August 3, 2022
George Town, Great Exuma, Bahamas
In 2019, the Cayman Islands government had plans to build a multi-port cruise ship berthing facility in the heart of the George Town Harbor. The environmental impact assessments identified that this project would have a devastating effect on most of the marine ecosystems in the area. After intensive campaigning, community objection, and the recent changes in the cruise ship industry, the proposed project was canceled. Shortly after, the harbor was designated as a Mission Blue Hope Spot, representing hope for a healthy future for the island. Currently, there is no legislation that fully protects the Hope Spot from construction or development, but Chloe Bentick-Lalli, a local Caymanian student with the organization Protect Our Future, and Jon Schutte are dedicated to challenging the government to commit to comprehensive, thorough protection for the island.
Mission Blue has named Chloe Bentick-Lalli and Jon Schutte as the Champions of the George Town Hope Spot in recognition of the work done by them and their partners, National Trust, National Museum, and CCMI, to urge the government to pursue sustainable solutions to accommodate the island’s population and tourism growth, permanently halt the harbor expansion plans, and minimize the threat from Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD).
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says, “I salute Chloe and Jon for standing up for protecting the ocean.” She continues, “I’ve been to Grand Cayman on a number of occasions, often enough to recognize that the people there really care about their economy, their security – a future that is safe for them, and it depends on taking care of the natural world. For island countries, that extends into the ocean.”
Chloe Bentick-Lalli, Hope Spot Champion, student and member of Protect Our Future says, “As a growing island, we recognize that development is necessary for the economy and for those who reside here. We also recognize that ensuring sustainable development is the key to a better future. Our hope is to inspire more people to take action by becoming advocates for the oceans. By showing more people the beauty and the importance of what needs to be protected, we believe that a movement can be created and everyone can benefit in the process.”
The Cayman Islands government, through guidance from the Department of Environment, has classified the George Town Harbor as a “Port Anchorage Area”, meaning that no fishing or other damage to natural resources or in-water activity may be carried out without Port permission. Any activities including diving in this area also require permission from the Port Authority.
The reefs and oceans worldwide face a common threat due to the rapid changes in climate. With increasing greenhouse gases, warming ocean temperatures and an increase in ocean acidification, global and local coral reefs and aquatic marine life are facing significant threats.
Aside from the continual risk of coral bleaching, currently, the reefs of Cayman continue to battle Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), which is spreading quickly throughout the Caribbean. “It has no mercy for the coral life it affects”, explains Bentick-Lalli. The government in cooperation with the Department of Environment are working to slow the spread of SCTLD by taking various intervention actions on the reef. As of right now, the disease has not yet spread to the George Town Hope Spot, however, it has been discovered on reefs adjacent to it (CCMI 2019).
Jon Schutte, fellow Hope Spot Champion also reiterates the importance of upholding the environment’s legacy by stating, “It’s so important to understand and remember that we do not own our oceans, we rely on them, and our planet for survival. Through Hope Spots, it is our responsibility to act and protect, as well as share and educate others on the beauty and importance of our Oceans and our Earth.” Schutte has continued to advocate for the environment through several campaigns and has even dedicated his career to assisting with promoting environmental outreach programs, NGOs and ocean preservation.
George Town has been a popular destination for decades, welcoming thousands of tourists annually. While Bentick-Lalli and Schutte observed a slow-down in tourism traffic during the height of the pandemic, they are concerned about the government’s future interests in expanding the harbor to directly accommodate cruise ships. Bentick-Lalli explains, “The port is right on the reefs, so they keep the cruise ships out in the water, and people are shuttled onto shore on smaller boats. There’s really no need to build a port – it would just be for convenience. But at what cost?”
The Honorable Premier Wayne Panton is an avid supporter of the many efforts of numerous NGOs as they work towards a more environmentally viable future. As reported by the Cayman News Service, during his World Environment Day address he says, “Our young people have begun to demand we do better, including the many young people in our community who are involved in environmental activism through Protect Our Future, the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, and the Mangrove Rangers, to name but a few avenues for action.” He emphasized his government’s commitment by adding, “Embracing sustainability and making good on the promise that each new generation should be able to build a better future is a fundamental principle of my government” (Panton 2021).
The National Trust of the Cayman Islands has vowed to do its part regarding the conservation of the island’s natural resources for the past 35 years and has been a supportive addition to the Hope Spot team. Their mission explains, “Our environmental program was founded on the concept that the protection of native plants and animals is best achieved by protecting the natural areas on which they depend. Similarly, maintaining natural processes such as groundwater, marine life, and ecotourism attractions require the protection of large natural areas. For these reasons, our first priority for Cayman’s natural environment is the establishment of a system of protected areas” (National Trust). Their dedication to ensuring that everyone continues to do their part has allowed for a more environmentally aware community that is most necessary for the future.
Catherine Childs, Environmental Programs Manager of The National Trust says, “George Town Harbour is an important cultural, historic, and natural heritage site for the Cayman Islands. It contains historic shipwrecks that tell the story of our maritime history and a living coral reef that supports tourism and countless ecosystem services, all while functioning as a working port. This treasure must be protected and can point to how communities may thrive in the present while at the same time preserving their heritage.”
Dr. Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley, Director of Research at CCMI began conducting a study in January 2020 called Quiet Oceans Study that continues to be repeated every two months. The study is carried out in areas that usually have high traffic and are popular tourism sites; many boats and marine vessels also travel frequently through these areas. She describes her findings, “The study indicates that parrotfish, chubs and surgeonfish, all important herbivores, have increased in density in response to reduced human activity. Herbivorous fish have been proven as key species in helping maintain a healthy coral reef, specifically because of their role as ‘algae managers’, keeping algae under control so corals can persevere. When facing the threat of coral disease, as is currently being experienced in Grand Cayman with the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease outbreak, herbivorous fish will be crucial to the recovery process. There was also a significant increase in juvenile parrotfish during the latter stages of the study, indicating that recruitment may be driving increased densities and suggests that these populations will continue to recover as long as the ocean remains quiet” (Goodbody-Gringley 2021).
Dr. Goodbody-Gringley shares her thoughts in regards to the pandemic and the opening of the island in relation to the potential environmental impact. “This study indicates that near-shore reef ecosystems can rebound from human impact when given the opportunity to rest”, She explains. She continues, “A return to ‘business as usual’ after COVID-19 will reverse this recovery. More consideration to coral reef resilience must be built into our policies, seeking to promote long-term stability and increased coral cover. MPA protection is a good example of this and in the Cayman Islands, the recent MPA expansion is a testament to good conservation practice. But this may not be enough and as tourism ramps back up, it is an ideal opportunity to look at how the natural environment, especially our ‘blue assets’ can be better managed alongside economic activity.”
Bentick-Lalli and her classmates with Protect Our Future make up 60 students with satellite campuses throughout the Cayman Islands. They visit other schools to bring educational materials about the Cayman Islands marine ecosystems and the life within their local waters. They’ve spearheaded public awareness campaigns, notably a reef-safe sunscreen campaign. They also work to encourage a change to the ban on plastic bags, and next on the horizon are installing signs around the port with information about the Hope Spot and the species that live in George Town’s waters for tourists coming in from the cruise ships.
Ultimately, Bentick-Lalli and her team are hoping to see the harbor designated as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) backed by resources and education to enforce and protect George Town’s waters for future generations. “We want to change the community value system to ensure marine life has a high value in the community – from locals to tourists alike. The tide needs to turn in how everyone treats the Cayman Islands’ marine ecosystem if we want to continue to enjoy our beautiful blue home in a healthy, balanced state.”