After sailing steadily up the Exuma Cays chain, we have made it to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park! This no take marine reserve has been protected since 1986 years and is known as the oldest Park of its kind in the world. Diving and snorkeling here is like going back in time. The marine life is truly amazing and unlike anything you might see throughout the rest of the Caribbean. A few of us took a quick snorkel yesterday and immediately noticed the difference. Quite simply, there are a lot more fish. There are a lot more different species of fish. The fish are bigger and they seem uninterested in your presence. They continue with their daily fish lives, displaying typical fish behaviors as you watch (as opposed to diving for cover as soon as you get too close). On our snorkel we saw a large coral head with 10 lobsters hiding beneath it. We saw juvenile and roller conchs. We saw large predatory fish and lots of big parrotfish grazing away. It really is a special place.
Scientists have been documenting the uniqueness of such a well-preserved ecosystem and the benefits it can have for fisheries conservation for many years. Scientific studies have shown that Nassau grouper biomass (a measure that captures both the number and size of a particular organism) inside the Park is much greater than outside of the Park, and that rates of parrotfish grazing (an important ecological process that keeps reefs healthy) are much higher in the Park (Mumby et al. 2006). Recently, scientists have found that in the Park there are fewer lionfish (an invasive species) on reefs where there is high grouper biomass. In places outside of the Park where grouper populations have been depleted, there are more lionfish, so it seems having more large grouper may help control this invasive species (Mumby et al. 2011). About 20 years ago, Dr. Allan Stoner and colleagues found that the density of conch (the number of individuals per area) in the Park is 31 times greater than densities on the fishing grounds around Lee Stocking Island (Stoner and Ray 1996). And that is, of course, why we are here today; to determine if those conch densities are still really high here in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
On our way here, we stopped by the settlements of Little Farmers Cay and Black Point to talk to fishermen about their experiences in our study areas. We had a good conversation with fishermen on Little Farmers Cay about the conching grounds around Lee Stocking, and enjoyed a delicious conch dinner from one of the local take-away restaurants. At Black Point I was able to make some good contacts for a future meeting with the fishermen there. People found it very amusing that we were headed to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park to count conch. They told me we were going to get tired of counting conch because there are SO MANY in the Park! They also warned us that we might see sharks…I told them I hoped so!
Until next time…