Posts Tagged ‘Cayman’

Jan 25, 2012

Lionfish In The Cayman Islands

In recent years the Indo-Pacific lionfish has spread from the SE coast of the USA throughout the Bahamas and Caribbean as far north as Bermuda and as far south as Venezuela. They can reduce the populations of native fish species very rapidly particularly by preying upon juveniles and reducing recruitment of all species to the reef habitat.

There are several examples of humans causing the substantial invasion of a (non native) species that thrives extremely well in its new habitat. In short order, this species explodes in biomass because of the lack of natural predators in that new environment and a food source that does recognize the invader as a predator. But none have had the dramatic (possibly immeasurable) damaging effect that the lionfish has had on Caribbean and western Atlantic native fish populations.

The spread of Lionfish in the Bahamas and Caribbean is problematic for native species

In response to the invasion of lionfish around the reefs of the Cayman Islands the Department of Environment now offers lionfish culling courses and licenses the use of Hawaiian slings to assist in capture and killing these fish. Being a small country with a low population but many of whom dive, fish or both, the culling of lionfish has become a weekly operation. Many restaurants are now offering lionfish on their menus.

Several dive companies have one day per week set aside for hunting lionfish, particularly in Little Cayman, the diving crown jewel of these islands. A study on the effectiveness of this culling is being undertaken by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, (CCMI) which is based on the north side of Little Cayman. Following the Wednesday culling dives, researchers are measuring the catch per unit effort needed to make a dent in the population and cover the 3 mile stretch of wall at Bloody Bay to determine how fast new lionfish colonize the vacated areas. They are also assessing whether the structure and balance of Bloody Bay’s native fish population is affected by the continuing targeted removal of lionfish.

The targeted removal of lionfish has several benefits. Firstly, they are good to eat, so in spearing lionfish rather than grouper, snapper or hogfish, this removes some fishing pressure on the more popular reef species and will help reduce the mortality of juvenile reef fish caused by the invasive lionfish. The removal of significant numbers of larger lionfish means that those remaining are unable to prey upon larger individuals of the resident native fish populations.

Perhaps the best way to get people involved is to hold a lionfish culling tournament. There is the educational component when you register for the event, then the challenge of getting the most, the biggest (or smallest) and the creation of a tournament atmosphere while relieving the reefs of a very dangerous predator.

In a meeting with the Minister of the Environment last week, I learned of the plan to have a specialized task force assigned to culling lionfish around the Cayman Islands. I agree with this move. The threat to the coral reef habitat is so great that there needs to be radical action taken. The individual dive operators should not have to do the all grunt work on their own. After all, the dive business in the Cayman Islands is the focal point of the tourism sector.

Little Cayman also has the largest remaining population of Nassau groupers. This species, which is a favourite of divers and is the iconic Caribbean reef predator, may now have a new role in reef fish population restoration. Nassau groupers routinely follow divers and will consume lionfish speared by divers. Some divers say that Nassau groupers lead them to lionfish a bit like trained hunting dogs. For decades the Nassau groupers were traditionally fished heavily by artisanal fishermen at their spawning sites (locally called “grouper holes”) over the winter full moons. The Marine Conservation Board here protected these sites from 2003, and has just renewed that protection for another eight years. Good job! The Nassau grouper might be the knight in shining armour for reef fish populations. If this grouper, along with other large groupers and mutton snappers, can learn to attack and consume lionfish without the aid of divers then natural controls will begin to take effect in reducing lionfish biomass. After all, in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, lionfish populations are maintained at equilibrium by their natural predators such as large groupers, jacks and the white tip reef shark.

Guy Harvey

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Jul 28, 2011

Cayman Island Creates New Artificial Reef with Sinking of the ex-USS Kittiwake

Guy and Alex on the deck of the Kittiwake, posing in front of the Flag of the Cayman Islands

The Cayman Islands’ newest artificial reef – the ex-USS Kittiwake – now rests 64ft. below the surface of Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach. The sinking of the ship was an 8 year project and was sponsored in part by the Guy Harvey Research Institute.

