Heriot-Watt scientists to assess Cayman Islands’ deep water fish and habitats

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Caribbean reef shark, Diego Camejo for Beneath the Waves
Caribbean reef shark, Diego Camejo for Beneath the Waves

Heriot-Watt scientists will spend the next two years finding out exactly what lies beneath the Cayman Islands’ deeper waters. 

Marine scientists from Heriot-Watt’s Institute of Life and Earth Sciences (ILES) and Marine Conservation International will work with partners from the Cayman Islands Department of Environment (DoE) and non-profit organisation Beneath the Waves. 

Over two years, the team will assess sites offshore from the Cayman Islands, undertaking surveys up to 2000 m deep. 

The work will focus on threatened and commercial fish species, including sharks, and map the distribution of deep-water coral and other biotopes. 

It has been funded by the UK government through its Darwin Initiative. 

Professor Teresa Fernandes, head of ILES, said: “The Cayman Islands lie next to a deep ocean trench, but relatively little is known of its marine life below 50 metres. 

“We will find out which fish and invertebrates are down there, their food sources, their habitats, how they are all connected and whether these habitats have been damaged."

Tim Austin, deputy director of the DOE said: “Our findings will be important for the Cayman Islands Government, but also for the Caribbean region as a whole.” 

Professor Mauvis Gore and team from Heriot-Watt will be in the field from November 2021. Gore has been working with the DOE since 2009 on protecting Cayman’s marine habitats, and is also co-director of Marine Conservation International. 

Prof. Gore said: “We’ll be out in the field four times over two years, in different seasons. 

“The data we collect will provide information on the deep sea life and the habitat that they need. 

“Deep waters around the world remain a bit of a mystery. The better we understand them, the better we can protect them.” 

BTW, the US-based non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting ocean health, is highly trained in the use of deep-sea imaging technology and video surveys. It has experience in undertaking similar work across the Caribbean, and will support the project with skills and gear for sampling and performing environmental DNA analyses.

Dr. Austin Gallagher, project co-lead and chief scientist at Beneath the Waves, first recognised the need for surveying Cayman waters for deep-water elasmobranchs after identifying a scientific knowledge-gap in the region. “Three very deep-water sharks have been recorded in the Cayman Trench during prior oceanographic work, but no other information is available. 

“We need more data, and this project is designed to not only gather the scientific evidence needed to support future species protections, but also to understand these critical deep-sea habitats and resources.” 

The project will provide the Cayman Islands Government with data and information that can be used to create legislation around deep-sea activities like mining and fishing and enhance the island’s sustainability. 

Keep up to date with the project on our organisations’ websites.

Heriot-Watt University: https://cmbb.hw.ac.uk/

Beneath the Waves: https://beneaththewaves.org/

Cayman Islands Department of Environment: https://doe.ky/

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