Premier McKeeva Bush has said the creation of a channel in the North Sound will help Cayman take advantage of its booming yacht registry and also attract mega yachts.

At the moment, there is a limited native yachting industry in contrast with other islands such as Anguila, which is known for its sailing facilities and history.

The channel would be dredged close to the head of Barkers and subsequently meet with current cuts. Two islands would also be created as part of the process, revealed Bush.

However, opposition leader Alden McLaughlin called the announcement ‘alarming’ and said there is a definite need for environmental research prior to proceeding with any project. Bush noted that the entire project will be contingent on an environmental impact study.

Bringing the yachts

One of the issues that Cayman has is in attracting the yachting dollar is that of its geographical location. In contrast to the Eastern Caribbean, there are few harbours in the vicinity, making it more difficult for inter-island sailing trips.

Steve Pavlidis, cruising and sailing expert, has written several books on the subject and told the Observer On Sunday that Cayman is a fantastic location with great diving and good facilities.

“I think the primary reason that you do not get more mega yacht traffic is that your Islands are somewhat off the beaten path. Vessels heading to and from the Northwest Caribbean should certainly stop at the Caymans, the Islands are perfect in that regard (primarily Grand Cayman as Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are not conducive to mega yacht traffic due to a lack of protected deep-water harbours).

“But as a destination themselves, I think you will need to create a campaign to draw more visitors to the Cayman Islands by small boat as things now stand – perhaps you could offer great deals on slip rentals for winter months,” he said.

Stephen Broadbelt, an ex-president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, said that during his tenure at the helm of the private sector lobbying group a North Sound channel was investigated.

“I spoke with a couple of experts in the field and some mega yacht captains and asked them why they didn’t come here and what did they need. Some of the feedback was logistical and service-related. None of them said the North Sound needed to be dredged; issues that were more important to them were cost of fuel, supplies and mega yacht-focused facilities.

“The depth of the channels is another thing; all the numbers I heard was that they don’t need that much depth. Mega-yachts are rarely over 11 or 12 feet draught and the biggest problem in North Sound is that the main channel has filled in over the years. Putting that channel back as it was would open up access to 75 per cent of vessels that come here anyway let alone dredging a massive, deep channel. To reinstate it to what it was before Hurricane Ivan was the extent of what was recommended,” said Broadbelt.

The length of the channel has not been finalised, but Bush said it may go toward the airport, which would mean it would enable boats to dock at the Barcadere Marina, which is being built.

Neville Scott said there were issues raised by the current situation.

“Anywhere other than Cayman you will find facilities for transient yachters and the irony is that Cayman was one of the Caribbean’s most prominent seafaring nations. Historically-speaking Cayman was a point on someone’s itinerary; from when Columbus spotted it people would use it to verify their position and replenish their supplies… fast forward a few hundred years and there is a huge, huge international market for transient and charter vessels and they are literally passing us by because we don’t have the facilities,” said Scott.

He added that the rewards from bringing visiting yachters would spread to the retail, tourism and boating industry and that the rewards economically would far outweigh the pressure on infrastructure.

According to Pavildis, the Cayman Islands could be sailing into a future of opportunity as far as yachting is concerned and there is one large reason just to the north of the Islands.

“If the American government will ever permit US flagged vessels and US citizens to visit Cuba, the Cayman Islands will see a tremendous growth in US, flagged, small boat traffic as American cruising boats will circumnavigate Cuba with side trips to the Cayman Islands, which have suddenly become more than just a stopover from Jamaica to the north west Caribbean for all but the few European boats who are currently exploring Cuba.

“During my stays on Grand Cayman I noticed only a few European boats and even fewer US flagged boats. Most came for the diving, a few arrived to discover the Cayman Islands as a side trip from their Cuba explorations,” he said.

Environmental impact assessment

From the first announcement, the Premier has been at pains to point out that the project would be driven by environmental issues and he also noted that over the years the North Sound had lost a lot of its clarity.

“As you look today, you see from the air if you watch the boats, they constantly dig up. The boats have grown much bigger than when I was growing up because you either paddled or you had a small outboard motor. Now the boats have gone to 40, 60 feet long and are constantly digging up the bottom so we are losing the clarity of the water,” he said.

Bush added that it would be necessary for boats to traverse certain special channels, which would introduce regulation to what is something of a free for all, that also includes indiscriminate pumping out of sewage.

McLaughlin said people around the watersports and marine environments had said the potential was that the channel would be filled up with sand from the sandbar.

