(DiverWire) – A quarter-century ago the Cayman Islands initiated one of the most important environmental accomplishments in history – the establishment of a marine ecosystems and abundant marine life which are vital to their economy and quality of life.
In an effort to protect these resources, the Cayman Islands Marine Parks were founded in 1986 under the forward-thinking slogan “Save Our Tomorrow-Today.” In 2011 they still serve that stated purpose. Officials from the Cayman Islands are celebrating this important milestone.
In enacting the Marine Parks Regulations, three types of protected area zone designations were created: marine parks, replenishment zones and environmental zones. Over the years, these locales – have enabled conch, whelk and lobster populations to be sustained. They have also protected our reefs and secured fish stocks. That visionary move established the Cayman Islands as a regional leader in marine conservation. Apart from fulfilling the moral obligation to secure marine resources for future generations, the marine parks have also proven to be a sound economic decision. A 1985 National Geographic article described Cayman’s reefs as “a bonanza for pleasure and profit,” adding that the Islands’ “submarine splendor” supports an underwater recreation industry with more than 300,000 visitors annually.
It has been found that Marine Parks promote healthy corals and increase biodiversity, biomass, size, and abundance of fish: within Marine Parks, there are more species of fish and they are larger and present in greater numbers. Research shows that fish move across the boundaries of Marine Parks to colonize the areas outside them.
This “spillover” of adult fish and export of eggs and larvae creates more productive fisheries, more vibrant reefs and healthier ecosystems around Marine Parks. Herbivorous fish play a critical role on Caribbean reefs: grazing algae and preventing it from outcompeting coral. By maintaining the natural variety and abundance of herbivorous and carnivorous species, Marine Parks preserve a delicate balance in coral reef systems. Because the fish in Marine Parks are protected, reefs within and near park boundaries are healthier.Healthy reefs are more resilient; they have the capacity to recover from major impacts such as coral bleaching, disease, and storms. As a country,they are fortunate that the early institution of Marine Parks has helped our coral reefs survive until now. As part of a growing network of Marine Protected Areas around the globe, they can work to ensure that marine ecosystems in the Cayman Islands are healthy enough to cope with current impacts and coming challenges such as climate change.
The new “Dive 365” Project is a shining example of private sector dive operators working with Government’s Dept of Environment and the Marine Parks to provide a sustainable solution for all of the dive sites in the Cayman Islands. “Dive 365” is a project that is in the process of adding 68 new dives across all three islands over a five year period.
In addition to new legislation, there are many ongoing projects that help the Marine Parks and their management, including Shark, Dolphin and Whale research. To date 32 new moorings have been installed in the first 2 years and has now enabled the key component of ‘Dive Site Rotation & Resting’ – this involves removing moorings in turn and resting them from any diver traffic for an agreed period of time from 6 to 18 months. Little is known about the outcome from ‘Rotating & Resting’, but from piloting these programs, best practices can be learned and shared with other tropical destinations with coral reefs.Recently, ongoing efforts include the new ‘Wildlife Interaction Zones’ that was new legislation put in place to protect the Southern Stingrays at the tourism sites of Stingray City and The Sand Bar. Legislation has also been put in place to prohibit divers from wearing gloves to help stop divers from touching corals, and most recently new laws to allow the dive industry to cull the invasive Red Lionfish species that had grown to epidemic numbers.
As the Cayman Islands celebrate their phenomenal achievements, they once again find themselves at a defining moment, so far as conservation is concerned. They do need continued economic growth of course, but the natural resources also need to be protected and properly managed as part of that process. Looking forward to the next 25 years, the key word then must be sustainability. Development should never trump conservation and even as we work to build a strong economy, it is equally important to think about the kind of environment we all want to leave behind for our children.