Bangor team in Marine Parks review in the Caribbean

Coral reefs need to be protected to stay resilient Coral reefs need to be protected to stay resilient A team from Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences have been busy in the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, consulting the public on marine protection to help plan Marine Parks for the future. 

The work is part of a Darwin Initiative project to enhance an established marine protected area system funded by DEFRA (UK Government Department of Food and Rural Affairs).  Dr John Turner (Project Leader), Laura Richardson (Project Officer), and Croy McCoy (PhD candidate) of the School of Ocean Sciences have joined Department of the Environment Directors in an intense round of 18 public meetings and media events throughout the islands.   The team made presentations to Government Ministers, the Tourist Board, Watersport  Association,  charter boat cooperatives, National Trust, Sea angling clubs and even church ministers , and then took a road-show  to community centres to harness opinions on marine issues of importance to local people.   They have taken part in 2 lively radio phone-in programmes, and produced 5 documentary shorts and 2 videos for television, as well as being headline news in the island’s newspapers.

The Darwin Initiative funds research of direct practical value in countries high in biodiversity, assisting those countries to address their obligations to the major conventions on biological diversity, migrating species and trade in endangered species. Bangor University are working in partnership with the Department of the Environment Cayman Islands Government, and The Nature Conservancy to review the Marine Park s and marine conservation. 

GrouperGrouperThe current Marine Parks of the Cayman Islands have served this UK overseas territory very well for 25 years, but when established in 1986, the threats to the marine environment were very different to those of today. 

‘Population growth, overfishing, climate change and an invasive species of lionfish from the Indo Pacific are the new threats’ reported Gina E Banks Petrie, Director of the Environment Cayman Islands Government.   

Bangor’s Dr John Turner explained how foresight by the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment  along with public support, established a ‘world class’ system of marine parks: 

‘Most marine protected areas around the world are little more than ‘paper parks’, due to lack of management and enforcement.  The Cayman marine parks are exceptional, being zoned to provide different levels of protection, with conservation officers enforcing regulations governing boat anchoring, fishing practices and interactions with marine life, such as the famous stingrays that greet tourists at Sting Ray City.  However with new threats such as ocean warming causing coral bleaching and disease, increased strength and frequency of storms, sea level rise and ocean acidification, there is an urgent need to review the protected area system and make it fit for the next 25 years.’  

The team stressed in their presentations how increased protection from the impacts of today is essential if coral reefs are to be resilient to threats from climate change, and therefore in turn provide services such as coastal protection and economic benefits from tourism and fishing.

This Darwin Initiative project is 18 months into a 3 year programme, and field surveys of reef health, fish abundance and fishing pressure have been conducted around all 3 islands.  The field surveys have been lead by Croy McCoy, a Caymanian PhD candidate at Bangor, and Senior Research Scientist in the Cayman Department of the Environment.  He has been supported by Laura Richardson, a Bangor graduate and the Darwin Project Officer, and three teams of MSc students from the Marine Environment Protection MSc course who undertake their research projects on Cayman’s coral reefs. 

The Lion fish - a voracious and invasive species from the Indo-Pacific which is destroying fish communities in the Caribbean The Lion fish - a voracious and invasive species from the Indo-Pacific which is destroying fish communities in the Caribbean 'By  bringing field scientists to Cayman, we are providing the additional capacity to undertake these intensive surveys , thereby assisting Cayman address important conservation issues, and providing excellent opportunities for our postgraduate students’ says John Turner.

 Tim Austin, Director of Research in the Cayman Department of the Environment, presented the results of the surveys at the 18 public meetings attended by the team: 

‘We are now able to provide evidence to show the benefit of the marine protected areas to Cayman.  Coral cover is higher on protected reefs, and coral bleaching and coral disease is lower than unprotected areas.   There are more fish in protected areas, and there is spill over of fish from the protected areas into the surrounding waters,‘ he said.    

John Turner illustrated that only 17% of the narrow shelf of the Cayman Islands is actually fully protected, and the aim of the project is to protect 30-50% of habitats, such as mangrove, seagrass, back reef and reef terrace habitats. The project will use protected area planning tools similar to those used for the Great Barrier Reef  Marine Park in Australia, to develop options for new protected areas, which the team will present to the Caymanian public in another round of consultation next year, before designing a new system of marine parks. 

During the current round of consultations in districts around Cayman, the team encouraged stakeholder organisations and the general public to identify their concerns, and give their vision of the marine environment in 25 years.  Older Caymanians described how the reefs once looked, and how easy it was to fish in their youth.  Most people were keen to see more of the marine environment protected, recognising the value of rich and vibrant reefs to tourism and coastal protection, but highlighted the need for education and greater enforcement.  There were of course concerns from fisherman, but also growing realisation that enhanced marine parks will provide resources for future generations.

Publication date: 28 September 2011