Learning lessons from Cayman’s past industries

The Cayman Islands has embraced an array of industries and activities in years gone by that have proved unsustainable, leading speakers at a recent National Trust seminar to ask if we’ve learned any lessons from the past. 


Once upon a time, the Cayman Islands had a thriving sea turtle population until intense turtling decimated the species locally. Other industries, including sharking and bird egg collecting, had similar impacts.  

These industries – done out of a necessity by a population isolated on islands in the middle of the Caribbean Sea – had the expected outcome of severely impacting the numbers of turtles, sharks and birds breeding, thus making those industries no longer able to sustain the people who carried them out, Denise Bodden, historic programmes manager of the National Trust said. 

She and her fellow speaker, photographer Courtney Platt, presented a seminar at St. Matthew’s University on 31 January that provided plenty of food for thought on how lessons learned from past industries should leave Cayman in no doubt that current overfishing and overdevelopment in the Cayman Islands is having a major impact on the environment – and subsequently to the Islands’ tourism product. 

Bodden showed images of Cayman turtlers offloading turtles in Jamaica, indicating that the meat was not just consumed locally, but sold to other islands. Turtlers would also sell turtle meat to passing ships. “Life was very hard here, they had to find a way to sustain themselves,” Bodden said. 

The turtles were caught by fishermen in cat boats, which could hold 10 or more of the animals, and transported to a ship or straight back to land where they were kept alive in crawls – fenced in areas – until they were ready for slaughter and consumption. This practice eventually led to the formation of Mariculture Limited, a precursor to today’s Cayman Turtle Farm. “My mother used to work there,” said Bodden, “and I can assure you that nothing was wasted”, adding that the only part of the turtle that was not used was the “turtle’s breath”. 

The eventual introduction of CITES regulations in 1963 that prevent the export of sea turtle products meant the industry was no longer as lucrative as it had been, as turtle shells, which were used for decorative items and jewellery, and the meat could not be sold overseas. 

“The heritage we have in Cayman utilised turtles, but tried to utilise them in a way that the meat was used and not wasted… The turtle laws in effect now discourages turtles being taken from the wild…, prohibiting people from eating turtle eggs and ensuring that only licensed fishermen can take them [during the open season of December to March],” said Bodden. 

She queried if turtle meat, which is now expensive, should be considered the way Caymanians of old considered beef – a foodstuff to be eaten once a year at Christmas. “I encourage people to think about it from that perspective so there is some reasonable balance that can be found to satisfy human needs with the needs of animals,” she said. 

The decline in the turtle industry meant fishermen looked towards other industries. “Sharking became a very important industry but it too was short lived,” said Bodden, who explained that shark skins were used to produce shoes and handbags, while oil from the sharks were also used. 

Due to the inevitable decline in the sharking industry, the harvesting of sea sponges rose in popularity. Next came the bird egg industry.  

Bodden admitted that when she first saw photographs of the bird egging industry, she assumed the large mounds of round objects pictured in archive footage were great heaps of potatoes. 

“They weren’t potatoes. The bird eggs were mostly coming from the Serrana Cays, off the coast of Central America… Caymanians were spending quite a long time away from home basically trying to provide a living and a source of income and food for their families,” she said. 

The men and teenage boys who travelled to the Serrana Cays would arrive before the annual egg hatching to crush the old eggs that had not hatched to ensure they did not get stale eggs in their catch. Once they started collecting the eggs, they would leave one egg in each nest in a bid to try to ensure that the bird population could be sustained. 

At one point, egg collectors from Cayman took 291,000 bird eggs the strip of land in a single year, Bodden said. “This does not include all the other years and all the other people who may have gone there and done the same thing. This certainly would have made an impact on the bird population in the Serrana Cays area… and neighbouring countries as well,” she said. 

Other industries that have come and gone in Cayman are phosphate mining and guano (bird faeces) collecting. 

Ship building was another successful industry in the Cayman Islands. The vessels the ship builders made proved to be the “lifeline of the Cayman Islands to the outside world” at a time when there were no international phone lines and no planes to carry passengers to and from the islands, said Bodden. Later, the ship building and general construction skills of Caymanians, as well as their seafaring abilities, meant that they could export their skills and they worked overseas on building sites and in the maritime industry. 

