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Blacktip Island Marine Parks Launch Underwater Walking Trails

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Blacktip Island’s new underwater walking trails offer buoyancy-challenged divers the chance to see some of the Caribbean island’s most iconic underwater sights, such as the grotto at Jawfish Reef. (Photo courtesy of Val Schrader/Marine Parks)

The Tiperon Islands Marine Parks Department has teamed with Blacktip Island’s Skerritt Construction to build a network of underwater trails, aimed at reef conservation, around some of the island’s most popular dive sites. The first trail was officially opened Thursday afternoon.

“The coral on these dive sites is being destroyed by all the divers,” Marine Parks spokesperson Val Schrader said. “They grab coral. They kneel on coral. They stand on coral. They destroy hundreds of years of growth in an instant.

“We were told banning divers was off the table,” Schrader said. “Instead, these trails will give divers a place to stand and kneel and drag their gauges without killing anything. Think of them as pre-killed zones to protect the reef.”

The paths are laid out over sand and across stretches of dead and severely-damaged coral identified by Marine Parks personnel. Trail building was done by Skerritt Construction.

“We use coral-safe marine concrete, stuff that’s been in use since Roman times,” said Skerritt Construction owner Rich Skerritt. “The pointy-heads from Parks mark off where the path should go, and we go to town.

“It’s a Godsend for the island, really,” Skerritt said. “Topside’s about all paved over. We were having to lay people off.”

Local reaction was generally positive.

“I had a lovely dive just this morning,” Blacktip resident Edwin Chub said. “They put in benches so you can sit and ponder a single coral head.

“And when the current picked up, well, there’s also aluminum pegs to pull yourself along, or just hold yourself in place,” Chub said. “They really did think of everything.”

Others were not convinced.

“This sends entirely the wrong message – that it’s OK to touch the reef,” said Harry Picket, president of the Blacktip Island Pelagic Society. “Even on dead coral there’re still polyps trying to reestablish themselves. Most dive guests don’t know dead coral from live coral from their own butts.”

Local dive operators, though, hailed the trails’ potential.

“They’re perfect for Discover Scuba Diving students,” Eagle Ray Divers dive operations manager Ger Latner. “Our instructors can just drag the punters over the paved stretches and not worry so much about buoyancy. It’s good for the reef and divemaster blood pressure.

“We’re also offering hard-hat diving courses,” Latner said. “You can strap on a helmet and lead boots and walk the trails if you want. For an upcharge.”

Marine Parks officials say the trails also open more opportunities for visiting divers.

“We’re building shore entry sites near all the main underwater trails,” Schrader said. “We also have trail maps, and underwater rangers to make sure no one gets lost. Or strays off the trails and into the coral.”

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Fish ID Invitational Returns To Blacktip Island

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The discovery of a rare scratcher wrasse was the highlight of the last Blacktip Island Invitational Fish Identification Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Lonnie Huffman)

 

The Society to Protect Aquatic Wildlife Now’s 43rd Fish Identification Invitational Tournament returns to Blacktip Island this Saturday and Sunday after a two-year hiatus.

“We got blackballed three years ago after the culling fiasco,” island mayor Jack Cobia said. “No one told us an island-wide lionfish hunt was going on that same day.

“The counts were horrible, and five, six competitors got speared by over-aggressive cullers,” Cobia said. “There were reports of non-lionfish getting culled, too. SPAWN banned IDing here until we could get that situation under control.”

Tournament organizers are excited to be back on Blacktip.

“Blacktip Island’s one of the region’s premier competitive fish ID spots,” said SPAWN president Olive Beaugregory. “The marine parks ensure great species diversity, and the Central Caribbean Drift goes right past here, bringing nutrients and exotic species.

“We’ve found gassy basslets, jack blennys, even a scratcher wrasse here,” Beaugregory said. “We’ve been itching to bring this tournament back to these reefs, so long as we can do that safely.”

As ever, participation in the tournament is restricted to fish identifiers who have won or placed in previous regional tournaments this fish ID season.

Among the competitors are points leader Bess Porgy, defending champion Laika Sturgeon, and local IDing phenom Ginger Bass, who’s having a stand-out sophomore year in the pros.

“Competitive IDing’s a fish-eat-fish world,” Bass said. “Sure, Blacktip’s my home turf, but I’ll still have one eye on the fish and the other behind my back.”

Teams of two SPAWN-certified judges will accompany each competitor to verify findings and to deter the unsportsmanlike behavior that has crept into the sport recently.