The wreck is now open for business – and the diving is great! The ship sits perfectly upright and has already attracted a great deal of marine life. You can check out pics and videos at the links below, but the best way to appreciate this great new artificial reef is to come to Grand Cayman and see it in person!

Photos of the Harvey Family’s First Dive on the ex-USS Kittiwake

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Jul 12, 2011

Guy Harvey Applauds Decision to Ban Commercial Shark Fishing in Bahamas

Responding to last week’s announcement from the Government of the Bahamas that it will prohibit all commercial shark fishing in its more than 240,000 square miles of territorial water, Dr. Harvey commented: “I am very impressed and pleased that the Government of the Bahamas has taken the necessary and correct step to further protect its marine resources from over-exploitation by both local and foreign interests.  This new legislation compliments the ban on commercial long line fishing enacted 20 years ago. The ban on commercial shark fishing and exportation by shark by-products is a huge step in the conservation of sharks worldwide.”

Through the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), Dr. Harvey met with government officials last March to add his voice and influence as a highly respected conservationist to call for strict regulations to ban the commercial fishing of all sharks in The Bahamas, an archipelago of 700 islands sweeping across 500 miles of open ocean. The Bahamas is the fourth country to ban shark fishing after Honduras, the Maldives and Palau.  Estimates are that more than 70 million sharks are killed annually around the world.

One of the premier shark-watching destinations for divers, reeling in $800 million over the past 20 years for the Bahamian national economy, sharks, according to Dr. Harvey, were worth much more alive than dead.

“Many countries have seen their populations of sharks annihilated by commercial over-exploitation,”  said Dr. Harvey. “Research has shown that shark populations do not recover.  Other countries will take encouragement from the Bahamas’ very bold move. They are realizing, very quickly, the value of the living shark in maintaining the health of reef ecosystems.  In addition, the economic value of a living shark to ecotourism is now widely accepted as a sustainable and non-consumptive use of a marine resource with many additional benefits to respective island nations.”        

Last year, following news that a Bahamian seafood company was considering exporting sharks to the Far East, the BNT along with the U.S. based Pew Environmental Group and individual conservationists, such as Dr. Guy Harvey, who created a “Protect Bahamian Sharks” campaign logo and poster, initiated a petition drive to force the issue of banning commercial shark-fishing. The government upon receiving a petition signed by 5,000 Bahamian residents acted this week to protect the some 40 sharks species found in Bahamian waters.

With shark populations around the world continuing to spiral downward, marine scientists such as Dr. Guy Harvey, are working around the clock to give these magnificent animals a fighting chance for survival. Dr. Harvey is also seeding cultural change in the structure of shark fishing tournaments to creating Catch and Release divisions.

Last month, he brought his cause into the epicenter of one of the nation’s oldest and largest shark fishing tournaments in Ocean City, Maryland. Thanks in part to his efforts and a willingness to continue to adapt by the tournament founders and organizers, The Ocean City Shark Tournament’s cash and prize package payment in the catch and release division increased to over $15,000.

In May, the Second Annual Guy Harvey Ultimate Shark Challenge, a catch and release only tournament, was held on the West Coast of Florida in Punta Gorda. The tournament, created as a model for catch and release only shark tournament formats, drew some 3,000 competitors and spectators and paid out over $15,000 in cash and prizes.

In related shark conservation activity, Dr. Harvey offered his artistic talent and foundation sponsorship funding in support of the recent Circle Hook Symposium held in Miami. The symposium, hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is an international gathering of scientists, resource managers and constituents convening to discuss the performance and use of circle hooks in commercial, recreational and artisanal fisheries. While it is legal to use a J-hook to fish for sharks, experts such as Dr. Harvey recommend using a circle hook, where the barb points inward and not outward.

The oceans just got a little safer for sharks, and conservationist, artist and scientist —Guy Harvey couldn’t be more pleased.

