Did you know that the Cayman Islands is amongst the first countries in the region to create marine protected areas? Cayman introduced marine protected parks in the 1980s and have been at the forefront of conservation ever since. Over the last 30 years more marine areas have been protected, world-class research centres have set up locally, policy continues to evolve and marine education surprises with its innovation.
Restoration and Education
In 1998, Dr. Carrie Manfrino set up the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) on Little Cayman. “CCMI has a vision of a world with vibrant oceans and healthy reefs,” explains Dr. Manfrino. “We make our vision a reality by undertaking cutting-edge, impactful research and transforming this research into conservation and education initiatives.” The under-populated island of Little Cayman — surrounded by healthy reef — created the perfect environment for CCMI to study coral resilience.
CCMI’s Coral Restoration Project seeks to unravel the secrets of resilient and resistant reefs. The organisation currently manages and maintains the largest coral nursery in the region, which is used to explore ways to grow and restore threatened coral species. CCMI also conducts a Healthy Reef Report; which is a compressive survey of reef health on all three Cayman Islands. The survey is part of CCMI’s long-term monitoring programme, which began 20 years ago. Kate Holden, director of advancement, shares, “We have tracked the [reef’s] changes over time, and, more importantly, we can identify long-term indicators of declining or improving reef health.” CCMI also studies herbivorous fish and their role in maintaining healthy reefs.
To truly achieve a world with vibrant and healthy reefs, there needs to be investment into the future. One of the most important investments CCMI makes is in the next generation. “Our Ocean Literacy goal is for every child in the Cayman Islands to become ocean literate by the age of 12. By imparting these students with a passion for the ocean, we empower the next generation of environmentalists,” shares Dr. Manfino. Buy-in from the next generation is crucial for progress to continue.
To build interest, CCMI utilises cutting-edge technology in its education programmes. Recently, CCMI launched its “Reefs Go Live” programme. The Institute uses underwater cameras, allowing students from all around the world to connect with CCMI’s researchers and educators in real time, from under the ocean! Holden continues, “We hope to break down the barriers between people and the ocean so we can all be more proactive in protecting the coral reefs for the future.”
Recognising the importance of turtles to Cayman’s history, culture and ocean health, the Cayman Turtle Centre was created. Green sea turtles are an important species for reefs because they help maintain the health of underwater ecosystems. The Turtle Centre fights to conserve this species with breeding programmes, releases and education. Renee Howell, chief marketing and merchandising officer, explains, “The Cayman Turtle Centre allows green sea turtles to complete their entire life cycle in an environment that is safe from predators.” Turtles are bred and hatched at the centre, then selected for release. A portion of hatchlings are kept and serve as future breeders, allowing the programme to continue.
To date, the centre has released over 32,000 turtles into the sea and is confident that its programme is affecting positive change. Howell continues, “A recent independent genetic study shows through DNA that 90 percent of green turtles nesting in the Cayman Islands are related to Cayman Turtle Centre’s breeding stock as a result of our 50 years of re-introduction into the wild.” The Turtle Centre strives to change the fate of turtles and the ocean one visitor at a time. “We conserve directly through our breeding programmes but also indirectly through changing the hearts of future generations by giving visitors life-changing encounters.”
Also an educational powerhouse, the Turtle Centre is one of the few places in the world where guests can interact with sea turtles at all life stages. “Interactive education with local and overseas visitors has a global impact, because people take care and conserve the animals they have encountered and love,” explains Howell.
She goes on to say that people who encounter wildlife at the Turtle Centre will be more likely to stand up for wild animals and their habitats wherever they settle in the world. The Turtle Centre’s quarter of a million visitors provide this programme with a global reach.
Art of Conservation
Another piece of Cayman’s conservation strategy is fine art. Local artists share their vision through artistic expression, prompting conversation and enhancing awareness. One such artist is Dr. Guy Harvey; his colourful oceanic paintings are recognised around the world and shine a light on the ocean’s beauty.
“Science and artwork are inextricably linked on the business side of Guy Harvey [brand],” says Dr. Harvey. “Proceeds from the sale of my artwork and merchandise fund marine conservation, scientific research and educational programmes through the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF).”
A fisheries biologist by training, Dr. Harvey leads the GHOF and the Guy Harvey Research Institute, two organisations that contribute significantly to Cayman’s conservation efforts. “One of the reasons I choose to call the Cayman Islands home is because of the tremendous resources we have access to here,” he goes on to explain. “We currently maintain an ongoing survey of the rays at Stingray City. The GHOF has also worked on lionfish eradication projects, the Nassau grouper study, and partnered on a project to grow and transplant coral. We also plan to begin tagging silky sharks in Cayman waters.”
By using personal encounters, innovative education and exposure to charismatic species, the future of conservation in Cayman looks bright. The next generation is being prepared to take over the reins of research, policy and sharing a love of nature with all-around thanks to the efforts of these organisations and many, many more.
Author: Stacie Sybersma