The Department of Environment is shutting down 43 dive sites along Grand Cayman’s North Wall for the next three months as the island tries to combat the spread of the deadly Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.
The affected dive sites are located between Bear’s Paw at the edge of West Bay and Delia’s Delight off North Side, and are predominantly along the entrance/exit of the North Sound – the only local area so far known to impacted by the disease.
The DoE said the closure of these sites comes at a time of year when they are usually inaccessible to divers due to adverse weather conditions.
“We are here to try and find a solution to stem the spread of this disease,” said Tammi Warrender, the DoE’s lead coordinator for its response to the disease, which has already decimated parts of Florida’s reefs.
Warrender addressed about two dozen dive operators from various companies who attended a meeting about the DoE’s plans Friday morning at the Government Administration Building.
The DoE was first alerted to the presence the coral disease in local waters in June by a member of the public who spotted it at Penny’s Arch dive site, off Rum Point.
“There is still a lot that we do not know about the disease, like how it got here and whether it is bacteria or some other microbe that is responsible for it, and, if so, which one?” said Warrender. “What we do know is that it is travelling westward along the prevailing water current at a rate of between 1 to 1.5 miles per month.”
Another troubling unknown factor about the disease is its mode of transmission, and why some corals are more susceptible to it than others. After popping up off the coast of Florida six years ago, the coral disease then showed up in Jamaica, before arriving in the Bahamas and now in Cayman.
“This disease takes no prisoners, it infects entire reefs at a time, and spreads rapidly,” said Warrender. “Fortunately for us, we’ve had years to observe the disease in other countries and to see what works and what does not work.”
“We also know that it will arrive in the Sister Islands, so for now we are trying to buy ourselves additional time,” she added.
Currently, the DoE is adapting a list of preventative measures. Along with a ban on in-water activity at the various sites, the DoE has begun removing moorings from the proposed locations to discourage private boat-owners from visiting the areas. Divers are also being encouraged to use environmentally-friendly chemicals to disinfect their gear after each dive, so that if they come into contact with the disease, they do not inadvertently spread it to other areas.
“The reason we do not want in-water activity is because divers could unknowingly take the virus from an affected dive site to another site,” said Croy McCoy, a DoE senior research officer, who likened the disease to a raging fire beneath Cayman’s waters.
“We’ve placed a coral firebreak to help stop the spread of the disease,” he said, which entails removing areas of affected coral.
Those who choose not to adhere to the restrictions at the dive sites will not face legal penalties at the moment, but DoE Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie said her department is still weighing options.
“We have designed our response in a way that is proportionate to the threat,” said Ebanks-Petrie. “If we see where regulations are needed to prevent people from visiting the sites, then we will explore that option, but right now we want everyone to understand that it is everybody’s best interest to stay away from the sites until we have addressed the problem.”
Although in-water activity has been banned at the dive sites, the DoE is not proposing that troll-fishing be restricted, or that people be prevented from accessing the Stingray City Sandbar.
During Friday’s meeting, the DoE warned operators that although the disease appears to be contained in one location currently, the rate of its spread could result in financial losses in the millions.
The DoE is seeking volunteers to assist with studying Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. Contact 949-8469 for more information on how to volunteer.