Guy Harvey, Sir Richard Branson Discuss Marine Conservation Issues

November 9, 2012

Left to right: Michael Ryan, Guy Harvey, Madeleine Ryan, Jessica Harvey and Sir Richard Branson.

I recently had an opportunity to meet with Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of the Virgin Group. Sir Richard was in Grand Cayman to deliver the keynote speech at the recent “Alternative Investment Conference”, which was held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Grand Cayman. The event was organized and hosted by Michael Ryan and also featured such notables as former U.S. President George W. Bush and former world’s number one golfer Greg Norman.

After the conference, I was able to meet with Sir Richard for a few minutes to discuss the potential for collaborating with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation. I gave Sir Richard a quick overview of the GHOF and briefed him on several of the projects the Foundation has supported, with specific details on studies involving tiger sharks, mako sharks, bluefin tuna and billfish.

I elaborated on the role that GHOF research has played in highlighting the importance of the Bahamas archipelago to many species of sharks. In a collaborative effort with the Bahamas National Trust and the Pew Environmental Group, we convinced the government of the Bahamas to protect all sharks from commercial exploitation within their 200 mile EEZ.

Here in the Cayman Islands, the GHOF in involved in a multitude of research projects that includes Nassau grouper conservation, lionfish eradication and recruitment, and climate change studies at CCMI in Little Cayman. We are also actively engaged in shark research and blue marlin migration studies.

Documentary film making has also been a priority, so during the last year the Guy Harvey Expeditions team of producer George Schellenger, Jessica Harvey and myself have been on location nine times to conduct shoots in Panama, Nova Scotia, Little Cayman, Cocos Island (Costa Rica), the Bahamas and Isla Mujeres (Mexico). Our group made three trips to Isla Mujeres in 2012, teaming up with Captain Anthony Mendillo and crew to complete shoots on sailfish, mako sharks and whale sharks. Sir Richard was particularly interested in the sailfish and whale shark work as he has visited Isla Mujeres on several occasions, also guided by Captain Anthony.  We discussed the limited research done on sailfish and whale sharks and the opportunity to collaborate with the Georgia Aquarium research team in future research and conservation efforts.

I went to some length explaining the value of catch and release sport fishing to Caribbean island and Central American economies. I emphasized the need for a regional approach as many of the large pelagic species cover great distances that cross several jurisdictions. This requires a coordinated effort in management and conservation as one country’s regulations may not be the same as its neighbors.

I also discussed the need for research work on all the species mentioned, as without the scientific data one cannot make management decisions and thus achieve sustainability and conservation. Fishing is the method by which we access many of these creatures for study, underwater photography, tagging and genetic work. Sir Richard was not keen on fishing but acknowledged it is a useful tool in this arena.

We moved on to some more local issues, the hot topics being the condition of the Cayman Turtle Farm and the issue regarding stingray conservation through law. Sir Richard was concerned that turtles could still be fished by local licensed fishermen, given that turtles are protected world-wide. I pointed out that none of the current license holders have continued with this activity. The turtle farm itself needed to be divested I said, and turned into a better marine attraction whose focus was more on turtle replenishment, research and husbandry than on the consumption of the turtle meat. Our belief is that there are hundreds of thousands of turtle lovers who would be willing to donate $5 or $10 towards a satellite tagging program that would allow the turtles to be set free so that they can  provide information about migrations and long distance journeys.

The treatment of the stingrays in the Caymans is another sore point for many locals. The resident stingray populations have been sabotaged and removed by unknown persons for at least the last two years, and our census studies have shown a 50% reduction in the population during that time (a decade of research by the GHOF and the Dept of Environment has provided the base line information about this population). Four tagged stingrays were recently discovered in the Dolphin Discovery tourist attraction. Though the four tagged rays were released, the owners of the attraction have refused to release six untagged rays. Sir Richard said it should be very simple to change the law and have stingrays enjoy full protection from poaching given their ecological importance and their value to the island. After all the people of the Cayman Islands and millions of visitors have an enjoyed and benefited from this unique experience for the last 30 years.

The proposed expansion of marine parks by the Dept of Environment was a good move and Sir Richard commented that fishing has been known to improve in areas adjacent to marine parks. He said there are models out now that show countries need to protect 40 – 50 % of their shallow reef areas to ensure long term survivability. I commented that the Cayman Islands were a world leader in the formation of marine parks and in the protection of the spawning sites of the iconic Nassau grouper.

