The number of stingrays at the North Sound sandbar has halved as a result of a decline in visitors since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, according to the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.
A three-day census last month found only 47 rays at the sandbar and only three at Stingray City. An earlier census in July found 60 rays at the sandbar.
Pre-COVID counts showed an average population of more than 100 stingrays at the popular tourist attraction.
Researchers attribute the drop in numbers to a reduction in “supplemental feeding” from the tour boats which would ordinarily visit the site.
Boats were banned from the sandbar for an extended period during lockdown. Even since the site was reopened, there has been limited boat traffic because of the absence of tourists on the island.
Though the foundation and the Department of Environment have been feeding the rays, the food they have provided is not enough to sustain such a large population.
The drop is not necessarily cause for concern, however. Stingrays forage for food naturally, supplementing their diet with easy meals from tour boats that frequent the sandbar.
“It is suspected that the individuals normally present at Stingray City Sandbar, but have not been seen during the recent surveys, are becoming less reliant on being fed by people and are foraging in the North Sound and surrounding areas for longer with occasional visits to the Sandbar,” the foundation said in a statement to the Compass.
More research is planned to determine the level of ‘site fidelity’ of the rays that inhabit the site.
Project manager Jessica Harvey said it was likely that the numbers of rays would increase as more frequent tourist traffic resumes.
The next census is scheduled for January and the foundation will continue to provide food to the rays at the site in the interim.
“It is really important to maintain regular monitoring of this site, particularly during this unprecedented time,” said Harvey.
The DoE began feeding the sandbar stingrays in early April when the shelter-in-place restrictions, including a boating ban, sparked public concern for the stingrays’ well-being and around the preservation of the site as a tourist attraction.
By the end of May, the DoE had provided 769 pounds of food and recorded a daily population of between 25 and 30 stingrays.
The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation has since taken over responsibility for the daily feeding.
The foundation says the food being provided on a daily basis is enough to sustain a population of around 45-50 rays, consistent with what was observed at the site during the recent surveys.
During the October census, 41 males and six females were processed at the sandbar, which includes measuring the stingrays and checking for tags. Three other rays were found at the deep site and at Rum Point.
One of the rays had a fishing hook in its mouth but was still able to feed normally, according to Harvey.
She cautioned that it is against the law to fish for rays and sharks in the Cayman Islands and urged the public to report any suspected illegal fishing activity.