“You really have to be very careful when you disturb the established balance and that’s why you need very careful impact studies, because North Sound is quite shallow.”

Gina Ebanks-Petrie of the Department of the Environment explained that as well as what is traditionally understood as an environmental impact assessment, this also covers the broader notion of whether a project is viable.

“Most environmental impact assessments address the question of need for a project; prior to assessments being carried out many countries carry out a strategic environmental assessment, which is more at the level of policy and feasibility. So you look at the viability of a project and if it’s something you are seriously considering, then you do the more refined environmental assessment, which identifies all the impacts, whether they be on the natural environment and also socio-economic issues.

“It wouldn’t necessarily be constrained to just looking at the impact on the sea grass beds or the coral reefs, which it would of course consider, but what would be the impact on some of the stakeholders who use the North Sound currently; watersports operators that dive the fringing reefs, boat trips to the sandbar and deep Stingray City and the public, which is a huge stakeholder in North Sound. Definitely an environmental impact assessment needs to be carried out that looks at the objectives of the project and whether there are any alternatives,” she said.

There is no legislation that would automatically trigger an Environmental Impact Assessment for a project of this nature, although it is embedded in the National Conservation, Law which is yet to be passed by the legislature.

Seagrass and Stingrays

Researcher Savanna Barry of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute explained that seagrass provid

es one of the most valuable ecosystem services. As foundation species, they allow for other species to thrive. Seagrass meadows also absorb carbon dioxide.

“Seagrass canopies act as a buffer against the erosive force of wave energy and thus are thought to help retain sand locally, especially during storm events or large tides,” said Barry, who added that the grass also plays part in a calcification process that actually creates sand.

Effects of a channel are difficult to measure without further information and it is not certain that drastic changes would be observed.

“It would be possible for ecological modellers equipped with spatial information and survey data of the seagrass meadow in question to make educated guesses about the changes that would occur in the hydrodynamics of the area and how seagrasses would respond.

“If a channel were to be created, strict laws about boat traffic outside of the channel would be a must in my opinion because degradation of shallow seagrasses by boat propellers can be significant. Also, the conch and lobster living in the seagrass and inner fringing reef may be more vulnerable if boat access is granted to a previously inaccessible area,” said the researcher.

Dr. Bradley Wetherbee of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Rhode Island has studied habits of the Southern Stingrays in the North Sound during the last decade. He observed that the Stingray City site is one of the most popular fish interaction sites in the world.

“If I was somebody taking people out to Stingray City all the time I would be a little worried. Maybe [the channel] is going to be far enough away that it won’t have much of an impact, but you never know when you start dredging, destroying coral and producing sediments and things like that.”

While the area is not pristine, said Wetherbee, it is not overfished and is not being destroyed, so the habitat remains suitable for the stingray population.

“Within a couple of miles of where there is talk about dredging is a multi-million dollar industry that is dependent on environment quality… there are only 150, 170 stingrays so each one is worth a lot of money.”

Stingrays are somewhat flexible in terms of their behaviour, which has been observed with their migration from the initial Stingray City in the deeper area to the sandbar, which was considered a better place for the rays to gather as its shallowness enables snorkelling or simply standing in the water.

“They consciously moved it over to the sandbar and since that happened there’s been a hurricane, there’s been storms and times when people couldn’t go out there and feed them for a month at least. But they seem pretty persistent and conditioned in their behaviour so I am sure they would adapt. I am sure the sandbar has moved around… it’s a reference point of where they have to go. If a restaurant moves they put up a sign saying so and if it’s your favourite, you are still going to go [to the new location].”
Indeed, one specific habit of Cayman’s Southern Stingrays has already been entirely reversed; by nature, the fish is nocturnal but the learned behaviour has been to become active in the daytime, or diurnal, due to the Stingray City phenomenon. Although the creatures seem to be adaptable, if the balance of the North Sound ecosystem is disturbed, there may be unforseen effects.

“The concern is if it alters the number of stingrays. There are things that affect populations that you don’t even think about; siltation, the introduction of a parasite or disease, change in the flow or build-up of nitrogen. There’s a lot of factors and usually we’re not very good at figuring them out ahead of time – but we see them afterwards.

“The Cayman Islands recognise the value of having a nice environment; there are a lot of divers, fishermen, tourists at the beach… all this has to be a balance between development and putting infrastructure in place to accommodate more people and balancing with any kind of destruction or disruption, especially when it involves so much money as Stingray City.”