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Jun 17, 2011

Two Uncommon Species – The Blacktip Shark and Oceanic Whitetip Shark

On any given dive in the Cayman Islands the chances of encountering any species of shark are very slim. Why is this? The primary reason is that most of the large coastal and ocean sharks have been caught in the last fifty years by long line fishing efforts directed at tuna and swordfish and more recently at sharks themselves.

Nowadays, sharks are kept by such industrial fishing operations which remove the fins and sell them to Asian interests. Many species of ocean going sharks such as blues, tigers, hammerheads, makos, threshers  and oceanic whitetip sharks pass by our islands and sea mounts, and have extensive ranges so are considered highly migratory species. These have been heavily fished by high seas long lining operators. Other species exhibit more site fidelity and have a home range such as the Caribbean reef shark and the blacktip shark, which are the species we are more likely to encounter here.

To the untrained, eye blacktips are similar to the reef shark at typically six feet long, with a large dorsal fin and black tips on the pectoral fins. They have a pointed nose and compact body built for speed. They can grow to eight feet and are found worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters.  Blacktip sharks feed over continental shelves on schooling fish such as sardines, jacks and mackerels. On the Pacific side of Panama, I have filmed them feeding on green jacks and scads along with schools of yellowfin tuna and spotted dolphins. In South Africa, blacktips are major predators on the annual sardine run. In Florida, the blacktip shark and the similar looking spinner shark are common near shore predators of mullet, sardines and jacks, and they are frequently caught by anglers fishing from the beach.

Around the Cayman Islands, blacktips are found in the shallow sounds and flats bordered by mangroves, and are primarily fish eaters, but will also consume sting rays and crustaceans. There is a very narrow shelf area here, so the black tip sharks keep to the flats and back reef areas that provide the most food.

An Oceanic Whitetip Shark which ate a trolled bait intended for marlin. Photo Courtesy of Richard Gibson

In complete contrast, the oceanic whitetip shark (OWS) is found roaming the open blue water and rarely comes close to shore. In looking at their shape, you know they are designed for the open ocean habitat. They are large animals with robust bodies, typically about eight feet, but growing up to twelve feet long. They are characterized by their very long, broad pectoral fins, with blotchy white tips as with all their other fins.

They have been a primary target in the shark fin trade and now their populations may be as low as 1% of their pre-exploitation levels in the western Atlantic. They used to be the most abundant “large” animal (over 100lb.) on the planet. Found in all the world’s tropical oceans, typically they associate with flotsam and those species of fish that congregate around flotsam and with migrating marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. They are usually solitary and slow moving, conserving energy between meals which may be weeks apart. Often, they are accompanied by pilot fish and rainbow runners. They are very inquisitive and will investigate anything floating looking for carrion. Tiger sharks exhibit similar behavior.

The only time we see OWS is when we go fishing offshore looking for dolphin fish, tuna and marlin. They may be encountered around a school of dolphin fish and rainbow runners in association with a floating log or shipping pallet.  Off Jamaica, I have seen OWS following pilot whales and sometimes spotted dolphins. During the recently held Cayman Island International Fishing Tournament, Oliver Dubock, a PhD student working with the DoE and Overseas Territory Environment Programme (OTEP), tagged two OWS (caught by anglers participating in the tournament) with electronic tags to learn more about their natural history and migrations. Knowing that this species spends a lot of time at or near the surface, the satellite tags will pin point their migrations around the Cayman Islands. More information will be forthcoming. We know very little about the life history of this species which is on the verge of extinction and is listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Open water shark interactive dives, with this species, are safely conducted in the Caribbean and Bahamas without incident, in spite of their inquisitive nature and reputation. But divers are cautioned to interact with the OWS with extreme caution.

If you are diving, snorkeling or fishing and encounter one of these rare species, please call the Dept. of Environment and let them know the location, date, species, approximate size and sex. If you catch a blacktip or an ocean whitetip shark, then take the necessary measurements and photos as well as a tissue sample (fin clip) and then please release them alive.