“Used to be, you’d stick canned tuna in your competitor’s BCD pocket, or rub them down with squid juice,” Beaugregory said. “Then last year in Belize it escalated to clipping mini chumsicles on your competitors to draw sharks. This year our people will make sure nothing fishy happens.

“Two judges per IDer means one can come up to swap out an air tank while the other keeps watch,” Beaugregory said. “And we’ll be patting down all the divers each morning, whether they like it or not. Most do.”

The tournament winner will receive the coveted Golden Coney trophy, $1,000 and a 10-point bump league standings.

Other tournament-related activities include a fish fry, and underwater chili cook off, a children’s Go Fish card tournament and free screenings of the 1960s Hollywood classics “Hello Down There” and “The Incredible Mr. Limpet.”

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Divers Scared By Blacktip Island Scuba Mafia

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Scuba divers on Blacktip Island say they’ve been forced to pay extra to safely look at the Caribbean Island’s underwater creatures, such as these reef squid.

 

Blacktip Island authorities announced Thursday they are looking into allegations of an organized crime syndicate targeting scuba divers and the Caribbean island’s dive operations.

Local investigators say a loosely-organized group is extorting money from dive operators and independent divers in exchange for safety while scuba diving.

“Call them ‘wise guys’ or ‘gooddivers’ or whatever, a shakedown’s a shakedown,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “Divers are being forced to buy bogus Marine Parks tags, and someone topside’s been chumming for sharks around divers who don’t pay.

Frightened scuba divers recounted a recent encounter.

“We didn’t buy that silly tag,” said Sheena Goode, a guest at Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort. “In the water, these big, bulky guys in all-black dive gear came out of nowhere. One shut off my air. Another one cut my husband’s octo hose.”

Locals say the problem has existed for months, but divers have been afraid to report it.

“Everybody knows it’s Cal Amari’s behind it all,” said a long-time resident, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He works out of The Last Ballyhoo bar down on the south end. Cal’s got his tentacles in every scuba racket on the island, from cut-rate nitrox to fake dive certs, and he’s hell to cross.

“Last week a shore diver got beat something fierce,” the source said. “Cracked the guy’s kneecaps. He’ll never scull-kick again. And the Blacktip Haven dive boat burned one night after Elena Havens refused to pay for protection.”

Island entrepreneur and restaurateur Amari dismissed the stories.

“Scuba’s risky. People get hurt,” Amari said. “I’m a respectable businessman concerned with the island’s economy. Dive staffs are stretched thin. The worry’s a dive accident could kill Blacktip’s tourism product.

“Do I have people in the water following divers? Sure. For safety,” Amari said. “My guys make sure people stay healthy. These mooks should be thanking us.”

The island’s dive professionals, meanwhile, denied any wrongdoing.

“No, the dive tags aren’t required, but divers love to collect those geegaws,” Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort dive manager Whitey Bottoms said. “Nothing illegal there. Our guests come up smiling. That’s our bottom line.”

Amari shrugged off allegations both he and the island’s resorts have unfairly benefitted from his actions.

“We do business with people who do business with us,” Amari said. “If Sandy’s cash is flowing better lately, good for him. But it’s pure coincidence, not cause and effect.”

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Blacktip Island Fisherman Militia Seizes Marine Park

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Blacktip Island fisherman militia members set out Thursday morning to reinforce their Blacktip Underwater Marine Park blockade.

 

An anti-government fisherman militia Wednesday seized Blacktip Island’s world-renowned Blacktip Underwater Marine Park, demanding scuba diving there be banned and the mooring sites returned to local fishermen.

Militia members armed with pole spears, hand lines and fishing poles tied skiffs to all mooring balls off the coast and blocked shore access to the park.

The action is the latest in a series of fisherman versus scuba diver confrontations on the small Caribbean island.

“The government had no right to set this stretch of coast aside for foreigners. No right to outlaw fishing,” local fisherman Dermott Bottoms said. “This is generations of resentment finally boiling over.

“We’re a democracy, you know, and no one voted on the park, or was even asked about it,” Bottoms said. “This is our vote to ban divers. It’s our water. We’re taking it back.”

The action has divided families in the small community.

“Scuba tourism’s our only industry,” said Sandy Bottoms, owner of Sandy Bottoms Beach Resort and Dermott Bottoms’ cousin. “With the park shut down, there’s no reason for divers to come here. This’s killing us. I got payroll to meet, mouths to feed, a swimming pool to pay for.

