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National Trust fears for the reef if port project proceeds

Following on from two previous statements it released in 2015 and 2018 on its concern for the environmental impact the cruise port development will have, the National Trust for the Cayman Islands has issued a further statement again outlining its worries about the port project, in particular the irreversible damage the construction will have on Cayman’s unique coral reefs and the marine life that feed upon them. Specifically, the Trust is concerned that people will not have all the facts in front of them when they go to vote on the future of the port project in the referendum on December 19th.

The National Trust said it met recently with the port developers, Verdant Isle, to learn more about the revised plans for the project. Even though the port developers revealed plans a few weeks ago to try and mitigate the impact to Cayman’s precious coral reef system, the information the National Trust received did not allay their fears, they said.

Their statement read: “…the National Trust remains concerned about the potential damage to our unique marine environment by the proposed facility, as well as the potential loss of two historical ship wrecks which have themselves become artificial reefs,” they said. “The National Trust is disappointed that its recommendation that an independent Environmental Impact Assessment be carried out based on the new plans, is being ignored.”

Coastal environment engineering specialists Baird was retained by the Government to undertake a comprehensive environmental and social impact assessment study for the proposed project. But the National Trust said that while they were a reputable company, they were now part of the consortium to create the port and were “therefore not independent and thus cannot address questions of conflict,” they said.


Coral reef impact

The National Trust said that even though Verdant Isle has said they would limit the amount of coral reef that would be impacted by the building of the new cruise port down to 12 acres, of which 10 acres would be relocated, the area that would be affected was still “alive and thriving”.

There were 60 species of corals, some rare and endangered, which were currently protected under the National Conservation Law and over 400 species of fish, and hundreds of species of marine organisms that produce shells and skeletons (for sand) had been recorded there, they said.

“This incredible biodiversity in the reefs and surrounding areas will be impacted,” the National Trust confirmed. “Cayman’s coral cover has reduced from 21 per cent to 15 per cent over the last 20 years owing to stress from rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification associated with climate change, coastal development and overuse. Adding a further human-made stressor to the equation makes our reefs less resilient to natural changes beyond our control.”

Verdant Isle had said they would try and relocate this thriving coral elsewhere, but such a move was unlikely to keep this coral alive, the Trust pointed out, saying that there was a great deal of debate as to whether coral relocation actually worked.

“Displaced coral will be trying to recover and thrive in an unfamiliar area and mortality rates of relocated versus reattached coral based on recent studies in the Caribbean, are high,” the National Trust said. “Even Verdant Isle Partners do not dispute that relocation and cultivation will not fully mitigate the amount of coral and biodiversity that will be lost. The coral reefs in our harbour have taken thousands of years to form and cannot be so easily replicated.”

The Trust said it was misleading to suggest otherwise.

Sediment was also of grave concern to the National Trust, the unpredictability of which was the main source of worry.

“It is impossible to fully identify the effects of the sediment that will, once displaced, be continually resuspended by vessels using the facility, and by the maintenance dredging that will possibly be required over the years,” the statement read. “How far and in what direction will this sediment travel on our currents, and how will coral and other marine life be impacted in its wake, remain grave concerns.”

The Trust said that further analysis needed to be carried out to properly understand the potential ramifications and determine what is truly at risk in the long term. But most of the data collection for such analysis would not begin before March 2020, it pointed out, a good three months after the referendum to decide whether the port project should go ahead.


Balboa and Cali wrecks under threat

Scuba diving has always been a key tourist attraction for Cayman’s visitors, and ship wrecks have been an integral part of that attraction. However, two historical shipwrecks - the Balboa and the Cali - will be impacted by the port project.

The National Trust said it understood that the port developers intended to relocate the Balboa to an unconfirmed site 1 km away from its current location. Relocating the Wreck of the Cali was not previously considered and remained uncertain, so the effects of the project on this site were as yet unknown, the National Trust stated.

“While relocation may preserve certain aspects of these shipwrecks, the cultural and historic significance of the Balboa and Cali are inherently linked with their physical locations. Moving either wreck will result in the loss of this historical significance in addition to the loss of marine life which has reclaimed these ships as artificial reefs over the years. As with the relocation of substantive coral reefs, successful relocation of shipwrecks is dependent upon the integrity of the structure and the feasibility to move and reposition sections relatively intact,” the National Trust advised.

The Trust ended by stating that local and international media were following this situation closely and the National Trust sought to do its part for the benefit of its membership and for the entire community of the Cayman Islands.

With echoes of the UK’s infamous Brexit referendum, where many who voted “Leave” now regret their vote because they did not have all the facts at the time of voting, the National Trust said:

“As a sign of good faith, the National Trust calls on Verdant Isle Partners to release pertinent information as the new studies become available. These reports will regretfully not be published in time for the referendum so the people of the Cayman Islands will have to make their decision without having all the facts.”



What may be lost if the cruise port project goes ahead:

• 10 acres of displaced coral that’s currently thriving is at risk of dying, which includes:

* 60 species of corals, some rare and endangered

* 400 species of fish

* hundreds of species of marine organisms

• the historical significance of the Balboa and Cali, along with their marine life.

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