Harbor faces environmental impact

To view the full special report from the Cayman Compass on the cruise dock debate, visit the Compass Data Desk. 

The debate over a new cruise port in George Town Harbour is a balancing act between the protection of the coral reef ecosystem and overdue upgrades to cruise facilities, a driving industry for the Cayman economy. If economics is the deciding factor, policymakers will have to weigh the value of dive and snorkel sites such as Eden Rock and Cheeseburger Reef against updated facilities for cruise ships and the ability to attract the massive new Oasis and Quantum-class vessels.

A new environmental impact statement attempts to address these questions, or at least give people the basic information they need to decide for themselves. To call the report, released in June, an “environmental statement” is a bit of a misnomer. The 400-page document analyzes the economics of the various industries, impacts on traffic along the George Town waterfront, how the proposed dock would change wave patterns and how it could affect flooding during a nor’wester.

“The spatial extent and volume of dredging, the potential requirement for offshore disposal of excess dredged materials and the associated potential negative impacts (both direct and indirect) on the coral reefs in this area were deemed to be critical considerations with respect to the anticipated impacts of project construction on the natural environment,” the consultants wrote in the detailed technical report.

Consultants with W.F. Baird & Associates Coastal Engineers Ltd. took each basic question – the best dredging method, whether the coral heads could be moved, how bad cruise tourists are at crossing the street – and broke down the basic facts. In some cases the report makes recommendations to mitigate problems, going so far as to present a modified alternative to the port design, shifting the piers south and expanding the dock out to cause less damage to the reef.

There are some undisputed facts about the proposal. Relatively healthy coral immediately off the waterfront, a unique treat for shore divers, would have to be removed. Fifteen acres of reef and associated habitat would be destroyed, including two coral species listed as critically endangered and another four listed as threatened. Another 15 to 20 acres in Cheeseburger Reef and Eden Rock would face potential degradation from increased stress during the estimated 36 months of construction.

Tourism accounts for almost a quarter of the Cayman Islands’ economic activity, and about 85 percent of those tourists come from ships, mainly cruise ships. Cruise companies are building more large ships for service in the Caribbean, and those ships will not stop in Cayman without a pier, due to the time it takes to load upwards of 6,000 people onto tenders for the ride to shore.

Then there are some elements that nobody has an answer for, at least not yet. The consultants do not know what exactly is beneath the seafloor and whether or not it will be strong enough to hold the piers through a potential earthquake or hurricane.

Dollars and cents

The consultants estimate cruise traffic would increase one to three percent per year, but the report notes that they do not anticipate more passengers actually leaving the ships and coming to shore. “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,” the report stated.

With space for four ships in port, there would be no work for tender companies to ferry passengers to shore. When there are more than four ships in, passengers will still need a ride to the waterfront, but that doesn’t happen very often.

While tendering jobs would be lost, the port would need to hire people to help manage and operate the bigger port. Ships would need tug and pilot boats to get in and out.

The report estimates cruise ship passengers spend about $115 million each year in Cayman.

An earlier business case report estimates the new port, once complete, would create 1,000 full-time jobs and bring almost $1.2 billion to the Cayman economy over the 20-year lifespan of the port.

The report quantified potential negative impacts.

“A key finding of the EIA is that the marine resources in [George Town harbor] have a significant economic value,” the report states. The consultants estimate the underwater resources in the harbor bring $19 to 22 million a year in economic value.

“Project construction and operation will result in damage to the marine ecosystem within George Town harbor, with associated adverse impacts on the goods and services provided by the marine ecosystem. Revenues generated by water sports businesses, which rely on tourism and recreation opportunities provided by the marine resources within George Town harbor, will also be adversely affected,” the consultants predicted.

The report estimated a loss of $6.5 to $9 million per year, based on current spending, from the damage to the reefs and shipwrecks. That translates to somewhere between $100 and $165 million over 20 years.

One other factor, the report noted: “Increased volume in cruise tourism may deter stay-over visitors from visiting George Town on days when ships call; as stay-over tourists spend more than three times what cruise visitors spend, this suggests the potential for significant, long-term negative impacts, particularly given the limited carrying capacity of certain natural attractions, such as Stingray City.”

To view the full special report from the Cayman Compass on the cruise dock debate, visit the Compass Data Desk. 

The underwater environment is a prime draw for cruise ship visitors.
The underwater environment is a prime draw for cruise ship visitors. – Photo: Justin Uzzell