Rays to get lawful protection
(CNS): The new government is proposing to make a minor amendment to the Marine Conservation Law in order to make it illegal to take stingrays, manta rays and eagle rays from anywhere in Cayman. Ahead of plans for a major overhaul of the law to expand local marine parks, the environment minister has announced an interim amendment that he hopes will be passed through the Legislative Assembly at the next meeting. This will extend the protection of rays from the wildlife interaction zone at the Sandbar to all Cayman waters. Meanwhile, the Department of Environment is racing to pull together proposals that aim to protect much more of Cayman's marine life in enhanced marine park zones.
The promised amendment regarding the rays comes in the wake of significant public outcry over a number of rays that are being held at a captive dolphin facility in West Bay.
Although the Department of Environment (DoE) was able to recover several stingrays, which were found to have been tagged, from Dolphin Discovery and return them to Stingray City, the facility has refused to return the remaining rays which were not tagged. With no law in place to protect any rays, the DoE was unable to compel their return to the sea. DoE Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie welcomed the move and said it should prevent what happened at Dolphin Discovery happening again.
Nevertheless, the fate of the rays currently held at the facility, once the amendment to the law is made, is unclear.
Speaking at the government a press briefing on Thursday, Environment Minister Mark Scotland revealed that a simple amendment was being drawn up to add the rays to the protected species already in the marine conservation law, which would be put before members of the LA. However, Scotland said he was not sure what would happen to the rays currently being held but noted that the law would make it illegal to hold them in captivity. He said the amendment was needed to protect this species as their numbers had been declining in recent years.
While there has been a fall in the numbers at the Sandbar, as a species stingrays are far from being the most at risk marine animals in Cayman and the DoE is currently working on plans for expanded marine conservation parks designed to protect not just the myriad species currently at risk in local waters but the critical marine habit that supports them.
This, however, is proving to be a much bigger battle for the DoE team, which recently revealed that, following wide consultation, in which the majority of people supported the proposed enhancement of the parks, staff are now working to produce new park proposals to put before Cabinet to cover all marine conservation in Cayman for the next 25 years.
At a press briefing last week the DoE gave an update on the current situation regarding the results of the public consultation. Ebanks-Petrie explained that all of the comments and submissions from the public regarding the proposals set out by the DoE are currently being assessed and some modifications were being considered to the original plans, which would strike the balance between the scientific case for enhancement and the need to accommodate local fishing.
John Turner, from Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences, explained that the original proposals were based on very strong scientific evidence and fieldwork research over the last three years but he was one of the people now tasked with combining the science with the public views to reach a sustainable and workable plan for the future of the marine environment.
With that environment under increasing pressure but with a shared belief throughout the community that it needs to be protected through an expansion of the parks system, the DoE team and their overseas scientific supporters are working as quickly as they can to come up with revised proposals. Ebanks-Petrie said she was hopeful that the proposals would be ready early next month.
While there was some vocal opposition to the specific boundaries that the DoE had suggested for no take zones, she said, there was considerably more support for them. With the exception of West Bay and Cayman Brac, where fishermen have submitted a petition against the new park proposals, in each of the districts a coordinated effort has been made with local MLAs, fishermen and other stakeholders to propose some alternatives to the DoE that could accommodate fishing interests and still extend protections, and all of these were now being considered.
As time is of the essence, the DoE director said she hoped that if she and her team could demonstrate wide public support for the enhancement proposals and the need for more protection, when the review was complete it would be accepted by the minister and in turn Cabinet.
With two-thirds of the people who attended meetings and submitted comments supporting the expansions as proposed by the DoE, the director said she hoped that those supporters would make their views known to their political representatives to help press the need for the enhanced regulation of the local marine environment as soon as possible.
“We hope that the everyone has had the opportunity in some way to engage with us in responding to the proposals,” the director said, as she pointed to the extended consultation that had taken place to garner the necessary public support and strong community acceptance in order to get the much needed enhancements through to law.
However, the minister indicted last week that he expected there to be more consultation once the DoE comes up with revised proposals based on the public feedback so far. This will undoubtedly delay the legislation and the critical increase in protection.
Ebanks-Petrie has been persistent in the message that the enhancement of the parks is not about losing something but about making an investment in the future to retain the ability to fish. With the various pressures currently facing the local marine habitat, from invasive species to global warming, all of which is difficult or impossible to control locally, the need to reduce fishing pressure is ever more important.
DoE Senior Research Officer Croy McCoy explained that protecting some areas of the reef from fishing allows the population to recover and then the areas will become filled with fish again, which will swim into areas where people can fish.
“A stable growing population of fish will spill over into adjacent areas,” he added, noting that this would ensure that traditional fishing and its part in the Caymanian way of life could continue.
In the end, the environmental experts all said there was a need to find a balance between ecological protection and social acceptance.
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