It is our collective responsibility to conserve the marine environment and maintain the biodiversity of the planet.

Fish responsibly and dive safely.

Guy Harvey

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Mar 18, 2011



Returning from an inspiring documentary shoot in Little Cayman last week, I have been itching to tell the story of how cooperation between the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGO) and government entities is working to assist in the conservation of fish species in the Cayman Islands. Following the public outrage of the massive extraction of Nassau groupers at their spawning sites in the Sister Islands nine years ago, the Marine Conservation Board (MCB) acted on a recommendation from the Department of Environment (DoE) to close the Spawning Aggregation (SPAG) sites to any form of fishing for eight years. For a small nation that heavily depends on diving tourism for income, that was a smart move. Hooray for common sense!

My opening line in the documentary goes “Throughout the warm waters of the western Atlantic and the Caribbean, one species of fish that stands out as the icon of the coral reef environment…the Nassau grouper.” So why are we still catching Nassau grouper if their numbers are so low?

Spawning sites for Nassau Grouper in the Cayman Islands need protection

Protection for the spawning adults was quickly put in place. Meanwhile, Nassau groupers over 12 inches in length, could be caught for the rest of the year anywhere in their range in the Cayman Islands. Eight years have flown by. The ban on fishing the SPAGs is now up for review by the MCB just as the results of all this effort are just starting to pay off for the Nassau groupers. It is quite apparent that this conservation effort (via closed areas and closed seasons) needs to continue for generations to come. As an icon in the Caribbean, the Nassau grouper is featured in photographs, calendars, logos, signage, and in television shows from Belize to Trinidad.  Nassau groupers can be conditioned toward divers and can make a divers experience go from a good dive to a great dive when one is encountered. 

What impressed me most about this research effort was that every aspect of the life history of the Nassau grouper has been studied. Brice and Christy Semmens are leading the charge. Christy is the Scientific Director at REEF (please visit They were assisted by Dr. Steve Gittings who is National Science Coordinator of the National Marine Sanctuaries at NOAA as well as several other PhD students and volunteers. In addition, the Cayman Island Dept. of Environment has conducted age and growth studies as well as tracking, using sonic transducers and listening receivers deployed around all three islands. Lead in the field by Phil Bush, with James, Keith, Delwyn and Kevin, the DoE played a most important role in delivering logistical support and personnel, critical in the execution of the research.  Use of the RV “Sea Keeper” was critical as a large platform from which to dive in rough seas and strong currents.

Because one SPAG site on the western end of Little Cayman was deemed as still viable, most of the research effort has been concentrated there. Heavier fishing pressure around Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman, have taken its toll, resulting in only a few hundred adults still turning up for the annual spawn.

So how did we arrive at this situation? The biology of the Nassau grouper works against its chances of accommodating any prolonged level of exploitation because it is a long lived, slow growing fish. This species aggregates in large numbers annually in the same place at the same time of year. Once humans find out about these “grouper holes”, greed takes over and they are fished until annihilated. Many species of grouper have the same spawning behavior. As a good example of how effective conservation can be, only twenty years of protection for the biggest of all groupers, the goliath grouper, has resulted in a revival of this species in Florida. The black grouper, yellowfin, red grouper and Nassau grouper, all need the same protection if they are to recover.

Historically the Cayman islanders fished the groupers in the grouper holes taking just what they needed. Apparently, twenty fish per day, per boat was the typical catch. As there was no refrigeration, the fish were salted and dried for later consumption. During grouper season, so many groupers were drying at homes on East End, you could smell them from Pease Bay and Bodden Town if the wind was right. At some point in the 1950s and 60s, the word got out and mother boats came from Jamaica to buy Nassau groupers from the local fishermen. They put the catch on ice and took the fish back to Jamaica to sell. Tens of thousands of Nassau groupers were caught each season resulting in a steady decline. With no quotas or limits, the population became a shadow of its pre-exploitation levels. Since then, relentless fishing by, local artisanal fishermen, of the remaining adults at the SPAGs, further reduced each SPAG to the hundreds. The same story has taken place throughout the range of the Nassau grouper. Now, before it is too late, renewed efforts in grouper conservation in the Bahamas and in the eastern Caribbean are being initiated based on the example set by Cayman.

