Government has issued a detailed rebuttal countering claims from the Central Caribbean Marine Institute that the planned cruise port development will impact Seven Mile Beach.
“There is absolutely no evidence presented to support the claim,” according to a ‘technical paper’ released by the Office of the Premier Friday.
The paper cites the findings of an environmental impact assessment on the port project, as well as previous research papers on the natural history of Seven Mile Beach to support its case.
Baird and Associates, the consultants that carried out the EIA, used a scientific model of tides, wind and wave climate to assess the potential impact of the cruise piers.
They concluded, “There is no apparent sediment transport linkage between George Town harbour and Seven Mile Beach; therefore, the proposed project is not expected to have any impact on Seven Mile Beach.”
The consultants, in their Environmental Statement on the project, conclude that the project will not cause “any changes” in the erosion or deposition patterns along Seven Mile Beach.
The government’s report notes that the Environmental Assessment Board endorsed the findings of the consultants as consistent with previously understood mechanisms for “sediment transport” between the two areas.
Before the environmental impact assessment in 2015, Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell had indicated government would pull the plug on the project if it was shown to put the island’s most famous beach at risk. The findings of that report were seen as a green light to go ahead, despite more general environmental concerns about the loss of coral in the harbour and the impact on adjacent reefs.
But CCMI, the Little Cayman-based research centre, entered the debate last week, urging everyone in the territory to “take stock” of the potential impacts of the dock ahead of a people-initiated referendum on the project.
CCMI released a statement arguing that the removal of sand and coral for the piers in George Town harbour would deplete the overall ‘sand budget’ to replenish Cayman’s beaches, including Seven Mile.
“We recognize that there are many complex processes contributing to Seven Mile Beach’s sand budget, but what is proposed will undoubtedly affect Cayman’s most famous beach,” the research centre said in a press release.
The government, in its rebuttal, says this is an assertion that is not supported by any scientific evidence.
Premier Alden McLaughlin, in a statement accompanying the release of the paper, said, “As we move towards a referendum on Cayman’s port project, it is vitally important that the information put to the public reflects detailed scientific evidence rather than unfounded claims. The fact is that Seven Mile Beach will not be impacted by the project.”
He said it was “unclear” why CCMI had released what he described as “misleading information” and said the respected research institution had been invited to discuss any concerns they had with the government.
A spokeswoman for the research centre, said it was reviewing the report.
“CCMI has received a copy of the report that the Cayman Islands Government has compiled in response to our recent press release.
“We have been given an opportunity to consider the scientific report that has addressed our concerns. We will respond in detail directly to Roy Tatum, Senior Political Advisor and Head of the Office of the Premier.”
The government’s report also cites a 2000 paper, ‘Seven Mile Beach: A Natural History’, produced for the government and the Department of Environment’s Beach Erosion Committee as further evidence that Seven Mile Beach’s ‘sand budget’ comes from the north west and not from George Town harbour.
The paper by Richard Seymour, of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, examined the movement of sand around the Cayman Islands.
Government urged the Cruise Port Referendum Cayman campaign to accept the findings of the environmental impact assessment on Seven Mile Beach.
It points out that the campaigners have used the same report to support some of its key environmental concerns around marine habitat loss, sedimentation and the impact on adjacent coral reefs around the harbour.
“If they accept the validity of the EIA, they must also accept the findings that are not helpful to them,” it states.
It states that they have been unable to provide any evidence or scientific research to refute the assessment’s “key finding” that Seven Mile will not be impacted.
“The assertion made by CCMI in its press release is at odds with scientific evidence and the conclusions of the EIA,” it states.
Government has also taken issue with the research centre’s contention that coral relocation is likely to be ineffective.
A $10 million project to relocate some of the coral in the harbour has been proposed to help mitigate the environmental damage the port development will cause.
CCMI, in its release, stated that such relocation projects had “limited proven success”.
Citing success rates from its own research in outplanting nursery grown coral on local reefs, CCMI suggested coral relocation would likely be ineffective.
“Positive results from coral regeneration and relocation practice also continue to be challenging, with corals across the Caribbean region typically suffering 80% mortality within two years of relocation,” it stated.
Though it concedes that CCMI’s views on the challenges of coral relocation “deserve to carry considerable weight”, government’s statement paints a more optimistic picture about the potential of coral relocation.
It highlights a 2018 report from Australia’s Tropical Water Quality Hub which examined 329 previous cases of “coral restoration”. That report found an average survival rate of 64% for corals relocated using the “direct transportation” method planned for the cruise berthing mitigation project.
Government does acknowledge, however, that success rates are variable and that a coral relocation project on the scale envisaged for George Town harbour involves significant challenges.
But it states that it can draw on the experiences of other areas and work with scientists to monitor and manage the project, setting a goal of a 70% survival rate of outplanted corals.
“It is clear that the proposed coral relocation will never completely mitigate the ecological impacts of the port improvements but the aim of the coral relocation plan is to work towards no net loss of biodiversity …. We hope that CCMI will come and participate and help make the project a success.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Sep. 23 to include a new comment from CCMI