Many of the anticipated environmental impacts of the cruise berthing project were laid out following an exhaustive investigation in 2014 and 2015.
The environmental impact assessment, led by coastal engineering firm Baird and Associates, examined everything from the impact on coral reefs in George Town Harbour to the potential for erosion on Seven Mile Beach.
We combed through their final report and the report of the Environmental Assessment Board, led by Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie, to answer some of the key questions on the likely environmental consequences of the project.
What is the expected impact on coral reefs in the harbour?
The reports conclude that the project will involve the removal of coral habitat that has “significant economic and ecological value”.
Critically endangered staghorn coral is found within the project footprint and critically endangered elkhorn coral is found on the adjacent reefs.
The Environmental Assessment Board’s report indicated that the project would involve the “irreversible removal” of 15 acres of coral reef habitat.
The project has since undergone design changes, moving the piers into deeper water to reduce that impact. The extent of that reduction has not yet been assessed by the environmental board.
Read related story: Consultants: New design will reduce impact
The contractors concede that the development will still result in the removal of at least 10 acres of reef habitat.
The environmental board describes these reefs as “topographically complex” formations that converge in a network of tunnels that form a complex habitat supporting a diversity of species.
The likely loss of coral reef habitat was graded as the highest possible tier of negative impact -E in Baird’s rating system. With a coral relocation plan, this could be upgraded to a -D, still considered a significant negative impact, according to the consultants.
What about the impact of coral relocation?
The contractor has indicated it plans to carry out a $10 million coral relocation project to move all the endangered corals and some of the more common corals from the primary impact zone.
The environmental studies considered this approach and concluded that, while it offers a measure of mitigation, it will not achieve “no net loss of biodiversity”.
The reports also indicate there is no guarantee of success and highlight the difficulty of transplanting huge three-dimensional structures that can reach heights of up to 15 feet.
The board also commented that moving corals to another site would not replace the “functionality of the existing habitat” – in essence, the fish and other species that it supports.
“All of these factors make it difficult to predict the success of a coral relocation project in the long term,” the board noted.
The reports pitched the cost of coral relocation at anywhere between US$10 million and US$73 million. Government and Verdant Isle have outlined the basics of a CI$10 million relocation project, also involving the removal of the Balboa shipwreck from within the project site. The Compass will have full details on their plans in a story later this week.
So, what about the Balboa?
The Balboa is a 375-foot freighter that met its end after being dashed against the dock area in George Town in hurricane force winds following a voyage from Cuba in 1932. It has since become a popular dive site, though tours are restricted to night time because of port activities.
The consultants classified the removal of the wreck as a significant cultural loss – rating at -E on its scale of impacts. Even if it is successfully relocated, they still classified the loss as a -D level impact.
The Environmental Assessment Board cautioned that there was no guarantee that the wreck, which is strewn in pieces across the ocean floor, could be successfully moved and suggested a feasibility study looking at the condition and integrity of the wreck was needed.
Verdant Isle has suggested it will be able to move the Balboa and that, in doing so, it will make the dive site, currently only accessible at night, easier to access for tourists.
What about Eden Rock and Soto’s Reef?
Among the most iconic dive sites in and around George Town Harbour, these two areas have been the focus of significant concern for divers and environmentalists.
While they are outside the main dredge zone, the reports indicate adjacent reefs will suffer spin-off impacts.
Baird’s EIA suggested around 15-20 acres of reef on either side of the port, including Eden Rock and Soto’s Reef would be subjected to “lethal and sub-lethal” impacts.
Baird has since indicated that the new layout alters those dynamics slightly, moving the piers further away from Eden Rock. However, the new design positions the piers close to Soto’s Reef.
The consultants’ initial assessment in 2015 warned that these reefs would suffer impacts from turbidity and sedimentation levels during construction and operation that would increase the potential for bleaching and coral mortality.
The Environmental Assessment Board describes these impacts as “major stress” that will impact the long-term resilience of the reef system. It notes that mitigation measures, like silt screens, could reduce the negative impact from extreme (-D on the consultant’s scale) to moderate (-C).
Will the project have any impact on Seven Mile Beach?
Any evidence of threat to Cayman’s most famous beach would have prompted government to stop the project, according to Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell.
Despite recent concerns expressed by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute about the overall detriment to Cayman’s ‘sand budget’ from the destruction of reefs, the reports do indicate that the project is unlikely to have any negative influence on Seven Mile Beach.
The assessment board concurred with this analysis at the time, stating, “We note the conclusions that no large-scale changes to the prevailing sediment transport patterns will arise as a result of the project.
“The EAB is satisfied that the results of the sediment transport modelling confirm/verify previously understood mechanisms for sediment transport regimes between George Town Harbour and Seven Mile Beach.”
What about the economic value of the reefs?
Baird’s report attempted to calculate a monetary value for the commercial and ecosystem services provided by the reefs and came up with a figure of between $19 million and $22 million annually.
The lion’s share of that value came from direct spending on tourism and recreation, primarily watersports activities in and around the harbour reefs. The report also highlighted potential job and business losses in the water sports industry, as well as the more obvious loss of at least 40 jobs in the tender business.
It also highlighted negative impacts on restaurants which are expected to lose business during the three-year construction phase.
Some of these impacts may need to be mitigated through compensation to businesses and assistance in retraining for those left unemployed, the reports state.
Were these impacts factored into the overall projections for the economic impact of the port?
Some of these concerns, such as the loss of jobs in the tender industry, were considered. Others were not.
An addendum to the original business case was prepared by PwC to assess the validity of the figures in the environmental impact assessment and crunch those numbers into its overall analysis.
The PwC report suggests putting a financial value on the reefs is extremely difficult. It notes that the figures in the EIA relate to the entire harbour, not just the project footprint, and raises other questions about the methodology used to derive those numbers.
Ultimately, PwC suggests a wide ambit for the possible economic impacts of the project on the reefs, pitching it at anywhere between $42 million and $327 million over the life of the project.
At the high end, it appears to acknowledge that this could impact the viability of the project.
“This means the net impact of the Cruise Berthing Facility ranges from a benefit of $203 million to a cost of $72 million,” the addendum states.
However, that report also factored in new data suggesting that there would be an increase in passenger spending associated with the port project because visitors would spend more time onshore. If that data is correct, PwC said the overall project benefits range from $112 million on the low end to $439 million, adding that this could increase with greater arrival numbers.
What about the impact of increased cruise tourism on the rest of the island?
The report sounds a cautionary note on the subject of over-tourism and warns that some businesses will be forced out of George Town, adding to the potential for overcrowding elsewhere.
“The Environmental Statement identifies the need to undertake carrying capacity studies of those natural attractions… which will function as alternate sites or locations for watersports and recreational activities resulting from the predicted dislocation of businesses from George Town Harbour,” the EAB report states in its summary.
What else do the documents say?
The reports highlight concerns about traffic and water clarity, as well as the views in George Town, among other concerns.
The Environmental Assessment Board’s report states, “The loss of the panoramic vistas of George Town Harbour from shore and from sea looking landward is one of the most subjective aspects of the EIA yet has a significant permanent irreversible effect on the character and appearance of George Town Harbour and Hog Sty Bay. Additionally, changes in appearance to the uniquely clear and visually appealing waters which are part of the defining character of George Town Harbour will have a lasting negative impact.”