“Dermott and his buddies waving gaff hooks at people doesn’t help, either,” Sandy Bottoms said. “They can say those spears are for defense all they want, but our guests are intimidated.”

The protestors defended their right to carry fishing implements.

“These are legal pole spears,” Dermott Bottoms said. “Gaff hooks, too. Some divers get scared, that’s their doing, not ours. I’ll give up my fishing pole when they pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Visiting scuba divers are angry at not being able to dive in the park.

“I don’t give a wrasse’s ass what these yahoos are protesting,” Eagle Ray Divers guest Leah Shore said. “I paid a ton on money to come here and look at fish, and by God, that’s what I mean to do.”

Violence was averted Thursday afternoon when island authorities stopped a group of divers wielding tank bangers from storming the militia’s lines.

“We nipped this one before things got ugly,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “Bussed the divers over to the east side and told them that was a marine park, too.

“We’ve hesitated to confront militia members for fear of things escalating,” Marquette said. “If we try to force the fishermen out, a peaceful situation could turn violent. Also, there’s about 35 of them and only one of me.”

Militia members, meanwhile, vow they won’t leave anytime soon.

“Happiness is a warm hand line spool,” Bottoms said. “‘Specially when you whack it upside some bureaucrat’s pointy head.”

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Blacktip Island Fishermen, Environmentalists Create Fish-Kill Zones

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If the planned fish-kill zones are approved, large stretches of Blacktip Island’s coast such as Spider Bight will be off-limits to scuba divers.


Blacktip Island’s fishermen and environmentalists this week formed an unlikely coalition aimed at safeguarding the Caribbean island’s critically-threatened Tiperon skunk bass population.

The skunk bass, the Tiperon Islands’ national fish, has become rare on island reefs due to overfishing and habitat destruction. The plan calls for the creation of no-dive zones where only fishing would be allowed.

“First we thought the bass’d stopped biting,” said fishing advocate Clete Horn. “Then we realized the bass left about the time the scuba diving industry took off. Divers come here from all over the world. They scare the fish and damage the coral.

“If there’s diving-only marine parks on the island, there should be fishing-only parks, too,” Horn said. “Get rid of the divers, the fish’ll come back. Then we can kill bass like we used to. And teach our kids how, so they can teach their kids.”

Many Blacktip residents were surprised when local environmentalists backed the concept.

“We can’t stop overfishing, so the hope is we can limit it to certain areas,” environmental activist Harry Pickett said. “It’s a compromise, but without the fishermen’s support, no conservation plan’s going to work.

“The theory’s if all the skunk bass are removed from one area, it’ll create a vacuum,” Pickett said. “Fish from other areas will move in to fill that void and encourage increased spawning in the protected areas. Sure, a lot of bass will be killed, but this way at least some of them have a chance.”

The Department of Fisheries officials, though skeptical, also back the plan.

“Skunk bass have zero protection now,” Fisheries spokesperson Reg Gurnard said. “Some protection’s better than no protection, right?

“Will it piss off some divers? Yeah. But it won’t keep them away. And it’s not like Clete and his buddies could ever fish the reefs clean.”

The plan has met stiff opposition among island entrepreneurs.

“Banning divers’ll kill our business,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “And divers won’t come here is there’s no fish to look at. If the dive industry goes under, what passes for an economy on Blacktip will go under, too.”

Fishermen are not swayed.

“These are Blacktip Island fish. They’re family,” said local angler Antonio Fletcher. “We know what’s best for them. Foreigners are welcome to come look at them, but not if it spoils our fishing.

“We’re fighting for our heritage,” Fletcher said. “We got to save these skunk bass from foreign influences so we can kill them. The fish, not the foreign influences.”

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Mutant Crabs Protect Blacktip Island’s Reefs

Genetically-modified channel crabs, escapees from Cuban biological labs, are now protecting Blacktip Island’s marine parks.

Genetically-modified channel crabs, escapees from Cuban biological labs, are now protecting Blacktip Island’s marine parks.

The Tiperon Island Marine Parks Department Friday confirmed reports it is using laboratory-bred channel crabs to protect Blacktip Island’s dive sites against scuba diver-related damage, tasking the crustaceans with pinching divers who come in contact with the Caribbean island’s fragile reefs.

The crabs, larger and more aggressive than wild channel crabs, are a byproduct of the genetic research of famed Cuban geneticist Pellizco de Cangrejo, Tiperon University-Blacktip biology professor Ernesto Mojarra said.

“It’s a gene-splicing experiment gone horribly wrong,” Mojarra said. “Instead of big, tasty crabs, they ended up with big, mean ones. Then the crabs broke out of the lab and took over the reefs. For a short time they controlled significant portions of Old Havana.