Once, it was widely believed that recruitment of juvenile reef species to an oceanic island population was brought about by larval drift from other islands and land masses up current. The misconception prevailed that the Nassau grouper “can’t done, and more will come from the ocean”. Eight years of current and tide studies now show that the fertilized eggs from the SPAGs on Little Cayman leave the island for a short period, but then are brought back by the current eddy or gyre. The parent groupers wait until the current is slack to spawn and the fertilized eggs are broadcast at dusk, reducing predation. The eggs hatch into larvae while suspended in the plankton and grow into juveniles before settlement on the reef.  Drift studies conducted by REEF and by Dr. Scott Heppell of Oregon State University show that the larvae do not travel far from Little Cayman—some may also end up on Cayman Brac. During daylight hours, mortality of eggs, larvae and juveniles is very high due to other planktonic predators.

The data shows that a marine protected area is appropriate in the Cayman Islands

In addition, the scientific team proved that the brood stock participating in the SPAGs only came from Little Cayman and not from Cayman Brac, Grand Cayman, Pickle Bank, Jamaica or Cuba, as some fisherman believed. In fact, there is very little connectivity of island populations throughout the Caribbean, which strengthens the case for conservation of each island’s brood stock or “capital”.

Sonic tracking and visual observations by divers prove that all the mature Nassau groupers travel from their home reef patch on Little Cayman to the SPAG around the time of the full moon in January, February and March. Here, divers still see the grouper migration by day heading to the west as they respond to the reproductive stimuli that have operated successfully for millions of years, enabling sustainable existence for all that time… until man came into the picture.

Another detrimental influence caused by man is the invasion of a Pacific species, the Lionfish. We were joined in Little Cayman by Chris Flook of the Bermuda Aquarium. Lionfish are a small but highly aggressive predator on Cayman reef and have severely impacted smaller reef fish and invertebrates. Chris said, that in Bermuda, they have taken over many cleaning stations, first eating the species that clean other reef fish, including groupers, and then, lie in wait for other fish coming to be cleaned. The same must be happening here. They will also consume juvenile groupers. Research work on lionfish is also being conducted at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) where local dive operators are helping in the collection and eradication of this very dangerous and invasive species. Juvenile Nassau groupers being recruited from the plankton to the reef environment have to avoid another unfamiliar predator, the lionfish.

During the day, the DoE and REEF teams ran a number of counts to estimate the adults participating in the SPAG. About seventy groupers were tagged with spaghetti tags as well as divers using visual and video counts to obtain these estimates. Other divers used lasers attached to underwater video cameras to measure individual fish without having to catch them.

Many groupers stayed close to the bottom or on the bottom and in coral crevices during the day. In the afternoon, they formed a larger cohesive school, and the closer they got to the spawning night, the more the grouper changed colour. Some turned dark losing their characteristic banded pattern, while others assumed a bi-colour phase dark chocolate brown above and brilliant white below with a white stripe through the eye.

— Guy Harvey

See our next week’s blog for Part II

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Dec 10, 2010

Cayman New Buoys Win Tropic Star Tournament

The 10th annual Torneo Tropic Star got off to a good start. Thirty-one boats registered, 12 from the world famous Tropic Star Lodge fleet, and another private 19 boats from Panama City, ran 150 miles to Pinas Bay, on the southeast corner of the Darien Province, Panama. Visiting teams of three anglers charter the TSL boats, and rotate to a different boat each day. Three teams from the Cayman Islands, four from Canada, two from Jamaica and four from the USA take all the TSL boats.

