pandemic made it his duty to attend to the stingrays. In this latest event he was approved by DOE to do so, as was Captain Chip from Cayman Stingray Sailing, until their licences were abruptly canceled and the task handed over to DOE.

    No sound reasoning behind suspending their approval to feed the stingrays was ever provided. Prior to this article, an explanation of ‘lacking marine enforcement power’ to monitor the north sound and by extension to oversee the feeding of the stingrays was provided. This is a very offensive statement. It is pathetic that the government could not bring itself to trust Caymanians who have proven their own trustworthiness for decades [of operations] and is offensive to Caymanians as a people.

    Guy Harvey’s contributions here are greatly appreciated by everyone, but the government seems oblivious to the Caymanian contribution, value, trust, abilities; and I’m still trying to interpret what the following paragraph is really supposed to mean:

    “We’re working with Guy Harvey and his group, and hopefully we’ll be able to involve more of the local operators as we move forward so that they can come out and get a firsthand experience with how the Sandbar is, so they are fully prepared when they get back to the business to taking people here,” Austin said.”

    Maybe someone from DOE – maybe Mr Austin himself – should come and talk (ie have a consultation) with Captains Clinton, Dallas, Crosby, Charles, Omar, Andrew, Bruce, Roger Neil, Ernie, Jake, Duncan, Bryan and a host of other Caymanian Captains so that DOE can learn what a “firsthand experience’ means, how to move forward with trust and respect for Caymanians and how to provide better care for the stingrays if a disruption to the human/stingray interaction in the future.

    I can assure DOE that none of the Caymanian captains who “lived” in that North Sound needs a reintroduction to the Sandbar.