Resilience has become synonymous with communities capable of withstanding hardships, adjusting themselves accordingly, and bouncing back. And resilience is exactly what has been demonstrated on the small grouping of Caymanian islands.

Marine Park Expansion

First talks of a protected area expansion in the home of one of the world’s best voted beaches were entered into over a decade ago. And now, just two years after the project’s initial approval by the Cabinet, the marine park expansion has officially been gazetted! Taking this and current coverage into the count, nearly half of all Cayman Island coastal waters will be zoned as marine protected areas (MPA) in the near future.

This astounding achievement is thanks to a combined effort of local Cayman government, reliable partners, and concerned citizens. With a little help from the UK’s Darwin Initiative, the Cayman Islands’ Department of Environment (CIDoE) proved its resilience by—even in the face of enormous challenges—spearheading the expansion idea; ultimately being rewarded for their ambition. April 2021 saw CIDoE, Caymanian communities, and invested partners alike rejoicing for their championed MPA passion project come to light.

Cayman: Importance and Protection

As one of five British Overseas Territories, the Cayman Islands are a hot spot for European tourism. Made up of three smaller islands in the western Caribbean Sea, together with Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman are home to a diverse landscape of wildlife, sporting idyllic beach resorts and snorkeling sites alike. The smallest island—aptly named Little Cayman—supports a rare and endangered species of iguana and serves as host to the largest population of red-footed boobies in the Caribbean, resulting in its designation as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. The first of the existing MPAs to be introduced to the islands occurred ~35 years ago in light of damaged and frail coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds.

Each of these systems provides a critical service to the region by offering coastal protection. With their fragile states, the government had no choice but to step in: thus, MPAs were introduced in the worst-affected areas with a specific purpose to protect vulnerable marine species and habitats so that they may rebuild themselves. Although this sounds wonderful and promising, ongoing research highlighted that local marine biodiversity continued to decline gradually. Reasons for this have been guessed as the recent Cayman human population increases; often with influxes of people comes a slew of new threats that an ecosystem is not used to simply because it has never been exposed to them before.

In an attempt to halt this slow but steady drop in species numbers, the MPA expansion plan was born. The first draft of the plan was drawn up so that protected area coverage would be increased drastically along the coastal shelf. Previously, MPAs covered just 14% of the Caymanian coastline. Now, with this new expansion approved, nearly 50% of all coastal shelf waters will be designated as “no-take zones”. This is huge news for a small island community like Cayman, where local activities such as recreational fishing and beachside housing development have big and lasting impacts on the resilience of marine ecosystems.

When such small changes can create butterfly effects like species declines, every percentage of area covered is a step in the direction towards improved biodiversity, better functioning systems, and ocean health. Introducing an expansion to existing MPA structures in Cayman will also provide refuge for its vital mangrove and seagrass forests. Protecting these blue carbon habitats further helps with supporting our global fight against the climate crisis.

“Since Marine Parks were first introduced in the Cayman Islands in 1986 they have remained at the heart of local marine resource management initiatives.”

Gina Ebanks-Petrie, Director: Cayman Islands Department of Environment

Marine Parks: The Yays and Nays

There are quite specific rules that are strictly enforced across the various marine park zones. These differ based on the specific classification of the area, which is in turn linked to the reasoning behind the zoning in the first place. In some areas, ecosystems have been so devastated that any and all human interaction is forbidden so that the systems may be given enough time to reestablish, allowing populations to naturally rebuild. While in others, certain species have been overfished and the area has been zoned as a marine reserve to allow them to spawn and repopulate.

A brief but accurate summary of the different MPA zones is given here if you would like to know more about how and why they differ. What is important to know is that, for an ocean to be healthy, it has to have many coastal regions that it can rely on for species protection. By building up a network of safe habitats and ecosystems, ocean health is significantly increased because of the fully-functioning “filters” it has working at every one of its edges—i.e., along its coastlines. MPAs provide this necessary shelter for niche coastal habitats so that they have a safe place to recede to, recover in, and respawn if needed.

For MPAs to effectively offer themselves as safe havens to the extraordinary number of marine species occupying coastal waters, they need a little help from us. This is why there are so many rules allocated to different park zones. It is the same reason why you cannot anchor your boat on a coral reef, or why you can’t seem to have any luck finding a day when you can go spearfishing during certain seasons. All of it is to serve as an extra protective layer in keeping us out of the fragile networks we have already damaged. It is definitely about time that we give these delicate ecosystems a bit of space so that they may have some breathing room to flourish.

Tried, Tested, and On the Road to Triumph

With the exceptional history and track record of the CIDoE, it is exciting to again be able to trust in their ability to achieve the goals of this MPA expansion. They have unique experience in reviving dwindling fish populations, like with the remarkable 180° swivel that Cayman’s Nassau grouper fish performed in recent years. Recovering from severe overfishing that had reduced its population to tatters, to a five-fold number increase over just a 15-year period. Another fantastic example is of the successful nesting sea turtle populations that are so precious to Cayman beaches.

It is a refreshing feeling to pen that a wildlife habitat is in safe hands. This is exactly the case with the Cayman Islands right now. With a decent chunk of its marine ecosystems under strict protection thanks to a dedicated community of hardworking and passionate individuals, the future of coastal Cayman Island ecosystems and its surrounding ocean health is looking bright.