Popular nature attraction Starfish Point has seen a resurgence of its namesake animal during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the Department of Environment is urging the public to take extra care when visiting the site.
DoE Deputy Director Tim Austin, speaking with the Cayman Compass Tuesday, said his team has observed more starfish closer to the shore at the North Side beach, but he said that does not necessarily mean there is an increase in numbers.
“They’re definitely there and definitely in abundant numbers, but when we did a comparison, transacts in other areas, it was about the same density. I think it’s encouraging that they’re still there, but I think it’s just the fact that there’s not so many people around it makes it feel as though there are a lot more starfish,” Austin said.
He said the DoE did an assessment two weeks ago using a drone and there were a lot of starfish in the water. Residents near the popular site, he said, have also reported seeing more starfish along the shore, which is a positive sign.
“We put it down to the fact that, because there weren’t so many boats, there weren’t so many people, the starfish were just a lot more visible. You could see them in the clear water and perhaps they were moving up into the shallow areas where previously they were at risk of being run over by a boat or people walking on them,” he added.
One visitor to Starfish Point beach over the public-holiday weekend said she was delighted to find so many starfish in the water.
“We usually see maybe a dozen starfish there but today [Monday] we stopped counting when we got to 226,” resident Julia Armitage said following a trip to the beach. “This area has been closed to the public for almost four months and this is the result. Very telling.”
The DoE deputy director said he is happy that the public can now view larger numbers of starfish closer to shore, but he cautioned about handling the creatures.
“It doesn’t really benefit the experience of seeing a starfish to pick it up. Obviously, people do, and they like to hold them, he said. “If they do that, we don’t want to see them lifted out of the water. But I really don’t think there’s any need to pick it up.
“Swimming over it, standing over it, looking at it, should be enough for most people. We’re just encourage people to take that approach rather than this desire to pick up an animal or just to disturb it, continually moving it and looking at it.”
He said DoE conservation officers have always been “very vigilant” about activity at Starfish Point and signs have been posted about the handing of starfish, an echinoderm that is a protected species under the National Conservation Law.
“It’s actually an offence to lift them out of the water, as well as obviously not being very good for them, disturbing them all the time. It’s not a very good practice. So, our officers will be in the area. We’ll be monitoring and we will be making sure that people do adhere to the rules about handling marine life,” Austin added.
Lockdown helped Cayman’s environment
Over the last couple of months, access to the beach has been restricted due COVID-19 restrictions.
This, Austin said, also helped to encourage more starfish to emerge from the deeper waters.
“It’s really nice to see starfish in the water, and … people are seeing them now in a less disturbed environment [with] not so much foot traffic, not so much boat traffic, not so much swimming and moving,” he said.
The DoE deputy director said his team has noted positive changes in the local environment over the past few months, which can be attributed to the lack human interaction because of the COVID-19 restrictions.
While he said there is no qualitative data to affirm this, the DoE has been making its own observations during its monitoring operations.
“There’s lots of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the environment certainly enjoyed having a break from intense human activity for a while. We saw different species in areas where we didn’t see them. We had the turtle nest [at] Smith Cove [for example],” he said.
He also pointed out that Cayman has also seen more reclusive animals, like sharks, becoming more visible in areas, such as those seen at Stingray Sandbar last month.
“We’ve had several people reporting seeing them. These are all encouraging signs that said that the marine life is still out there and, if given a break, we can still enjoy it,” he said.