George Town Harbour, Grand Cayman is one of Mission Blue’s 14 new Hope Spots!
By: Laura Butz
The Cayman Islands has built its name and reputation primarily on being a renowned diving destination. Pioneers in our local diving community over the last few decades contributed to building our diving industry into the premier operation that it is today. They recognized the exquisite beauty our underwater landscape had to offer and have since then made it accessible for locals and tourists to recreationally experience and explore the beauty that lies below the surface for themselves. With a desire to showcase our natural resources comes with a commitment to preserve them. Our duty towards conservation for both land and the ocean is beneficial not just from an environmental perspective but also an economic one. Our tourism industry is strongly tied to our island’s natural resources. Ergo, an obvious reason to ensure that our natural resources are protected. Last year on Earth Day (2015), the Cayman Islands officially became a Sharks and Rays Sanctuary. The sanctuary expands across all three islands. This is a positive step towards ecotourism as many tourists are keen to visit places that are committed to conservation.
“I’m extremely grateful that the Cayman Islands recognized the need to make the islands a shark and ray sanctuary. Not only will their protected status benefit the health of the reefs but it’s also a strong statement towards the tourism industry which is an important source of revenue. By protecting our natural resources the Cayman Islands puts itself in the the market of the informed and eco friendly tourist making the right choice for the future generations.” -Ellen Cuylaerts
Sharks in the Water
By virtue of us standing by and not acting to protect coral reefs and marine life that are under threat there is a very likely possibility that corals reefs will continue to become degraded and even destroyed. The caribbean has already lost 80% of its coral reefs. There is an intricate connection between coral reefs and all marine life. If keystone species such as sharks continue to decrease in population it will have a tremendous impact on the coral reefs and the marine life that depend on the reefs. A scary thought that should be racing through everyone’s minds is what if I never see a shark in the water again? Our fear should be driven by the thought of what will happen to our ocean and the ecosystem if shark populations globally continues to spiral down or worse become extinct. Sharks are a keystone species and are fundamental to maintaining the health and balance of: coral reefs, marine life and the ocean. Without their presence there could potentially be a devastating collapse within our fragile ecosystem as their role in keeping our “life support” viable is monumental. Ultimately, we need a healthy ocean as 70% of the world’s oxygen comes from there. Healthy shark populations means healthy reefs. Coral reefs support 1/4 of all marine life. Healthy reefs means a flourishing population of marine life. This is beneficial for: our ecosystem, recreational divers, snorkelers and for fisherman. Balance within our ecosystem is key to benefiting the preservation of the planet, as well as a thriving diving industry, tourism industry and fisherman.
We can’t fail to act to protect our ocean and marine life. The ocean is often referred to as the heart of the planet. There seems to be a collective assumption that the ocean is indestructible, that no matter the amount of pollution pumped into the ocean it will always reset itself, that there will always be coral reefs and an abundance of fish, sharks and all marine life. It is as though we cannot fathom the thought that it could all go away one day. The reality is the ocean like anything else has its limitations. We cannot keep testing the ocean’s ability to bounce back. It is evident that the ocean is under an immense amount stress due to climate change and the rapid decrease in the populations of a multitude of marine species. For instance, sharks and rays are under threat. Every year, 70 million sharks are killed for their fins (Fin Free). In comparison it is reported that targeted Manta Ray populations have declined by an estimated 56% to 88% in recent years (Wild Aid). With this in mind, there is an urgency for countries around the world to declare their waters as a shark and rays sanctuary. The more protection coverage of the ocean for sharks and rays will by virtue allow for coral reefs, and fish populations to have time to recover and recuperate. This is beneficial to everyone.
Specifically to our waters, current research indicated that we have a lower shark population than expected for a healthy reef ecosystem. This suggests that our waters need an increase in sharks to ensure our coral reefs can remain healthy. Shark populations recover over a significant period of time and sanctuaries can provide a safe haven for populations to recuperate. Presently, there are no comparative ray nor shark surveys specific to our region. It is difficult to state how our population of sharks and rays compares to other islands in the Caribbean. However, some research conducted by Marine Conservation International (Research Partners of Department of Environment Cayman Islands) suggests that Cayman’s shark numbers are relatively low in comparison to our Caribbean neighbors. Notably, numbers will vary from species to species. However, our waters have a fair population of sharks and rays. Both species are being threatened across the Caribbean and around the world. Protecting sharks and rays regionally will benefit not only our territory but also on a global scale as it encourages other countries to designate their waters as a sanctuary for these magnificent creatures. It is evident that the protection of sharks and rays needs to be made as a united effort, and the Cayman Islands is doing their part to help in this initiative. Now that our waters have been designated as a shark and ray sanctuary there is hope that it will give our shark population a chance to recover.
The sanctuary serves as a haven for our sharks and rays. Our sharks and rays are of great significance to our coral reefs and marine environment both ecologically and economically. Most importantly their protection is needed to ensure their survival —our ecosystem depends on it.
The sanctuary also serves as a means to benefit our island not only from an ecological standpoint but economically. The protection of sharks and rays has a direct impact on benefiting our tourism industry. Sharks are a highlight for divers. Whereas, rays can be seen in a large school at Stingray City located at the sandbar on the eastern side of Grand Cayman. Protecting our sharks and rays within our region will not only allow for a positive impact on improving the health of our coral reefs but also it will help to maintain our status as a popular diving destination. Flourishing reefs serve us ecologically but as an added bonus they are attractive diving spots helping our tourism industry and economy.
Declaring Cayman waters as a sharks and rays sanctuary is a positive step towards ecotourism and beneficial for our islands. Countries making a shift towards ecotourism demonstrates that we can find a balance between developing the economy of a country but not at the cost of losing their natural resources. It is possible to use our natural resources and benefit from them and not destroy them —rather there is an emphasis on the preservation of natural resources as they have intrinsic value. Specific to Caribbean islands our natural resources are everything to our tourism industry which greatly impacts our economy. For Cayman, we could look at the ocean as the very soul of our island. Our culture is bound to the ocean and it is imperative that we continue to move forward in protecting our ocean, coral reefs, marine life and natural environment. Cayman’s transition into ecotourism has helped to establish the Cayman Islands as setting a positive example for other islands in the Caribbean by way of encouraging other islands to consider becoming a sharks and rays sanctuary to increase the coverage of areas that serve as a haven for them. While, our waters protect a small percentage of sharks and rays in our region, and is making a positive impact, it would be greatly beneficial if other regional countries made their waters a sanctuary. Alone, we can make a small difference, but together we can make a much stronger impact. Protecting the coral reefs, marine life, sharks and rays is a global need.
Photos courtesy of Ellen Cuylaerts