Plans for new cruise piers in George Town harbor met with strong opposition Tuesday as consultants laid out the environmental cost to coral reefs and the potential economic damage to the dive industry.
Around 200 people turned out at the meeting at Mary Miller Hall, Red Bay, to hear a presentation from Baird Consulting, marine engineers, on the environmental impacts of the proposal.
The majority voiced opposition to the plans, which will involve the destruction of 15 acres of reef, the loss of the historic Balboa shipwreck, and sediment impact on a large section of adjacent reefs.
“What I am seeing is a death sentence for huge areas of reef on the west side of the island,” said Sunset House owner Adrien Briggs, one of several dive industry leaders to voice opposition to the proposal.
Underwater photographer Courtney Platt said the project would severely impact snorkeling and glass-bottom boat tours, particularly on Soto’s Reef, which he said was the best shallow water site on the island.
“There is no alternative site. If we lose that 10,000-year-old reef structure we have lost something truly special as a tourism product for the very cruise passengers we are talking about.
“To me that is not worth the potential, relatively small increase in economy. When you weigh all the negatives you have just shown us … it doesn’t add up to me.”
The consultants estimate that damage to marine resources would cost the country between $100 million and $165 million over 20 years, principally from direct tourist spending on recreation and water sports activities in the harbor. A separate report has estimated a potential wider economic benefit of around $250 million over the same period, assuming the new berthing facility results in a 1 percent annual increase in cruise tourism.
Dave Anglin, of Baird Consulting, said, “I am not here to promote this project by any stretch of the imagination – our task was to identify impact, positive and negative and mitigation measures; it is not my decision.”
He said it was a complex site with significant constraints and challenges and recommended an updated cost-benefit analysis be carried out, taking into account the findings about the economic value of the reefs lost.
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said the report and the feedback from the meeting would be factored in to the final decision on whether or not to proceed with the cruise port.
The consultation period extends to July 3. If the project proceeds, further engineering studies would be required before tendering for the three-year, $150 million construction job can begin. The new port could open for the 2019/20 cruise season.
At Tuesday’s meeting, dive industry veterans also expressed skepticism about the viability of a coral relocation project, proposed by the consultants to help salvage some of the marine habitat that would be lost.
“I’m going to be very frank – what you are proposing about moving the reef is probably a total impossibility. I don’t think it will ever happen,” said Peter Milburn, of Dive Cayman Ltd.
Mr. Anglin said any coral relocation project would be complex, labor intensive and expensive, and would not compensate fully for the lost reef. He acknowledged that the mooted $13 million price tag was the most conservative estimate and that no budget had been earmarked within the project funds for any coral relocation.
“It is not perfect, but if the project goes ahead you have to do it, I don’t think you have a choice.”
He said sections of reef could be cut away and moved en-masse to a new location.