“Trade winds and currents carried some of them to Blacktip Island’s reefs, where they’ve become intractable.”

“These suckers are nasty,” said marine parks spokesperson Val Schrader said. “They’ll defend their territory to the death. We’re lucky we’ve been able to recruit them to our side.

“Scuba tourism’s our life’s blood, but reef-crashing divers are fast destroying that,” Schrader said. “We have to take action. One touch from a careless diver can kill an entire coral head. We’re strapped for cash, or we’d hire more officers. With these crabs onboard, well, it’s win-win. The reefs are safe, and we don’t have to pay wages or benefits.”

Local reaction to the news has been positive.

“We’ve had the crabs for years,” Club Scuba Doo dive operations manager Finn Kiick said. “They’re more of a nuisance than anything. We can’t get rid of them, so we might as well embrace them.”

“Recreational divers have to learn: you touch coral, you pay the price,” Blacktip Haven owner Elena Havens said. “You think a stingray hickey’s bad? Wait ‘til you get a Cuban crab pinch.”

Scuba diving visitors, however, are furious.

“These monsters have been leaving us bruised and bloody for years,” longtime Blacktip Island dive guest Buddy Brunnez said. “Now, to find the government’s sponsored it? It’s like a bad horror movie. Trip Advisor’s getting some scathing reviews about this. We pay good money to dive here. We can touch anything we want.”

Meanwhile, island dive shops are making the most of the situation.

“We’re selling Peak Performance Buoyancy courses like hotcakes,” Eagle Ray Divers operations manager Ger Latner said. “It’s amazing how motivating a 450 foot-pound pinch in the shorts can be. Our Crab Diving specialty courses are jam packed, too.”

Marine Parks officials would not confirm rumors of other marine life being trained to safeguard the island’s reefs.

“Moray eels chomp divers all the time,” Schrader said. “And it’s not uncommon for pike blennies to take a chunk of flesh from a diver who strays too close. That’s just coincidence. Reef life protecting itself.”

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Blacktip’s Dirt Roads To Be Striped For Safety

Public Works crews have begun painting lane lines on both Blacktip Island’s unpaved roads.

Public Works crews have begun painting lane lines on both the Caribbean island’s unpaved roads.

In a controversial move that has angered many island residents, the Tiperon Islands Public Works Department has begun painting center lines on both the Caribbean island’s roads.

“This is a matter of public safety,” Public Works director Dusty Rhodes said. “We have what, maybe 24 miles of road on Blacktip? Just because they’re not paved doesn’t mean they don’t need stripes.”

Island residents disagreed.

“It’s a waste of time and money,” long-time resident Payne Hanover said. “There’s, what, a dozen cars on the island? They’ve managed to dodge each other so far without center stripes.

“And these are dirt roads. Drive over the paint a couple times, they’ll be gone. Hell, a good, heavy rain’ll wash them away. What happens to public safety then?”

Local authorities could not immediately verify the hazard posed by the island’s current, stripeless roads.

“Vehicles do cross the center of the road all the time,” Island Police Constable Rafe Marquette said. “Don’t know that causes many accidents, though. Unless they cross the road and keep going.

“Most auto accidents on Blacktip are single-vehicle affairs, with the vehicles ending up in the sea grapes or the booby ponds.”

Despite the controversy, some locals support the plan.

“Not striping these roadways resigns our island to Third-World status,” said Stoney MacAdam, owner of MacAdam Paving. “Blacktip Island’s as much a part of the 21st Century as any place else. Do the roads have center lines in your country? Then why shouldn’t the roads here have center lines?”

“It’s Colonialism, pure and simple,” Public Works’ Rhodes said. “Expats move here and want to keep this island a backwater. Well too bad. This striping project’s already creating local jobs. Will the rain wash the stripes away? Sure. And when it does, we have the workforce in place to repaint them. No one complains about us replacing downed power lines after a hurricane do they?”

Other residents voiced concern about the impact the project will have on the island’s fragile environment.

“That paint’s highly toxic. And this is the rainy season,” said Blacktip Audubon Society president Nelson Seagroves. “That means potentially repainting the roads every day. That’s a boatload of paint killing our reefs and marine parks. Killing our birds. Contaminating our water supply.”

“A project this size, you have to expect a few loses,” Rhodes countered. “These folks are a bunch of nervous Nellies who don’t know what’s good for them. They’ll thank us soon enough.”

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