After almost a quarter-century’s existence, Cayman’s marine park system is to get its first comprehensive scientific review.
An international research grant of CI$344,000 from the Darwin Initiative through the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will go towards a three-year assessment of the impact of marine protected areas. The review’s ultimate aim is to support marine park expansion.
As Department of Environment (DOE) Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie explained, “Our marine park system was developed in the 1980s when our key concern was protecting the reefs from anchoring.
“But we also focused on developing sustainable fishing practices for species like lobster and conch. Back then we designated 17 percent of Cayman’s marine shelf area as protected zones, which seemed like a lot at the time.
“However, today’s challenges are markedly different and to protect our marine biodiversity against the mounting pressures of population growth, development and climate change, we need to protect at least 30 percent or more, of all representative habitats.”
The Darwin study will be a collaborative effort between the DOE, the Bangor School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University in Wales, and US-based The Nature Conservancy. DOE Senior Researcher Croy McCoy will lead the fieldwork.
“We will look at the health of Cayman’s reefs, identify crucial habitats for protection, and assess the benefits of marine-protected areas in terms of fish yields. We will also measure the impact of local recreational, commercial and illegal fishing,” Mr. McCoy said.
A preliminary DOE study earlier this year found that in one month, Grand Cayman’s fishermen, who participated in the survey, took 11,140 fish from local waters. Of those 87 percent were reef species.
“These numbers make it clear that we must understand the nature and size of the impact we have on our natural resources if we want to protect them for future generations,” said Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie.
Senior Lecturer in Marine Sciences at the Bangor School of Ocean Sciences Dr. John Turner agreed and he emphasised the urgency of the review. “Cayman’s marine park system is world-renowned and it is clear that the local marine environment benefitted from more than two decades of protection.
“However, in order to continue to be a world leader, the country will have to increase its conservation initiatives. This review will give a clear indication of how existing protected areas can be enhanced to protect vital biodiversity.”
The Nature Conservancy Marine Science Programme Manager James Byrne noted: “The Caribbean is so vulnerable to change. Without a focus on conservation, environmental degradation will continue leading the way to severe economic losses.