Characterisation and monitoring of one of the world's most valuable ecotourism animals, the southern stingray at Stingray City, Grand Cayman

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Southern stingrays (Hypanus americanus) represent a multimillion dollar ecotourism operation in Grand Cayman, interacting with over a million visitors annually. Over 30 years of stingray provisioning by tour operators has provided a predictable aggregation at the Stingray City Sandbar (SCS). Despite potentially negative effects of provisioning and concerns about declining stingray numbers at SCS, there has never been a formal assessment of the aggregation. In the present study we analysed tagging data from 2002 to 2015 and established structured censuses monitoring the aggregation. The consistently female-dominated aggregation declined between 2008 and 2012, from >100 to <60 stingrays, but has increased since 2012, stabilising at ∼90 stingrays. Female site fidelity was high, with ∼20% of females resident for ≥10 years, compared with only 3 years for most males. Stingrays were also found to have growth rates similar to those in captivity. The results of the present study suggest the SCS aggregation is highly dependent on individuals arriving from the island-wide stingray population, susceptible to perturbation, and that successful management of activities at SCS will benefit from regular monitoring of the stingray aggregation. We chronicle the historical status of this well-known and economically valuable marine resource and provide suggestions applicable towards sustainable human-marine wildlife interactions for similar resources.

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Marine and Freshwater Research