Help Protect Cayman's Sportfish

Cayman Islands Tarpon Fly Fishing
Fig. 1
Tarpon are just one of the sportfish
that are still unprotected in the waters
of the Cayman Islands.

Bonefish, tarpon, and permit need your help NOW.   They have NO PROTECTION in Cayman waters. Please Email the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism and let them know how much you enjoy fishing here and how valuable these fish are to these waters and visitors to these islands.



Unlike almost every other eco-tourist destination (such as Belize, Bahamas, etc.) Cayman has almost no protection in place for the sportfish of our waters. Almost anyone can catch, kill, and keep tarpon, bonefish, or permit (not to mention Nassau grouper, snook, tuna, dorado, wahoo and marlin). Despite the fact that the first two on that list make poor table fare (at best), there are still folks here that will kill them. In fact, I know of some that consider tarpon to be trash fish and will actually toss them up on the shore to die if no one is around who wants them for food! Of course, there are other fish species that also need protection, but since they don't attract as many tourist dollars as the famous "Big Three" they probably won't get it soon, but you can help pave the way by making yourself heard to our government.

The Coveted Permit
Fig. 2
The coveted Permit is a favorite food
fish of locals. Once plentiful, they
exist now as a token population in
many areas of the Cayman Islands.

Here's the situation. It's one that's tough for anglers from countries with established fishing regulations to understand, but a little history lesson will help. In the early 1980's the Cayman Islands established the Marine Parks Law largely due to the effort of a very concerned private citizen who rallied local support and concensus for the project, talking with old-time fishermen from each town and district to paint a stark then-and-now picture of the marine environment. Needless to say there was enough concern among the general citizenry that the legislation passed. This legislation outlined wide tracts of marine real estate as “no-take” zones, called Replenishment Zones under the new law. This was pretty radical for the time and place. After all, the citizens of these islands were used to getting much of their sustenance from the sea and to actually close some areas to the taking of things like conch and lobster was a challenging concept. Much more controversial were those areas that were closed to fishing altogether (though there were precious few of those). Understandably this was hard for some locals to swallow. However, there's little doubt that this forward thinking strategy is what has saved Cayman's marine environment from total collapse.

Marine life in the no-take zones flourished while the open areas became virtual deserts: bare of conch, lobster, and big reef-fish.

So the waters around the three islands were divided into four zones: the Environmental Zones, Replenishment Zones, No-Diving Zones, and Marine Park Zones – everything from complete “hands-off” areas that didn't even allow diving, to areas where you could pretty much take what you wanted whenever… which, of course, everyone did. Pretty soon the gulf between these zones would become apparent as marine life in the no-take zones flourished while the open areas became virtual deserts: bare of conch, lobster, and big reef-fish.

What was not made part of the new laws was a fishing license. Assuming they thought of it at all, the legislators undoubtedly realized that they could never get the support for the new Marine Parks if they also began charging people to fish as well. No, better to give folks some time to adjust to the new regulations, see how positive they were, and then update the law at some future date. That date never arrived. As so often happens, government changed hands and focus shifted elsewhere. There seemed little cause for concern. Divers still flocked to the island and, at the time, fish were still plentiful. So much so that Cayman soon had the only month-long fishing tournament that I'm aware of: the so-called “Million Dollar Month”. Anglers, sports stars, actors, and (of course) locals flocked to the tournament, all vying for the coveted grand prize which would be awarded for breaking Cayman's blue marlin record, and amazingly they did so without having to pay so much as a dime for a fishing license. Have you ever seen what a month of solid fishing by dozens of boats and hundreds of anglers can do to a small fishery? The market was glutted with fish. Tuna, wahoo, dorado and, of course, marlin came in by the boatload. None except the smallest marlin were released. The tournament continued year after year, but after a few years of poor catches the tournament was shortened to a more reasonable week and, predictably, the jet-set, big game crowd left. Good riddance.

It was not part of our tradition and culture to kill the young of any species, nor to take more than we could use or sell.

Throughout all this time Cayman continued to grow. Amenable banking laws encouraged investment, and a relaxation of the beach-development moratorium brought a boom in multi-million dollar hotels and resorts. With this growth came a need for more workers: construction workers, gardeners, maids, and hotel staff was running short, but not for long. Soon people from Jamaica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, and even as far away as the Philippines were flocking here to get a piece of the Caymanian pie (to borrow an expression). Caymanians themselves had long since opted for what they saw as classier jobs in the tourism and banking sectors. Being an actual maid or bell-hop was considered a little beneath them. Foreign workers were the only alternative for the new businesses, and with these workers came their cultures.

