18 April – ‘Protect Our Species’ is the theme of this year’s Earth Day celebrations, and in my view, it is a fitting one to mark all that we have achieved in the Cayman Islands, such as the recent approval of the expansion and enhancement of our marine parks in March, our terrestrial protected areas, and the remarkable recovery of some of our iconic local species.
Earth Day is marked each year on 22 April to help raise awareness and educate the public about the importance of conserving our natural environment and strengthening measures taken to protect our Earth.
To be sure, we still have much to do to educate our citizens and visitors on this responsibility, but today I would like to take the opportunity to celebrate the many hard-fought victories that we have won here in the name of environmental conservation.
Much has been said in recent months regarding the enhancement of our marine parks system, approved by Cabinet and now awaiting the drafting of regulations for implementation. After nearly a decade of discussion and review, our “no take” areas for marine life within Cayman Islands coastal waters will tripled – a monumental step toward protecting our marine stocks and coral reefs, both of which are under great stress from population growth and climate change.
Our protected land areas designated under the National Conservation Law have expanded to more than 4,000 acres since 2016, conserving ecologically important wetlands, forests and green spaces for future generations of residents and visitors to enjoy.
Of course, one of our best-known success stories involves Grand Cayman’s native Rock Iguana, Cyclura lewisi, known to most of us as the Blue Iguana. Over the past two decades, efforts by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, the Department of Environment (DoE) and many volunteers in the Trust’s Blue Iguana Recovery Programme (BIRP) have pulled this species back from near extinction, and just six months ago, the Trust released its one-thousandth Blue Iguana into the wild.
Perhaps less well known is the growing success of our nesting sea turtle recovery in all three islands. In the late 1990’s, the DoE surveyed our nesting turtle population, and found fewer than 40 nests. Some 20 years later, in 2018, the DoE counted more than 400 sea turtle nests including greens, loggerheads and hawksbill turtles around our islands. This marine reptile adorns the Cayman Islands coat of arms, saying more than I ever could about its enduring cultural importance to these islands, and very happy to see that our collective efforts are bringing them back to our shores.
Yet, for all the success stories, there is more to be done. In the past year, we have seen the Nassau Grouper join the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN’s) ‘critically endangered’ species list. Although this has occurred regionally, the Cayman Islands Government has been proactive in introducing management plans for our few remaining local grouper spawning sites. As a direct result of that early intervention, local Nassau Grouper numbers are bucking the trend and spawning populations in the designated protected spawning sites show a recovery in recent years off Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.
Our conch and lobster populations will fluctuate, but our annual conch survey data has indicated a worrying downward trend for conch since 2011. Our enhanced marine parks system was primarily designed to bolster reef fish and coral reef health, but it also assists in the conservation of other marine species, such as conch and lobster, which move into and populate the protected areas.
Our national bird, the Cayman Parrot, which has recovered steadily since the devastating effects of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, is now threatened by the loss of habitat and poaching. Just one strong hurricane could significantly deplete the population of approximately 14,000 Cayman parrots now existing on Grand Cayman, striking a blow from which the species might never recover.
As our islands grow and become both more prosperous and populous, we must dedicate further consideration to how we live with our natural environment and our native species, both flora and fauna, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Even our greatest successes in conservation of the natural environment may literally be washed away if we do not continually monitor and try to assist those creatures with whom we share our small island space.
These are creatures that adorn our national symbol, that we call our “national bird”, that appear in tourism advertising and even act as our ambassadors, at times, for visiting royalty. I refer here to our Blue Iguana, Peter, who recently met His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales during the Prince’s visit to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park – most of you likely saw the pictures.
These endemic species are important to us, vitally so. We must do everything we can to ensure their protection, and the protection of their natural habitats, now and into the future. If we do not, I believe we will lose something of ourselves. As I said earlier, there is more to be done, and we can achieve more as long as we have the will to do so.
-The Honourable Dwayne Seymour, Minister for Health, Environment, Culture & Housing