(Published in Cayman Airways Skies, September/October 2011)
Attracting divers from across the globe, Cayman’s colourful coral reefs are a mainstay of the islands’ tourism industry. Yet, with their ongoing destruction and declining health across the globe, ensuring Cayman’s reefs remain a national treasure for all to enjoy has never been more important.
The Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) has been doing just that. Founded in 1998, the non-profit organisation aims to promote marine conservation and biodiversity through research and education, with the goal of seeing an end to the destruction of reef systems.
Little Cayman Research Centre
At the heart of this dedicated organisation is the Little Cayman Research Centre, situated on the north coast of Cayman’s smallest sister island. Opened some five years ago, the centre is just a stone’s throw away from the extraordinary biodiversity of the Bloody Bay Marine Park, one of the world’s top dive sites thanks to the abundance of marine life that thrives in its waters.
“From the centre we conduct monitoring and research on a continuous basis in order to understand what is happening in the oceans and what needs to be achieved to stop the ruin of our coral reefs,” explains Samantha Shaxted, Director of Communications and Development. “We then educate, passing on this information to the up-and-coming policy makers of tomorrow who attend courses at the centre, where we have custom-designed laboratories, classrooms and dormitory-style accommodations.”
The centre’s location is not accidental. Little Cayman’s exceptionally clear waters, coupled with the low development on the island, makes it a pristine site, which is already recognised by scientists from as far away as Australia.
“Scientists from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have established long-term studies at Little Cayman to evaluate how global change is impacting the oceans,” Shaxted adds.
Educating the Next Generation
Indeed, the centre is one of CCMI’s many success stories. Its courses are teaching the next generation of young Caymanians the importance of protecting Cayman’s delicate underwater ecosystem.
Programs include the Ocean Literacy Program, which educates young Caymanians about the impact of the ocean on their lives and the influence of their lives and activities on the ocean. In addition, in August, CCMI hosts the Caribbean Marine Ecology Camp, where children ages 14 to 18 come from all over the world to enjoy Little Cayman’s marine environment and garner a better understanding of how to protect it.
“Every young person who comes to CCMI will leave with more knowledge of the issues that they and their underwater world are facing and how to correct them,” Ms Shaxted explains. “Therefore, every individual who leaves us is a success story.”
One particular story stands out from the many. A young Caymanian named Issy, whose family makes their living from fishing, recently attended one of the centre’s Eco-Weekend courses.
Her father would regularly catch Nassau grouper — an endangered species — during spawning season. Grouper are so called because they “group” together to spawn. The Cayman Islands used to be home to five Nassau grouper spawning sites, but now, due to overfishing, just one remains, located off the western tip of Little Cayman. Today, this area is one of the last great reproduction sites of the species.
Shortly after the course, Issy’s father was sent to report to CCMI that his furious daughter made him promise to never fish for grouper during the spawning season again.
Paving the Way with Research
Education at CCMI goes hand-in-hand with research, which includes studies on ocean acidification, coral bleaching and marine reserves, to name just a few.
Of particular note is a study on the growth patterns of the invasive lionfish. With no natural predators in the Caribbean, the lionfish is currently posing a widespread threat to local marine life. Native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the lionfish has invaded Caribbean waters and was first spotted at the Bloody Bay Wall in 2008, where it has since exploded in numbers. The study aims to provide an increased understanding of the species and its current population in an attempt to ascertain what long-term impact organised culls are having, if any.
The issues that face Cayman’s marine environment are far from unique. Ms. Shaxted explains that they come from a laundry list of problems being faced the world over, including rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification caused by climate change, pollution, the introduction of invasive species, and the simple fact that our oceans are being overfished, fuelled by the demand of an ever increasing population.
“Even though we are facing these problems, we are very lucky to have a well-established system of marine parks here in Cayman, and, of course, the CCMI working hard towards a better future.
“There is always hope too.”
The organisation’s major annual fundraising event for 2011, the Festival of Trees, will be held at Camana Bay from November 15-19. Beautiful trees sponsored by companies and individuals will be decorated and laden with gifts and put on display before being auctioned at a lavish gala dinner on the last night.
Finding Out More
If you are interested in finding out more about the festival and how to support CCMI, email email@example.com. To learn more about CCMI, visit reefresearch.org.