The Cayman Islands Tourism Association is opposing government’s current proposal to establish cruise berthing facilities in George Town Harbour.
The largest tourism business representative organization in Cayman, which has heretofore been largely silent on the project, stated the reasons for its opposition in a press release issued Thursday afternoon: “This position has been reached after careful review of the documentation available, individual CITA sector meetings and a survey of our members where the majority of the respondents indicated that they did not support the current proposal.
“It should be noted that the deliberation on this matter has not been an easy one because the topic is extremely polarizing based on individual member business’ focus.”
CITA has said that any views on cruise berthing development in Cayman would be informed by environmental impact assessments and business cases associated with the project.
An environmental impact assessment ordered by the Cayman Islands government predicted that several acres of coral reef could be destroyed if plans for new cruise piers in George Town move forward.
Following that assessment, the government has confirmed that another company was hired to perform an additional review of the seabed in the vicinity of a proposed cruise ship berthing facility in George Town Harbour.
The company, Continental Shelf Associates, of Stuart, Florida, was paid US$27,000 for what was described as a habitat survey, government officials said Thursday.
Gordon Stevens, a spokesperson with the CSA Group, which is Continental’s parent company, said Thursday that the work was “very minimal” and nothing close to the full-blown environmental assessment already completed on the site at cost of $2.5 million.
Ministry of Tourism chief officer Stran Bodden said Thursday that US$27,000 was the total amount government had spent on the Continental Shelf Associates study and denied rumors that government had actually spent in the six figures on another environmental survey following the initial assessment.
John MacKenzie with West Indian Marine, the local partner of Continental Shelf Associates, declined to respond to questions about the underwater survey.
Some proponents of the cruise berthing project are now saying that predictions of damage have been exaggerated and that the portion of the reef that would be affected by the project is mostly dead anyway. In a reaction to such claims, a group of photographers and filmmakers have been working for the past two weeks to prove that the reefs in George Town Harbour are very much alive.
“There’s a big gap of understanding about what is at stake between people who are experiencing the water and the rest who don’t get in the water,” Courtney Platt said.
Mr. Platt is a photographer who has made more than 5,000 dives in the Cayman Islands since he began diving here in 1983. His favorite site is the Balboa Wreck in George Town Harbour. It lies within the area that will be dredged to make way for the new cruise pier. Even though he knew the Balboa would be affected, Mr. Platt was not initially opposed to the cruise pier plan, he said. But when the environmental impact assessment was presented to the public, he realized that more than one dive site was at stake.
“I greatly respect all of the proponents that I know of who want to build this dock,” Mr. Platt said. “I think these guys are brilliant and wonderful people and have the best interest of Cayman at heart, but I do think that they are overestimating the ability to mitigate the damage done by dredging.”
The plans, he said, will affect not just the reef systems that are in the dredge pit, but surrounding reefs that will be affected by silt and poor visibility. The wrecks of the Balboa and the nearby Cali are immediately affected by the berthing plans, as they lie within the dredge site, but many divers say the wrecks and other dive sites like Eden Rock, the Soto South Reef and Devil’s Grotto could also be negatively affected.
“It’s very much like an atomic blast,” Mr. Platt said. “You have the epicenter where you have total destruction and then you have a gradient of death radiating from that.”
He said the reefs that lie within the zone that would be affected by the cruise berthing plans are not only alive, but more vibrant than many of the other reefs on the island and act as nurseries for juvenile grunts, snappers and groupers, as well as many other organisms.
With the help of nine filmmakers and photographers, Mr. Platt has launched a campaign aimed at educating the public about the life that exists in-harbor at George Town.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Maes said he was glad to volunteer his time to help document the biodiversity of the reef, even though it has taken him away from his own work.
“You’re in the mouth of the harbor and there’s so much life and so much young life,” Mr. Maes said. “It’s a cradle of new life.”
While Mr. Maes said he’s most concerned about the environment and the future for the children of Cayman, he also sees the potential for a negative financial impact should the pier be built.
“You’ll have more passengers in,” Mr. Maes said. “But you’re taking away the reason why many of them come.”
One solution offered by the authors of the environmental impact assessment to mitigate the potential damage is to relocate the reefs that lie within the zone that would be immediately affected by dredging. The authors noted that such a solution would not be able to completely save the reefs.
Kristi Foster, assistant director of research at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, said relocating coral is “an incredibly sensitive operation” that could “easily” result in mortality rate of 50 percent or higher.
The coral first has to be dislodged in some way and somehow transferred to another site. Ms. Foster said that for a coral relocation project in Qatar that was awarded to Continental Shelf Associates in 2012, removal teams planned to set up swimming pool-size aquaria on a barge to transport the coral. After it is moved, one by one, the coral has to be taken down to the new site.
She said that even if teams can figure out how to remove and transfer the coral, the survival rate is incredibly variable, because different depths, water flow, and neighbors like other coral or algae affect the coral in different ways.
“The other thing that’s going to happen is you’re disrupting the entire biodiversity,” Ms. Foster said. “You can’t recreate the new reef, the exact complexity, and the exact topography. For instance, the sea urchins that live inside the reef, how will those be moved?”
Ms. Foster said that the sea urchins that live inside the reef eat algae and keep the coral healthy. “It’s such a complex operation and we still know so little about it,” Ms. Foster said.
Mr. Maes hopes that the government will find an alternate solution that protects the unique environment of the reefs in the harbor and ensures that future generations of Caymanians will be able to enjoy not just the beauty of the reefs but the economic benefits they bring to the country, too.
He hopes to turn his footage of the harbor reefs into a documentary and plans to show it at international film festivals.
Mr. Platt plans to continue posting photos and video of the reef every day until dredging begins. He posted on Facebook a photo from Wednesday’s dive that he says had received more than 1,200 hits by Thursday afternoon. The photo shows a group of
excited Caymanian children, hands pressed against the window of a glass bottom boat, as they look out at a school of fish being fed at the south end of Soto’s Central Reef in George Town Harbour.
“I nearly cried in my mask with happiness seeing the joy and amazement of those kids watching us, the fish and the reefs,” Mr. Maes commented on the photo. “It was so fun to see and made the importance of education very clear again.”