Sir Richard was very gracious and listened to many of our comments and suggestions. The meeting was much appreciated by all involved and the GHOF look forward to collaborating with Sir Richard and his foundation on several projects. It is our collective responsibility to conserve the marine environment and maintain the biodiversity of the planet.

Fish responsibly, dive safely.  Guy Harvey PhD.


Guy Harvey Launches Petition Drive to Protect Cayman Stingrays

October 15, 2012

Enactment of the National Conservation Law Postponed Last 10 Years

THE CAYMAN ISLANDS—OCTOBER 15, 2012— Marine wildlife artist and conservationist Dr. Guy Harvey is leading a petition drive calling on the government of the Cayman Islands to immediately put the National Conservation Law into effect, ensuring the safety and protection of all stingrays in the country’s territorial waters.

Currently, stingrays are only protected in the country’s designated Wildlife Interaction Zones, Stingray City and the Sandbar, two of the island’s best known tourist attractions.  Dr. Harvey said that outside of the zones there is no protection for stingrays and they can be removed and/or caught and eaten by local residents.

The National Conservation Act would close this loophole.

Recently four stingrays tagged for study were found at a local Dolphin Discovery facility and returned after a national outcry. However, six other untagged stingrays remain in captivity at the dolphinarium.

“The well-being of stingrays affects every single person in the Cayman Islands,” said Dr. Harvey, who pointed out that half a million visitors per year from around the world come to swim and interact with these charismatic animals.  “By signing this petition you are speaking out against the unconscionable acts of harming stingrays, especially when taking them out of their natural habitat.”

Time is critical, according to Dr. Harvey, a marine biologist, who calls The Cayman Islands home.

The goal is to reach 10,000 signatures.

“Maintaining the ecological health of these stingray populations for the long-term will require management and conservation programs based on a thorough knowledge of the biology of these animals,” said Dr. Harvey who initiated research work on the Cayman Island’s southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) population in 2012.

Dr. Harvey said the situation at the Sandbar in North Sound is unique, with a large number of wild rays that are not fenced or contained and inhabit the shallow clear water with accessibility every day of the year. The socio-economic value of the rays to the Cayman economy is enormous. Each animal may generate USD 500,000 in revenue per year and in its lifetime, assuming they live more than 20 years, may generate USD 10,000,000 in a lifetime.

From 2010, tour operators and casual observations indicated a sudden decline in the number of rays at the Sandbar. The Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI) based at Nova Southeastern University conducted a census in January 2012 and sampled only 61rays in the standard three -day research period at the Sandbar which represents a significant (38%) decrease in number of rays compared to the last census in 2008.

This summer GHRI returned with the support of the Georgia Aquarium veterinary staff.  Over three days the team sampled 57 rays (only 5 males) at the Sandbar (down from 61 in January) with assistance from Department of Environment staff and several volunteers. The team spent a day at the original Stingray City and sampled 11 rays (2 males) and caught 3 rays (1 male) at Rum Point bringing the total to 71 rays sampled.  The low number of males generally is cause for concern.

“These iconic animals have given so much to benefit the Cayman Islands that its time the Government returned the favor by immediately approving the National Conservation Law,” said Dr. Harvey.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW & SIGN THE PETITION!


Guy Harvey Research Institute, Georgia Aquarium Complete Annual Census at Stingray City

July 24, 2012

Jessica Harvey rounds up a stingray during the annual census study.

New census study shows sharp decline in number of rays at Stingray City

In mid-July, personnel from the Guy Harvey Research Institute once again collaborated with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment to conduct the annual census of the stingray population in Grand Cayman. This year, we were joined by three researchers from the Georgia Aquarium, who were on hand to assist with analyzing the overall health of the stingrays.

The situation at the Sandbar in North Sound is unique, with a large number of wild rays that are not fenced or contained but inhabit the shallow clear water with accessibility every day of the year. The socio-economic value of the rays to the Cayman economy is enormous. On average, each animal can generate up to $500,000 in revenue per year, or $10,000,000 over the course of a 20 year life span!

From a historical perspective, it is worth setting out the track record of research work conducted on the population of stingrays in Grand Cayman. Research was started by the GHRI in 2002 when all the stingrays that frequent the two main sites were caught by hand and tagged with a PIT (passive integrated transponder) at the base of their tail. During the initial count, 164 rays were tagged, weighed and measured at the Sandbar over two years. Since then, tag retention has remained near 100%, so many animals tagged ten years ago still have their PIT today. This has been a very simple and valuable tool to track the life history and growth rates of these animals.

