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Rare whitetips spotted in Cayman waters

Environment 10 Jan, 2024 Follow News

The DoE’s John Bothwell

One of the whitetip sharks caught on camera

Incredible footage has recently been aired showing one of the world’s most endangered species in Cayman’s oceans, the critically endangered (International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species) oceanic whitetip shark. The footage is even more remarkable because it shows multiple individuals of this rare species. Given they are usually solitary sharks, the presence of multiple individuals in Cayman’s waters suggests that this may be a particularly valuable area for them, the Department of Environment and research partners stated.

This amazing recording was collected by the Department of Environment via its participation in the Global Ocean Wildlife Analysis Network (GOWAN), in which Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems (BRUVS) have been deployed across 13 UK Overseas Territories to collect sightings and data of pelagic species in the waters of these territories. GOWAN is part of the UK Blue Belt Programme providing support to the UK Overseas Territories to enhance management of offshore marine resources in the territories which choose to participate, like the Cayman Islands. 

Estimates suggest numbers of the whitetip sharks have declined by up to 98% globally over the last 60 years.

John Bothwell, Legislation Implementation & Coordination Manager with the Department of Environment, said it was therefore encouraging that the GOWAN BRUVs have been able to pick up multiple individuals of this threatened and wide-ranging species in Cayman’s offshore waters.

“We know that this species occurs in Cayman’s territorial waters and had suspected, from previous work by other partners such as the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, that the Cayman Islands could be an important refuge for oceanic whitetip sharks. Therefore, it is encouraging that the GOWAN BRUVs recorded a number of individuals of this rather rare species. Good science requires repeated testing of hypotheses and the Blue Belt Programme is allowing us to do that, for which we are very grateful.”

 The footage coincides with the recent news that the Cayman Islands have now joined the Blue Belt of marine conservation around the Overseas Territories, one of the UK Government’s most ambitious environmental initiatives. The Cayman Islands became the tenth Territory to do so. The Blue Belt Programme’s vision is for the UK Overseas Territories to protect and enhance ocean health, to halt biodiversity loss, to enable sustainable growth, to build climate change resilience, and to connect people with the natural environment.

Blue Belt is actively supporting the protection of over 4.3 million square kilometres of ocean across the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and Southern Oceans, and this new partnership with Cayman marks an exciting new phase of work within the Caribbean, the DoE confirmed.

Its support will include work to protect the wider pelagic and offshore marine environment of Cayman, such as where these sharks were recorded. These areas currently face global and regional threats – from climate change to Illegal fishing.

“The Programme’s key support spans five core themes of work that it supports the Overseas Territories in. They include growing our understanding of the marine environments of the Territories to inform their protection, such as through large scale scientific research expeditions, and the Global Ocean Wildlife Analysis Network,” Mr Bothwell advised. “Another is the monitoring of activities within UK overseas territory waters to help prevent illegal activities (e.g. Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing) such as by using satellite data and remote sensing to monitor vessel activities across thousands of kilometres of remote ocean.”

Mr Bothwell said the Cayman Islands would not have been able to engage in this type of work without the support of the Blue Belt programme.

“Of particular worth has been the partnership with external research partners which allows us to deploy the supplied BRUVs locally and have the videos reviewed for fish sightings by the external partners allowing us to leverage our more limited research capacity by having our team focus on the local deployments which only we have the capacity to do efficiently and effectively,” he said.

The system allows the DoE to undertake more research than they could accomplish with just their own resources, he confirmed.

“For example, at the same time as we are doing GOWAN BRUV deployments for pelagic fish such as oceanic whitetip sharks, we are also deploying other BRUVs as parts of programmes looking at deep water species and habitats (30m to hundreds of meters deep) and on shallow reefs (5 – 20m deep). This lets us build up a comprehensive understanding of shark and other species within the various biomes of the ocean around the Cayman Islands,” he explained.

The Cayman Islands are already a shark sanctuary with all shark species completely protected within Cayman’s territorial waters since 2015. Mr Bothwell said it was therefore heartening to add the GOWAN BRUVs sightings of the oceanic whitetips to the other work, showing the importance of the Cayman Islands for sharks and the importance of local protections for sharks to the local and regional populations of these species.

“Pelagic species like oceanic whitetip sharks are trans-boundary species and without the comparative work that is possible through multi-territory projects like the Blue Belt it would be much harder to do the kinds of comparative studies which allow us to get an idea of their population not just locally but regionally,” he said. “While Cayman’s sharks are protected, other pelagic species are currently unmanaged and we are very happy to be able to use the GOWAN BRUVs and the Blue Belt programme to begin to quantify these stocks and then eventually formulate evidence and experience based management of these resources if needed, an initiative which the Cayman Islands would be hard-pressed to start ourselves without the support of the Blue Belt Programme.”

Find out more on Cayman’s shark and BRUV programme at https://doe.ky/marine/sharks/ .

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