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November 18, 2012

Guy Harvey and Sir Richard Branson Discuss Potential Collaboration

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Michael Ryan, Guy Harvey, Madeleine Ryan, Jessica Harvey and Sir Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin conglomerate of companies was here in Grand Cayman for the weekend. He gave the keynote interview at the Alternative Investment Conference held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel at the invitation of Michael Ryan, the event host and organizer. Other notable interviews were conducted with former US President George W. Bush and with former world number one golfer Greg Norman.

Several weeks ago I had applied to meet with Sir Richard for a few minutes to discuss the potential for collaboration with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation in research and conservation projects that would be beneficial and make a difference in furthering our knowledge and therefore enhance the management process and conservation of large pelagic animals.

Sir Richard welcomed the four of us, Michael Ryan and his daughter Madeleine plus myself and my daughter Jessica. I gave Sir Richard a quick overview of the GHOF, how we raise funds and what sort of research and educational projects the GHOF currently conducts. I gave him specifics about tiger shark, mako shark, bluefin tuna and billfish research.

I elaborated on the role the research by the GHOF had played in showing 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 has broader interests in work on Nassau grouper conservation, lionfish eradication and recruitment plus 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 been a priority so during the last year the Guy Harvey Expeditions team of producer George Schellenger and Guy Harvey and Jessica Harvey have been on location nine times to conduct shoots in Panama, Nova Scotia, Little Cayman, Bahamas twice, Cocos Island, Costa Rica, Isla Mujeres, Mexico on three occasions 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 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 crossing several jurisdictions. This requires a regional approach in management and conservation as one country’s regulations may not be the same as its neighbours.

I explained 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.

Sir Richard welcomed the opportunity to participate in collaborative studies and the consequent dissemination of information necessary for sustainability.

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, very archaic, given this was the 21st century and that they were 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. There are hundreds of thousands of turtle lovers out there in North America who would be only too happy to give $5 or $10 towards a satellite tagging programme and let the turtles go and provide information about migrations and long distance journeys.

The stingrays…poor stingrays… that have been sabotaged and removed by unknown persons for the last two years at least. The proof was in finding four tagged stingrays in the Dolphin Discovery tourist attraction. The owners will not release the remaining six rays. No one has explained how the rays got to this location. Our ray population has been reduced by almost 50% in the last two years. 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. We all agreed with that. 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 value of the last ten years worth of research by the GHOF and the Dept of Environment has provided the base line information about this population. It is because of the scientific record of population numbers that we have been able to track the decline and the subsequent revelation of four of these rays ending up at Dolphin Discovery in West Bay.

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 shoe 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. I presented Sir Richard with a DVD copy of Mystery of the Grouper Moon and a copy of This is Your Ocean; Sharks.

Sir Richard was very gracious and listened to many of our comments and suggestions, making notes. The meeting was much appreciated by all involved.

We at the GHOF look forward to collaborating with Sir Richard and his foundation on several projects.

We also look forward to the day when the airport in George Town Grand Cayman is expanded and to the arrival of Virgin Atlantic jets to our beautiful island.

It is our collective responsibility to conserve the marine environment and maintain the biodiversity of the planet.

Fish responsibly, dive safely. 
Guy Harvey PhD.

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