For the period 2002 – 2003, one hundred rays were sampled each month over a three day period at the Sandbar.  The same situation was experienced in a subsequent census conducted by the GHRI in 2005 and 2008. As expected, over time there was recruitment of new (untagged) rays to the Sandbar and loss of individuals due to migration, natural mortality and possibly some predation. The sex ratio of 90% females to 10% males has remained fairly constant over this time.

The research team holds a large female ray as they prepare to draw a blood sample.

From 2010 tour operators and casual observations indicated a sudden decline in the number of rays at the Sandbar. In response to the reports, the GHRI conducted a census in January 2012 and sampled only 61rays in the standard three day research period at the Sandbar, which represents a significant (38%) decrease in number of rays compared to the last census in 2008. Now that we had some hard facts to support the eye witness accounts, the next logical step was to find out what was causing the decline in population.

The numbers of rays have been constant since research was started in 2002 with recruitment and mortality being well balanced. GHRI personnel ruled out predation by sharks in the January census due to lack of evidence of shark bites (near misses) and the corresponding demise of sharks in the last ten years. However, fishing mortality (intentionally or by accident) is a consideration.  I say this because here is no national protection for stingrays – outside of the Wildlife Interactive Zones (WIZ) this species has no protection and can be removed and consumed by residents.

Another possibility for us to consider is the overall health of the rays, which is why GHRI enlisted the support of the Georgia Aquarium veterinary staff for this year’s census. The addition of the GA vets also allowed the research work to become much more technical. Dr. Tonya Clauss (Director Animal Health, Georgia Aquarium), Dr. Lisa Hoopes  (Nutritionist, Georgia Aquarium) and  Nicole Boucha (Senior Veterinary Technician, Georgia Aquarium) arrived in Grand Cayman loaded with equipment to take blood and store these precious samples in liquid nitrogen until analysis could be achieved back in Georgia.

Over three days the team sampled 57 rays (only 5 males) at the Sandbar (down from 61 in January) with assistance from DoE staff and several volunteers. The team also spent a day at the original Stingray City and sampled 11 rays (2 males) and caught 3 rays (1 male) at Rum Point, bringing the total to 71 rays sampled.  The low number of males in this year’s sample is definitely cause for concern.

Team members – Front row: Guy Harvey, Nicole Boucha, Tonya Clauss. Back row: Lisa Hoopes, Dr. Brad Wetherbee, Alex Harvey, Jessica Harvey.

Each ray was caught by hand and transferred to the pool in the work boat where they were measured and tagged, then blood was taken from the underside of the base of the tail. Some of this blood was immediately centrifuged to make counts of white blood cells. The rest was frozen in liquid nitrogen for shipment back to the lab in the Georgia Aquarium.

From the blood samples the vets will be able to determine if the (monotonous) diet of squid fed to the rays by the majority of tour operators is affecting the animal’s health.  The processing of samples and data will take several weeks. At the end of this process we will have more knowledge about these valuable creatures and how better to manage their supplementary diet and well being.

Overall, a long term plan of monitoring the numbers of rays and their health is required. Everyone in the Cayman Islands benefits from the presence of this unique marine interactive site. Every advertising campaign or tourism related article featuring the Cayman Islands has these iconic animals up front and prominently displayed. It is time the government of the Cayman Islands returned the favor by supporting ongoing research of the stingrays’ population status and well-being by releasing funds in the Environmental Protection Fund collected for this purpose.

More updates to come.

Fish responsibly, dive safely.

Guy Harvey PhD.


GHRI, Georgia Aquarium Partner for Stingray Census Study in Grand Cayman

July 16, 2012

Alex Harvey, Louisa Gibson and Dr. Brad Wetherbee secure a large ray in a pool in the cockpit of Guy’s Scout boat while Georgia Aquarium’s Tonya Clauss prepares to take blood from the ray’s tail.

The Guy Harvey Research Institute just finished conducting the annual census of the stingray population at Stingray City in Grand Cayman. The GHRI team, led by Guy Harvey and GHRI Director Dr. Mahmood Shivji, Dr. Brad Wetherbee of the University of Rhode IslandEdinburgh University student Louisa Gibson and Guy’s adult children, Jessica and Alex Harvey. Assisting the GHRI this year were three special guests from the Georgia Aquarium – veterinarians Tonya Clauss, Lisa Hoopes and Nicole Boucha, who were on hand to analyze blood samples to better assess the overall health of the rays. Thanks to all who participated – updates from the census will be available soon!