DoE seeks public input to save local sharks
(CNS): With many of Cayman's shark species under threat, the Department of Environment is engaging in a public consultation process to see what options people would support to protect these often misunderstood marina animals. Although regarded by some fishermen as a nuisance, sharks are a critically important part of the marine eco-system and also an important attraction to Cayman’s dive tourism. A study undertaken by the DoE has revealed that sharks could be worth as much as $25 million a year directly, and much more indirectly, to the islands but the various species common to local waters are under increasing threat. DoE officials said Thursday that there is a pressing need to enact legislation to protect their future.
Speaking at a press briefing on Thursday morning, DoE Deputy Director Tim Austin explained that recent research work involving shark tagging has given a clearer picture of the numbers and the worrying decline. With no doubt that sharks are under threat, the DoE is now looking for input from the wider public on the possible way forward and policy development for their protection.
Nurse sharks may be the species at most risk because they are easily caught on lines and, albeit unintentionally, many become casualties of fishing. But Austin noted that white tips, hammerheads and other species are also at risk and more work was required to understand why numbers have fallen.
While the main study was now complete, Austin said, with the help of donations coming from the sale of the Cayman Islands Brewery's White Tip larger, the tagging project would continue, offering researchers more information on the elusive creatures.
The focus now for the DoE is arriving at the best method of protecting sharks and other large marine animals. Even if people don't recognize the need to protect them from an environmental perspective, the DoE experts believe their economic value should persuade the public of the need to enact legislation to secure their future.
The study shows that the direct value is as much as $25 million but the indirect value could be even more because of the sharks' contribution to maintaining a healthy marine environment, which has a knock-on effect to the wider tourism product.
The department is posing several possible options for protecting the local shark populations, which will also include rays, dolphins and whales. The first is extending marine parks and protection zones, in which all of the species would be protected,.
Another is making Little Cayman alone a safe zone because of the comparatively healthy numbers around the country's smallest island. Alternatively, more protection could be added by extending full protection to all sharks, rays, whales and dolphins throughout Cayman waters, or at least within 12 nautical miles from shore.
As a result of the mobility of local sharks, Austin said, protection zones would not be an immediate quick fix to the problem of declining shark populations but it would be a step in the right direction. Tagging shows that some species, such as white tips, can travel over 80 miles in a day and even move from the Caribbean region into the Atlantic.
Even local tiger sharks are roaming all over the Caribbean, Austin explained, so a 12 mile zone around Cayman has only limited value, but combined with the protections under international covenants, local laws could give the sharks and other large marine species more of a fighting chance. At present, even Cayman's famous stingrays are not protected once they go outside a wildlife interaction zone.
The DoE is appealing to the entire community to fill in the questionnaire by mid September to help guide the future protection policy. A hard copy is also available from the DoE.
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