Four scientists will be arriving in Cayman this weekend to work with the Department of Environment (DoE) in carrying out surveys of the islands' sharks, whales and dolphin populations.
The team consists of Dr. Mauvis Gore and Oliver Dubock from Marine Conservation International, Dr Rupert Ormond chief scientist of the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOS) and Edd Brooks a shark researcher based at Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas. The team will be assisting the DOE with surveys around all three islands and will also build on the DOE efforts to establish a public sightings scheme for recording observations of sharks, whales and dolphins seen in Caymanian waters.
The team will be collaborating with marine scientists from the Department of Environment whose Deputy Director Mr Tim Austin said: "We're really excited to be working with this group of experts on these important issues. Sharks, as top-level predators in our marine environment are key components and we have very little reliable data or information on local species, populations and the pressures they face.
"Additionally through this project we hope to expand on local efforts to better understand what species of whales and dolphins use Caymans' waters as part of their home ranges or a seasonal migratory routes, as currently very little are known."
The project is being jointly funded by the UKs Overseas Territory Environment Programme (OTEP), the Save Our Seas Foundation and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment.
The project leader Dr. Mauvis Gore, who obtained her PhD from the University of the West Indies, said: "I am thrilled to be in Cayman again. The coral reefs here are impressive, but I'm excited that this time we to have the chance to focus on the area's sharks. Well over 90% of the worlds shark populations have been lost over the past twenty years, largely through illegal fishing simply for making soup in distant restaurants. Here the marine environment is better managed and so there is a chance to ensure that endangered species are not lost."
Dr. Gore became well known for her work on basking sharks on the west coast of Scotland, when one of these plankton-feeding giants (up to 10 metres long) crossed the Atlantic to appear on the coast of Newfoundland. The electronic tag fitted to the shark indicated that as well as travelling over 4000km, the shark had dived to a depth of over 1200m.
Dr. Gore said: "As well as checking on the numbers of sharks still present in Cayman, we need to find out how much they move about and how far they travel. Some of the bigger sharks here like the tiger sharks, have also been recorded as travelling thousands of kilometres."
Dr. Gore also works on marine mammals and has for the last few years been running a project studying the whales and dolphins of Pakistan.
Dr. Rupert Ormond, a past director of the University of London's Marine Biological Station in Millport, Scotland, said: "Save Our Seas is delighted to be associated with this project, the foundation's work in recent years has focused on highlighting the plight of sharks.
"In particular our Rethink the Shark campaign has emphasised the fact that shark attacks are extremely rare, often the result of provocation, and that many more people are killed by toasters and chairs each year, let alone by bees or cars. In addition the research that we have funded worldwide has shown that the large charismatic sharks play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the marine ecosystem."
The project will emphasise collaboration with local fishermen, dive operators and boat owners who will be invited to share their knowledge and report sightings of sharks, whales and dolphins to the Department of Environment.
Save Our Seas Foundation: SOSF is a relatively new (founded 2003) non-profit NGO with offices in Genève, Jeddah, Dubai, Miami, Cape Town and Edinburgh, it undertakes and supports conservation and research projects concerned with endangered marine species and habitats including notably sharks, marine turtles and coral reefs. It operated two shark centres (for educating and research) one in Kalk Bay near Cape Town and the other in Fort Lauderdale near Miami. Shark species which are the subject of research projects include great white shark, common tiger shark, bull shark, basking sharks, silky shark, blue shark, whale shark and grey reef shark, and work on cetaceans ranging in size from the blue whale to the humpback dolphin has also been supported. Conservation, Awareness, Research and Education are the four principals at the heart of the foundations mission. www.saveourseas.com
Cape Eleuthera Institute: is a marine field station situated on Cape Eleuthera, Eleuthera The Bahamas. It undertakes research on local environmental issues as well as acting as a host facility for marine and terrestrial scientists and visiting education groups of all ages. Cape Eleuthera Institute has especially focussed on developing new methods of resource use and management applicable to the Caribbean, such as effective use of solar energy and local recycling of waste organic and other materials. Its sister organisation, the Island School (www.islandschool.org), is a semester abroad program for high school students from the US and The Bahamas, for whom the Cape Eleuthera Institute provides hands-on research experience through their in house research programs. These programs include shark research, flats ecology and conservation, patch reef ecology and sustainable offshore aquaculture. www.ceibahamas.org
Overseas Territory Environment Programme: is a joint programme of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development; it's aim is to support country governments in the implementation of their Environmental Charters, as well as more generally addressing environmental management issues. In particular OTEP supplies funding for projects concerned with the conservation of terrestrial and marine biodiversity, and the mitigation of pollution and waste problems. www.ukotcf.org
Shark population decline: As a result of industrialised tuna fisheries which began in the 1960's and the more recent enormous demand for dried shark fins to meet the fashion for shark-fin soup in Chinese Restaurants, the populations of sharks world-wide have declined by over 90%. These pressures have led for example, in the Gulf of Mexico, to a 99% reduction in the population of the iconic oceanic whitetip shark, and a 90% reduction in the population of silky sharks. Official records show that in 2004 over 50 million sharks and their relatives were caught, although the actual figure is undoubtedly much higher, since there are also extensive illegal and unreported landings.