An urgent problem that we, the Caribbean conservation community, need to address is how best to allocate scarce resources to conservation initiatives directed at cays. Caribbean cays are both culturally and ecologically valuable, but are highly vulnerable to climate change, sea level rise, invasive species, and human uses, including recreational and residential development. In terms of climate change impacts and sea level rise, a few low-lying coralline and mangrove cays have already become partially or completely submerged such as one in the area of Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, monitored by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from 1991 until it’s submergence in 2004. Five species of seabirds and shorebirds that used the cay for breeding were affected and, in some cases, breeding populations of these species are no longer present in Puerto Rico. In addition to their importance for migratory and seabirds, cays provide important fisheries habitat for juvenile and adult species of commercial and ecological importance, including queen conch, Caribbean spiny lobster, groupers, and snappers. While some cays in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) are legally protected and fall under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth or Territory, enforcement of these protections is often poor. Other cays are private property and under development pressure due to their historic use for recreation and residential development. A few cays in Puerto Rico and USVI are federally-owned and managed as wildlife refuges or national parks/monuments. Whether publically or privately owned, construction of structures for recreational, residential, or commercial purposes is regulated by local and federal governmental organizations. Federal and local natural resources agencies also have regulatory authorities to protect terrestrial and marine resources associated with cays, including fisheries, migratory birds, seabirds, and threatened and endangered species. The maritime heritage of the U.S. Caribbean begins with the settlement of islands by waves of indigenous Amerindians from the Yucatan and South America. Over the next 240 years Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, France, the Knights of Malta, Denmark, and the United States had dominion over different islands and many artifacts and landscape changes associated with those histories are remnant on cays, such as Buck Island National Monument in St. Croix managed by the National Park Service (one of about fifty cays in the Virgin Islands alone). Beyond the historic cultural values, cays are immensely important today to recreational and artisanal fishermen as well as islanders and tourist for recreational opportunities.
Because of the complexity of cay ownership, laws and policies, and desirable uses of cays, it is imperative to develop a multi-partner vision for cay conservation. We propose to clearly identify why cays are important to conserve, that is clearly identify and agree upon the most important services and benefits that we obtain from cays, then through the scientific process determine how much, where, and how cays need to be conserved (in what type of conservation) to sustain the services and benefits that we collectively identify as critical. We propose that this information will eventually lead to a habitat blueprint consistent with the efforts of our partners and as a portion of our larger CLCC efforts (e.g. el CAMPO and SECAS). The purpose the Cays CAT is to develop a landscape scale framework based on shared values and objectives to guide multi-partner cay conservation in the US Caribbean.