Back at home, more sustainable industries were continuing, like thatching from the native and endemic Silver Thatch tree, which was used for roofing, making rope, and baskets and hats.  

“This one was actually sustainable. We did not kill the tree when we plucked the top out of it. The tree could continue to grow,” said Bodden, who queried why thatch materials are not more popular in Cayman. 

“Right now, we are completely relying on two industries – tourism and finance… Tourism is definitely a cornerstone of our economy but we also have to be thinking forward, not only do we have to preserve our environment, but also take on new industries that are sustainable and not damaging,” said Bodden, as she closed her talk. 

The second speaker at the seminar, photographer Platt, used many stunning images he’s taken over the years to highlight the alarming impact overfishing has had on the Cayman’s reefs and its fish populations. 

When he first arrived in Cayman and worked as a dive instructor for Bob Soto in the 1980s, the dive sites were already declining in terms of the number of big fish, but he said he still at that stage saw many Nassau and black groupers, green moray eels, barracudas and the other large fish that divers and underwater photographers flock to see and photograph. 

The impact on the environment above and below water is in part caused by the increase in Cayman’s population in a relatively short space of time, Platt pointed out, saying that the population of the Cayman Island had tripled and nearly quadrupled in the same amount of time that the world population had doubled. “The problems that we have are a microcosm of the world’s problems. The problems we’re having are happening everywhere, especially in regards to overfishing,” he said. 

“The world’s oceans are running out of fish, even the deep water pelagics, but I’m mostly concerned with the reef fish, for which we have a better use than just eating,” said Platt, referring to the tourism dollars that reefs populated with the larger fish would bring. 

“I’ve heard a few fishermen suggest, when they ask “Where did all the fish go?” that the boat noises or the scuba divers must have scared them away. Well, I’m here to tell you that when reef fish get scared, they dive into the reef. They will not take off swimming into the open ocean,” he said, adding that tales from fishermen of catching huge quantities of fish in the past tell the real story of what’s happened to Cayman’s reef fish. 

Cayman’s narrow reef shelf makes the reef fish vulnerable to overfishing. Currently, only 15 per cent of the reef shelves are protected no-take zones. 

The Department of Environment has been carrying out public consultation exercises to help draw up legislation that will expand the size of Cayman’s marine parks and expand the no-take areas, but that has not yet been passed into law.  

Unless and until that law can be passed and enforced, thus, helping to preserve the existing fish populations and hopefully bring those populations back up to pre-overfishing numbers, Platt suggests that consumers can do their bit to protect reef fish by simply not eating them anymore, thus reducing the demand. 

He pointed out that the creatures that live underwater – the big reef fish, the stingrays, the sharks, the turtles – are “extremely valuable, monetarily” because of the amount of money tourists pay each year to come to Cayman and experience seeing and swimming and diving with those creatures. 

“It was noticed in the mid-80s, among the diving community, that the big fish were disappearing fast. By the time I got here in ‘83, they were all grumbling about how fast they were disappearing,” said Platt, as he brought up an image of the Ghost Mountain dive site off West Bay. “Where are all the fish in this picture?” he asked. 

“At one point, back in the 80s, when I first dove it, that site would have been packed with fish. There would be a school of horse-eyed jacks going by in the background, there’d be big barracudas hanging out. You would see a big Nassau grouper coming up underneath that brown sponge and in the background there would be silhouettes of at least a dozen groupers around the edge of that pinnacle, and that’s just missing,” he said. 

Platt says the big-spending divers and the international underwater professional photographers don’t come to Cayman anymore because the local waters no longer have the big reef fish they want to see and shoot. “They’re going off to the Pacific and Micronesia and Indonesia and Papau New Guinea. We’re losing a whole lot of dive tourism, especially the wealthy guys because of this lack of big fish and we’re losing the professional underwater photographers because of that. They want to come photograph the big fish and the big schools,” he said. 

He added that a well stocked reef would benefit every man, woman and child in Cayman from the tourism dollars it would bring in. Currently, he said, there are about 60,000 divers visiting Cayman every year. 

“I believe if we had the big fish… we would have the great dominance in the region because everybody else is overfished too. If we were just smart enough to protect this and restore it, we could just multiply our tourism income hugely,” he said.