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Cayman Islands Eel Attack Prods Government to Enact New Regulations; 'Wildlife Interaction Zones' Planned

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GEORGE TOWN, Grand Cayman -- In the wake of the most recent eel attack in the Stingray City area on October 25th, Director of the Department of Environment (DoE), Gina Petrie, said that amendments currently being made to the Marine Conservation Law would include provisions prohibiting the feeding of stingrays in the area.

However, neither she nor Hon Charles Clifford the Minister of Tourism commented directly on the injuries to the divemaster or the circumstances surrounding the latest attack when they were both questioned on the subject by the media at a briefing last Friday.

Talking about safety in general, they said there were ongoing efforts to make Stingray City and the Sandbar safe but the problems were simply becoming a feature of the numbers visiting the areas.

Ms Petrie said that part of the plan was to create, “Wildlife Interaction Zones.”

These would control the amount of food offered, the type of food used and who actually does the feeding.

The proposals are currently the subject of consultation with the Cayman Islands Tourist Association (CITA).

According to Ms Petrie there will also be provision to stop the stingrays being lifted out of the water but clearly people have now become accustomed to handling the stingrays. “When you handle wild animals there is a risk associated with that,” she said.

Ms Petrie said that no attempts were being made to cover things up at the Sandbar or the encompassing area but what actually happened on 11 October is still unclear.

The area commonly known as Stingray City comprises at least three different sites, which are referred to by different names depending on which tour or dive operator is running the trip.

It has been established however that the most recent attack took place in an area just off the Sandbar, often called Sting Ray City Deep or simply the reef. During ongoing enquiries about the incident Cayman Net News discovered that at least two operators have stopped visiting this particular site following a number of incidents in which both customers and staff were bitten by eels and others still visiting the site have banned staff from handling or feeding the eels.

In a letter published by the Caymanian Compass on 30 October 2006, Ronnie Anglin and Charles Marvin Ebanks Jr from Capt Marvin’s Watersports state that a full emergency response was initiated after the incident.

The letter goes on to say that there was no rescue boat in the area at the time and they had to make their own arrangements to bring the injured divemaster ashore.

However, when the Department of Environment (DoE) was contacted on 13 October in response to initial reports of the attack it was confirmed that DoE had a boat in the area, monitoring channel 16 for emergency calls and DoE stated that they were unaware of the incident.

DoE said that although this was not a rescue boat, the crew would give any assistance they could in an emergency. In addition enquiries made last week showed that there was no record of a 911 call in connection with the incident.

The letter also states that the divemaster, referred to simply as Chester, was not operating the boat alone. When DoE were contacted about the incident last week they were under the clear impression that Chester was the only crewmember present.

The Sheriff family states that the two daughters, aged 11 and 14, were both given squid to feed the eel, something the letter published by the Caymanian Compass fails to mention.

They say the attack happened when the eel appeared to come back for more food. It first approached Chester who pushed it away; he was then attacked. The family stated that, if necessary, they are prepared to make witness statements to the police about the incident; they are also in contact with another family who witnessed the attack.

Moreover, there are increasing word of mouth reports appearing on a number of international dive websites referring to eyewitness accounts of the incidents.

When the initial report was published, there was little information available about the injuries sustained by the divemaster. When contacted, Mr Anglin simply stated that the divemaster was, “doing fine.” However, there were other sources that stated that the injuries sustained were severe.

According to reports, the divemaster spent four days in hospital during which time he underwent two operations. One report goes on to say that doctors are still waiting to see if a third operation will be necessary and suggest that the attack may have resulted in permanent disability.

A DVD produced after a trip with Capt Marvin’s Watersports has also surfaced, showing a divemaster manhandling a five-foot-long nurse shark.

Although the practice is not illegal in the Cayman Islands and the nurse shark is regarded as a docile species, experts warn that if disturbed it may bite with a powerful vice-like grip capable of inflicting serious injury.

In some instances they say the jaws had to be released during surgery after the shark itself had been killed and warn that the frequency of bites has increased recently, probably as a result of feeding operations.

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