A large area of coral reef that will be destroyed to make way for new cruise piers in George Town should be “relocated,” an Environmental Impact Assessment on the multimillion-dollar port construction project recommends.
The report calls for coral to be moved to mitigate the economic and environmental damage caused to reefs in and around the harbor. It cautions that this would mean significant effort and cost – in excess of $13 million – without any guarantee of success.
The Balboa shipwreck will be lost and neighboring reefs, including the spectacular Devil’s Grotto caverns off Eden Rock, a magnet for divers and underwater photographers, and the wreck of the Cali, will be impacted by “lethal and sub-lethal sedimentation levels” caused by dredging the harbor.
The total damage to marine resources would cost the country between $100 million and $165 million over 20 years, principally from tourist spending on recreation and watersport activities in the harbor, the report estimates.
It says this would be offset partially by diversion of tourists to other attractions and the larger economic benefit of the project. An earlier report estimated the piers would bring nearly 1,000 jobs and inject $250 million into the Cayman Islands economy over 20 years through increased cruise tourism.
Coral relocation projects have been attempted in other areas, including Jamaica’s cruise port at Falmouth. The impacted area in Grand Cayman spans 15 acres, with the same size area impacted by sedimentation from dredging.
The report, prepared by consultants Baird and Associates based on a year of research, dismisses concerns that Seven Mile Beach could be affected by sedimentation and suggests increased wave impact in George Town would be minimal.
The proposed project includes two piers providing berths for four cruise ships, including two Oasis class ships. The project will not eliminate the need for some ships to tender, on days when there are more than four vessels in port. The report estimates a construction period of around three years.
Some of the dredged material will be used to create a 7.7-acre piece of reclaimed land for shoreside facilities, potentially including shops, restaurants and administrative buildings.
The rest of the dredged material would either be dumped at sea or processed on land to be sold as fill for construction projects, though the report notes that this would be a complex process.
The report suggests that the port will bring a net increase in cruise passengers but no overall improvement in disembarkation rates, compared with the current tendering process.
“The estimated peak disembarkation rate with four cruise ships at berth is 5,500 – 6,500 passengers per hour; this is similar to the capacity of the existing tender operation,” it notes.
The principal environmental and economic concern highlighted by the report is the loss of reef in the harbor.
“The development of the proposed project will have significant negative impacts on the marine ecology within George Town Harbour, in particular the coral reefs and associated habitat surrounding the project site.
“In general, these impacts are directly related to the areal extent of the project and the volume of dredging, and the operation of large cruise ships in the nearshore area.
“Key ecological impacts would include coral destruction, habitat fragmentation and reduced biodiversity development of the proposed project that would result in socioeconomic impacts associated with the loss of marine ecosystem goods and services.”
The feasibility and cost of relocating coral reefs and the Balboa wreck would need to be investigated in detail by environment officials and government, the report states.
“If the project proceeds, it is recommended that a significant coral relocation program be designed and implemented. The overall objective of the coral relocation program would be to mitigate/compensate for habitat destruction caused by the project.”
But it warns, “A coral relocation program will not achieve ‘no net loss,’ and success is not guaranteed.”
A public meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Mary Miller Hall in Red Bay to officially present the report, which can be viewed now at www.doe.ky.