A lit up Black Marlin explodes from the water off Panama's Tropic Star Lodge

Cayman Islands teams were; Cayman Hard Buoys with Troy Burke, Tony Berkman and Andrew McCartney; Cayman New Buoys with Alistair Walters, Sebastien Guilbard and Marcus Montana.  The third team was Los Bamofos with Andi Marcher, Guy Harvey and Neil Burnie.

A practice day of fishing before the tournament begins gets everyone familiarized with the fishing techniques, crews, and tackle.  A few minutes after the start of fishing Alistair Walters hooked, fought and released a 300lb black marlin at the famous Pinas Reef.  Other teams went offshore while some stayed inside to fish for roosterfish, jacks and cubera snappers.

On Day 1, the Cayman Hard Buoys got off to a flying start with two blue marlin catches by Tony and Troy — a black marlin for Tony and a sailfish for Andrew — resulting in a PACIFIC GRAND SLAM; three different species of billfish in a single day.

Unfortunately, the first blue caught by Tony passed the 90 minute maximum fighting time as was DQed, but they jumped into the lead with two marlin and a sailfish anyway.  Cayman New Buoys also did well holding second place with Marcus releasing a 300lb blue and Sebastien a 450lb blue on their first day.  Los Bamofos scored a single sailfish, released by angler Andi Marcher.

Day 2 was a slow day for the Cayman teams except for Los Bamofos, when honorary Cayman angler Neil Burnie, from Bermuda, caught a fine 475lb blue marlin.  The other two Cayman teams did not add to their score.  Meanwhile, one of the Canadian teams pulled ahead with a total of three marlin releases, plus a magnificent 267lb yellowfin tuna.  In addition, the Jamaican anglers were closing in with 14 year old Nicholas Chen bagging two blues and a sailfish.

Day 3 got off to a slow start but once the captains located the schools of bonitos, live bait was now available.  Earlier in the day we had caught some 25lb yellowfin tunas and began pulling them live, hoping for a big black or blue marlin to take them.  Live baiting is the preferred method of fishing for black and for blue marlin on the Pacific coast of Panama.  The private boats from Panama City switched over to live bait fishing from pulling artificial lures once they saw how effective this method was at getting the bite.

A Black Marlin shakes loose the bridled bonito, but the circle hook stays in

The first blue marlin, caught by Los Bamofos, spent four excruciating minutes in the spread checking out all three baits, zipping back and forth and driving the crew crazy before it settled on the short bait.  Angler Andi Marcher took 40 minutes to subdue this active 500lb blue marlin, and Los Bamofos was now catching up with a tally of two blue marlin and a sailfish.

Cayman New Buoys also scored early in the day with a 300lb black marlin by Marcus.  Meanwhile, Cayman Hard Buoys lost a marlin, then had a double marlin bite hooking a 350lb black marlin which was caught by Tony Berkman, keeping them in third place. Right then, Los Bamofos lost two consecutive bites which would have put them in the running.

With fishing closing at 3p.m., Cayman New Buoys hooked and released their fourth marlin, a 450lb blue by Sebastien and now took over the lead from the Canadian team.  An hour from the end of fishing, Los Bamofos scored with a magnificent blue marlin, to put them into fourth place.

After three days of competition, Cayman New Buoys ran off with Team Most Points (1200), after their first visit to Tropic Star.  Canada came second (1000) on Time.  Cayman Hard Buoys placed third (1000) on Time, having finished fourth last year.  Team Los Bamofos placed fourth (1000) on Time. In total, the three Cayman teams contributed eleven marlin and two sailfish to the tournament total catch of 35 marlin and 9 sailfish.

Congratulations to the Cayman New Buoys!  This event is a qualifying event for the Bonnier-IGFA World Tournament of Champions held in May 2011 in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.  This angling event is sanctioned by the Cayman Islands Angling Club and the Cayman Islands International Fishing tournament held in April each year is also a qualifying event.  The winners go through to participate in this prestigious big game angling event. Good luck!

Guy Harvey

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