The Cost of Cruises: Planned Caribbean Port Would Destroy Coral Reefs

The Grand Cayman Island project could crush acres of delicate corals to make way for a cruise ship dock.

George Town in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Jun 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

If you have to destroy the pristine reef systems that attract tourists to your island in the first place, is an expanded cruise ship port really worth it?

The government of Grand Cayman Island has proposed to build a $250 million berthing facility that would provide docking and direct shore access to as many as four cruise ships at once. That would be more convenient for passengers and crew than the current system, which requires large cruise ships to anchor offshore, and use smaller vessels to taxi passengers to and from the island.

But construction and dredging for the port would also damage or destroy acres of reefs and animal habitat, according to the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, and take millions in tourism dollars along with them.

An environmental impact statement on the project was released on June 9. Around 15 acres of reef would be destroyed by the project, and another 15 to 20 negatively affected, according to the report. That’s bad news for the 26 unique coral species identified in the harbor, two of which are considered “critically endangered” and four as “threatened” under U.S. endangered species law.

That destruction could impact Georgetown Harbor’s snorkeling, scuba diving, boat tours, recreational fishing, and other marine activities that bring in about $19 million to $22 million a year to the country.

(Illustration: Courtesy Baird)

Courtney Platt, an underwater photographer and Cayman Islands resident, said that if the ships get shore access, the environmental problems don’t end with the completion of the expanded port—they only mark the beginning.

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“As the ships come in to dock, their thrusters will kick up a muddy silt cloud that will persist for several hours, eliminating most of what might remain of the harbor's reefs from their current employment as tourism attractions,” Platt said. “This will repeat as they leave in the afternoon.”

Cruise ship tourism is the lifeblood of Cayman Islands' gross domestic product—more than 85 percent of tourists arrive by sea.

Last year, 1.6 million visitors came to the Cayman Islands via cruise ship, up from 1.3 million visitors in 2013.

Still, retail development owner Gerry Kirkconnell believes the number could fall below 1 million if the island does not give cruise ships direct shore access soon.

“It’s not that cruise tourism would stay where it is now. It is that it would fall, especially as other ports open up,” Kirkconnell told Cayman 27.

But for marine scientist Ellen Prager, the port proposal flies in the face of the country’s previous conservation work.

“Grand Cayman has progressively put in place policies to protect their natural resources—for instance protection for sharks and rays—and help sustain responsible tourism,” Prager said. “This plan seems to go against that.”

So, Why Should You Care?

Unless strong environmental protections are enforced, this port could bring huge environmental damages along with more cruise ships. In addition to the potential damage to local reefs, increased ship traffic could result in more air pollution to the island, and dumped sewage or spilled oil from the vessels could have much more devastating consequences if the ships are right on shore rather than anchored offshore.

“According to the cruise line industry, black and grey waters are discharged only when underway and not while in ports,” the environmental impact report stated. “These practices are difficult to monitor, thus making it challenging to confirm whether the companies are in compliance with stated industry policies or international regulations.”

The project so worries Platt, she’s started a petition to get Cayman Islands' officials to reject the proposal and come up with other avenues to facilitate tourism.

“The long-term cost to the environment is too great for the relatively short-term gain,” Platt said. “It is a large section of a thousands-of-years-old reef structure located within our only marine park.”