The Threatened Nassau Grouper
Fig. 3
Nassau Grouper are a favorite of divers
& fishermen. Once plentiful, they are
annually targeted during their spawning
congregations, decimating their
populations. The Cayman Islands
groupers are on the verge.

Here the problems began to arise. Many of these cultures were cultures of poverty, of hand-to-mouth living, of scrabbling a livelihood from the land and water any way they could. Cayman had always been a sparsely populated country with plenty of marine-life (fish, conch, lobster, turtle) to go around. It was part of our tradition and culture not to kill the young of any species, nor to take more than we could use or sell. Not so for many of the new laborers who came from countries that had long since fished out the large animals from their waters – so much so that eating small fish had actually become part of their culture: the culture of poverty. At first this was tolerated and generally ignored by the local islanders; there was enough fish to go around. But after a time it became obvious that the taking of these juvenile fish could not go unchecked without repercussion on the deeper reefs, repercussions felt in the very important diving industry. Bigger reef fish began to disappear (though the upswing in spear-fishing, and more fishermen per square mile than ever before also had something to do with this). Locals began to grumble. No longer could they take their children to the beach on a weekend, cast in a line and expect to catch anything over hand-sized. It was perplexing.

Government finally stepped in with a law that clearly pandered to local sentiment and was (many feel) a move to curry support from an increasingly dissatisfied constituency. In the first change to the Marine Parks Law in decades they finally established a fishing license and minimum size for everything except baitfish. Here's the kicker, though: the license was only required for non-citizens who were living in the Cayman Islands and fished from shore. In other words, only the poorest of the poor who were non-locals were effected: those who were here on work permits who could not afford a boat but fished merely to supplement their food supply and save a few dollars. (Which, if you've ever been to the grocery store in Cayman you'd understand.) Visitors were not required to acquire a license, nor were locals or non-locals who fished by boat. Moreover, the license itself was more than one hundred dollars for the year, and it took more than two years before there was any infrastructure in place so that you could actually go anywhere and acquire this license. Oh, you could probably find some goverment office to take your money, but barring a receipt you'd have no way of proving you were fishing legally. In essence, here was a law that was doomed to failure from the beginning, which was, in fact, never intended to succeed in anything except stopping a very particular segment of the population from fishing at all. Can we say, “racist”?

But, what does all this mean and how does it relate to the sport-fisher's beloved Grand Slam – a bonefish, tarpon, and permit all in a single day? Well, lack of any meaningful legislation means that the waters of the Cayman Islands are still wide open. There has been no real, meaningful addition to the marine laws here in several decades. Folks can still catch, keep, and kill any fish species they wish here, including those that have only marginal (if any) food value. (In the case of tarpon and bonefish, this food value is far outweighed by their value as a renewable rescource for a catch-and-release sportfishery that caters mainly to tourists). Also, there is no “waste of meat” law on the books, so people can kill any fish they wish, even if they don't intend to keep it for food or trophy purposes (this has meant the continued decimation of the small shark population here). Some consider tarpon and bonefish to be trash fish: tackle smashing nuisances that should be killed for their insolence should they dare to take a bait intended for, say, snapper. As for permit, they have long been coveted as a food fish by locals and I've certainly never heard of anyone releasing them… unless it was one of the precious few fly fishers here.

We need regulations that will protect our sport-fish, food-fish, and reef-fish from the ravages of overfishing and other hazards.

Moreover, there are many other fish that need the protection of close seasons, slot limits, and all the other sensible means that other fisheries have employed to ensure species health the world over. From the Florida Keys to Turks & Caicos Islands to Canada to California, such measures and regulations – each carefully crafted with a particular species in mind – have ensured the rebound and fecundity of beloved fish species. Cayman's fish need and deserve the same.

We need an overarching, comprehensive set of regulations that will protect our sport-fish, food-fish, and reef-fish from the ravages of overfishing and other environmental hazards. And we need it now. This includes slot limits for fish like snappers, groupers and other reef fish to protect the juveniles and big breeders. A complete moratorium on marlin, Nassau grouper, sharks, snook, and of course, bonefish, tarpon, and permit. Increased protection and limits on the harvest of baitfish. And, we need a reasonable, workable fishing license plan for everyone, including locals. We as a culture and society need to realize that we are past our subsistence roots that dictated the necessity of taking what we needed to survive. A culture where every child has a cell phone and every teenager drives a car is long past third-world standards of living. We should all be held responsible for the future of our natural environment and that includes paying a little for it.

Please, make your view known to the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism and the Department of Environment. Even if you're simply a visitor here you still have a voice. Make it heard.    << Back to GREEN ANGLER Page

~ Davin Ebanks, Fly Fisherman & Bonefish Guide

"The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish."
     ~Isaiah 19:8

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