Cayman Islands' waters protected after ‘bold’ project

2 minute read

Amdeep interviewing fisherman in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands

Amdeep Sanghera, UKOT Conservation Officer

22 Jun 2021

A leading government official in the Cayman Islands has praised the introduction of ‘bold’ new measures to protect marine habitats after a decade of challenges facing the project.

The Cayman Islands is one of five UK Overseas Territories in the Caribbean, about 200 miles northwest of Jamaica and 150 miles south of Cuba. It’s made up of three islands, Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.

Last year, after more than a decade of fighting for increased protection, a new and enhanced network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) came into force.

Gina Ebanks-Petrie, Director of the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (CIDoE), explained: “Since Marine Parks were first introduced in the Cayman Islands in 1986 they have remained at the heart of local marine resource management initiatives.

“We are extremely proud that the Cayman Islands are once again setting the example in the Caribbean with the introduction of these bold new marine protection measures.”

Yellowfin Marjorra.jpg

Yellofin mojarra swimming in a MPA in the Caribbean UKOTs

Credit: Peter Richardson

The project’s positive outcome was thanks to a joint effort by the Cayman Islands’ Department of Environment project partners and local communities. Support was also provided by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative. Now approximately 48% of the islands’ coastal waters are no-take zones. An inspirational result for an ambitious project despite additional challenges due to changing governments and the global pandemic.

The first MPAs were designated in the Islands over three decades ago, originally to protect fragile coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds.

Additional research by the Cayman Islands’ Department of Environment showed that whilst they were contributing to the protection of vulnerable marine species and habitats, a worrying gradual decline in marine biodiversity was also happening. This was due to population growth as well as a range of new threats.

N Grouper at cleaning station.JPG

Grouper at a cleaning station

Credit: David M. Stone

To try to halt or reverse these declines, ambitious plans were made to increase fully protected areas by nearly 250%. Due to the successful expansion of the project, today nearly half of Cayman’s coastal waters are no-take zones. This increases the resilience of local marine habitats and species in dealing with local threats such as recreational fishing and coastal development.

Additionally, as the islands are also home to large mangrove forests and acres of seagrass beds, protection of these ‘blue carbon’ habitats will also support the global fight to tackle the climate crisis.

Given the track record of the CIDoE, we can trust that they will achieve their ambitions and properly manage and protect these sites – the remarkable turnaround of Cayman’s Nassau grouper fish is a perfect example. The population of this critically endangered species dropped severely, mostly due to overfishing. However, 15 years of collaborative interventions, including MPAs, resulted in the population on one of its islands, Little Cayman, increasing five-fold in size from around 1,500 fish in 2005 to more than 8,000 in 2020. Likewise, CIDoE conservation efforts have seen their nesting sea turtle populations increase over the last 20 years.

Now that huge areas of habitat are protected, the future looks a lot better for Cayman’s marine ecosystems and the people that depend on them.

Amdeep Sanghera, UKOT Conservation Officer