Cayman Islands (June 6th , 2020)
The smallest of the Cayman Islands is home to fewer than 200 people – and yet at roughly 10 miles long by one mile wide, Little Cayman has become known as a magnificent oasis in the Caribbean. Small but mighty, the island shines as a flourishing example of what protection for marine ecosystems can look like when conservation is prioritized. The island’s colorful reefs are considered some of the healthiest in the Caribbean and support a rich ecosystem bursting with creatures like sea turtles, sharks, stingrays and a rainbow of corals. Behind the scenes of the conservation of Little Cayman’s brilliant marine life is Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI). Their resilience, restoration and assisted evolution research efforts examine the features that enable corals to persist through time, despite changing conditions. However, perhaps one of CCMI’s greatest impacts is their ocean literacy program that is empowering future generations of people all over the Caribbean to protect their blue backyards.
Little Cayman has been named a Hope Spot by marine conservation nonprofit Mission Blue in recognition of CCMI’s powerful conservation impact across the Cayman Islands and surrounding region. CCMI aims to establish a world-class research facility, which will focus on reef resilience and restoration and expand upon their education programs with the goal of inspiring a movement of lasting stewardship across the rest of the Caribbean.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says, “I want to salute you, Central Caribbean Marine Institute, the Department of Environment of the Cayman Islands and other constituents for supporting the concept of a Hope Spot and doing what you’re doing to take care of the ocean. I have a special place in my heart for the Nassau Grouper, who really must be standing in line to thank you for protecting the area where they live – a safe haven in the waters of Little Cayman. The coral reefs are prospering in ways that aren’t happening elsewhere. The whole world thanks you and certainly the creatures of the sea thank you for doing what you’re doing to make this place a reason for hope.”
“We want to share with the world that there is a real path forward for healthy coral reefs and marine ecosystems,” says Dr. Carrie Manfrino, President, CEO and Senior Scientist at CCMI. “We hope that more researchers turn to Little Cayman as a site where they choose to conduct important work that uncovers solutions for declining reefs elsewhere,” she explains.
The future is bright on the small island, with conservation success stories including a protected Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) spawning aggregation site, demonstrated coral resilience, robust nesting of three species of sea turtles, and rookeries for large populations of seabirds.
Transforming science for society is at the core of CCMI’s work, as all research conducted by CCMI’s scientists at the Little Cayman Research Centre is incorporated into their education and conservation programs. CCMI’s patron, His Royal Highness the Earl of Wessex, launched the CCMI Ocean Literacy program in 2009, the mandate of which is to ensure that “every child in the Cayman Islands is ocean literate by the time they are 12 years old.” A hugely successful program is their innovative livestreaming educational program called Reefs Go Live, which allows students to interact with their teachers during underwater lessons.
With the support of Mission Blue, CCMI launched their Women in Ocean Science Award, in which Dr. Sylvia Earle serves on the panel. This is a 6-year program, that recognizes PhD-level scholars with prestigious awards as well as graduate-level internships to rising women in ocean science to undertake innovative field research experiments on the topic of coral reef and ocean resiliency.
The United Nations (UN) reports that 70% of Earth’s coral reefs are threatened. Little Cayman’s reefs face common issues like plastic pollution and rising ocean temperature and acidity. These reefs provide many ecosystem services for the island like coastal protection, tourism and a food source; preserving the health of these reefs is essential for survival of all life on Little Cayman.
Manfrino elaborates, “Time is not on our side, but the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development outlines a plan for the future protection of the ocean, including Sustainable Goal 14 (SDG14). This goal outlines a clear and measurable strategy for conserving the oceans and is at the heart of CCMI’s mission. We believe we can save coral reefs – if we act now.”
April Darr, Hope Spot Champion and Co-owner of Diamond S Energy says, “My hope for the Little Cayman Hope Spot is with the partnership of CCMI, Little Cayman will become a hub for coral reef ecology research, hosting both students and researchers to advance the fight for coral reefs worldwide. As we all know, coral reefs are in decline worldwide. With the support of Mission Blue, I believe we will be able to make great contributions towards the restoration of coral reefs around the world.”
Much of the marine environment around Little Cayman is under protection by the Cayman Islands Government. The Cayman Islands Department of Environment has designated various categories of marine protected areas, including environmental zones, marine parks, spawning aggregation sites, and replenishment zones. The National Trust of the Cayman Islands also privately owns significant property on Little Cayman, with the aim of protecting sensitive breeding and nesting areas. In 2019, the Cayman Islands Department of Environment proposed further expansion of the marine and terrestrial protected areas across all three of the Cayman Islands.
The island’s striking coral reefs boast robust populations of marine wildlife, thanks to existing governmental protection and minimal harmful human impacts. Dramatic coral reef walls line the entire island, creating an underwater playground for both marine animals and divers alike. These reefs are considered among the best in the Caribbean for research purposes because they are relatively isolated from continental and anthropogenic influences, and they support a substantial amount of life. The combination of stable water quality, healthy and diverse corals, and a wide variety of fish species and mega fauna coupled with awe-inspiring reef architecture is why Little Cayman has earned its reputation as a top diving destination in the Caribbean. Lucky divers have met sharks, stingrays, dolphins, spotted eagle rays, year-round hawksbill and green turtles, as well as loggerheads in mating season.
CCMI’s next moves are to identify partner organizations to join in their mission to expand their research capabilities that can lead to healthy coral reefs and vibrant oceans. CCMI’s vast impact on Little Cayman has worked to build a foundation that offers hope to marine conservation as a whole – one that can build a brilliant future for the island and serve as an example for the entire blue planet.
The Central Caribbean Marine Institute’s vision is a world with vibrant oceans and healthy coral reefs. The non-profit organization was founded by Dr. Carrie Manfrino as part of the call to action to halt the decline of coral reefs during the first International Year of the Reef in 1998. CCMI has developed the Caribbean’s premier marine research institute and supports work to hasten new ideas to unlock the secrets of coral reef resilience. CCMI started a movement to challenge scientists to “rethink the future of coral reefs” and works with an international network of scientists to address global threats such as ocean acidification. The organization’s conservation strategy brings scientific discoveries to society to inspire necessary changes to protect reefs for the future, discovering and promoting real solutions to declining ocean health. CCMI is a US 501(c)(3) non-profit, a UK registered charity, and a Cayman Islands registered non-profit, founded in 1998 to protect the future of coral reefs.
Explore the Little Cayman Hope Spot in the interactive StoryMap!