The feasibility of relocating live coral reefs to make way for new cruise piers in George Town harbor will be put to the test in a trial excavation next year.
Stran Bodden, chief officer in the Ministry of Tourism, said an application had been submitted to the Department of Environment to begin a “trial relocation” of coral reef in the harbor.
The planned port project has proved controversial with dive industry and environment advocates concerned about the potential destruction of 15 acres of reef, the loss of the historic Balboa shipwreck and sediment impact on a large section of adjacent reefs.
An environmental impact assessment suggested the corals could be moved, but warned the costly process came with no guarantee of success.
Speaking during a Finance Committee hearing Wednesday, Mr. Bodden confirmed part of the $1.8 million budget for the cruise berthing project in 2018 would go toward the trial relocation.
He said, “We put an application in to make sure the methodology we are proposing actually works before doing large-scale coral relocation ….
“What we would like to trial is actually taking up a block of seabed that has coral on it and transporting that to a donor site, as opposed to snipping coral and moving it. We have to trial that methodology to make sure the block doesn’t crumble and that methodology works before we do large-scale coral relocation.”
Several members weighed in again on the wisdom of the dock project, but Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell insisted the decision had already been made. Outlining a timeline for the project, Mr. Bodden said coral relocation trials would take place along with the procurement process early next year.
He said a contract should be awarded in August 2018, with “pre construction” beginning early 2019.
He acknowledged the coral relocation could delay the project and would add costs, projecting a total three-to-four-year construction timeline.
Former Premier and current Speaker of the House McKeeva Bush gave his support for the project but urged government to “get on with it.”
He said other suggested locations had been knocked back and it was time to get the job done.
“If someone believes we can’t lose [cruise] business, they are making a big mistake. The longer we prolong this, the worse off it is going to be. We also do the region some damage when we prolong this, the way we have over many years now. We have a dock. What do people expect the dock to be? A dive site too? It can’t be,” he said.
“We are prolonging because we have bent to everybody’s wishes – now you are going to move coral and plant it back somewhere else?”
George Town Central legislator Kenneth Bryan also questioned the coral relocation element of the project, asking if there was any guarantee that it would work. His question went unanswered because of a procedural issue.
The original environmental impact assessment suggested that corals affected by dredging for the project should be moved, but accepted there was no guarantee of success.
A later consultants’ analysis put the price tag for moving corals somewhere between $8 and $25 million.
Relocating 15 percent of the hard corals in the construction zone would cost between $8 million and $10 million, according to the report by consultants W.F. Baird & Associates.
That price rises to between $15 million and $18 million if a third of the corals are relocated, and could cost as much as $25 million if 45 percent of the corals are moved.
Moving the historic Balboa shipwreck would cost an additional $800,000 to $1.5 million, the consultants said.
The amount of dredging required has been reduced from original estimates, according to Tourism Minister Kirkconnell, who said government had taken an extra year in the planning phase to ensure the design got the best economic value for the least environmental impact.