A group of captains and workers have mobilised since the announcement of the project; the Save Cayman group, led by spokesman Captain Bryan Ebanks, avowed its opposition to the project and said it will be circulating petitions to the population and ultimately the government. Save Cayman has met with environmental experts to ascertain some of the studies that have previously been made on dredging the North Sound and other factors that may come into the discussion.

“It is not an issue of the North Sound; it is an issue that will effect the lives of [all]. We’re concerned about crime, well imagine all these people out of a job… if I’m rendered in a position where I’ve lost my job, my children are going to eat. I will guarantee you that.

“So I am saying to people this is not one issue we’re dealing with here. This is a serious problem. It’s like the effect of falling dominoes. We have to go out there and educate people so that they will represent themselves and stand up and realise that they are at risk. And we can’t fail. Failing is not an option,” said Captain Bryan.

Historical studies

A report that has been cited on the subject has been the Wickstead Report, published in 1976. It was invoked in the Legislative Assembly on 26 February, 1996, with the Ho

use considering an intercostal waterway channel to link all canal developments between Batabano and Omega Bay.

In section B, Part IV of the report, Wickstead recommended that five metres would ‘be the maximum depth below sea level to which dredging may go in, in either the Sound or Black Mangrove region’

. The report as quoted by Truman H. Bodden further noted that ‘residential canals can be biologically productive, recreationally valuable and assets to housing developments.’ Later, on page R.10 of the Wickstead report, the writer was at pains to stress that ‘the general shallowness of North Sound… does not require a large or very powerful boat to disturb the bottom with its propeller.’

On 31 March, 2010, the Central Planning Committee also convened to consider a variety of applications. A particular one sought to deepen an existing canal basin to between 6 and 15 feet below sea level.

On that occasion, the Department of the Environment noted that depth within a canal system influenced water quality and that evidence had been documented for decades.

“In the 1976 Wickstead Report it firmly stated that in order to minimise the risk of environmental degradation both within excavated canal systems and to the surrounding water bodies connected to them, depths of excavation should be kept to the minimum required but should not exceed 9 feet.”

Professor Harry H. Roberts of the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University, who studied the North Sound in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, said the average depth of North Sound was 7 to 8 feet and that dredging to any significant depth would affect circulation.

“It would have to be looked at in detail before anyone would know but it has the potential to change the circulation and the wave state along the shore lines.

“There used to be a circulation cell in the South of the Sound where things would be trapped and could remain in the sound, which means if you have a channel and are allowing reasonably big ships to get in there, bilge water and the normal things that are pumped out of ships would be trapped in that southern part of the sound. I doubt if a channel would change that basic circulation pattern.”

That circulation pattern could be trapping pollutants and the traffic down the channel may produce more unwanted pollutants that may not be flushed easily from the Sound. A channel could change the wave state along the north west shoreline and allow larger waves through to impact the shore as well as move fine sediment which could be recombined into the water column. Predicting where the sediment will settle is dependent on accurate information, he said.

“Whether that would be a negative impact or a positive impact would have to be modelled but without question there would be changes. Someone who is skilled at numerical modelling needs to model circulation and the increased input of wave energy into the system, in association with the shoreline and the general circulation of the Sound itself.”

According to a 2010 report by the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure, entitled Dredging and Port Construction around Coral Reefs, key impacts on dredging and port construction near reefs include direct loss of coral reef caused by the removal or burial of reefs; lethal or sub-lethal stress to corals caused by elevated turbidity and sedimentation rates; long-term changes in flushing and/or erosion/sedimentation patterns due to current changes. Impacts may be immediate or long term and may be temporary or permanent in nature, read the report.

The document also advised that timing of the works is also critical for short term projects that last less than a year. For longer projects, appropriate scheduling of components of the work that are assessed to constitute the greatest environmental risk was also recommended. In the case of the North Sound, this may be during November to March because of generally calmer weather including less wave energy meaning less bottom disturbance.

Premier’s statement

In a letter to our sister publication, The Caymanian Compass, Premier Bush said the channel would not disturb the sea bottom and would improve the underwater environment because of the cooling effect of deeper water.

The channel would use a present channel by Barkers Key, which was already 200 feet wide and 16 feet deep. The proposed North Sound channel would not be more than 20 feet deep and more than two miles from the sandbar so popular with tourists.

“As part of our evaluation process, the immediate plan is to commission a comprehensive environmental impact study. Such a study will include the methodology that will be utilised in the project. The study will be conduct by one the world’s top marine scientist,” said the Premier’s statement.

By deadline time there had been no further information on the proposed two islands Bush spoke of creating in the area, their size, location or usage.