The Feinstein Group’s plan to construct a causeway through the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary poses great risks for the manatees that live in that area, Sea to Shore’s Manatee Research Associate Jamal Galvez said Thursday.
Galvez, while not able to give an exact figure for how many manatees are in the area, said that the causeway, which is significant component of the Stake Bank Cruise Port initiative, threatens to disturb what could effectively be defined as a manatee nursery.
“Many manatees and their calves can be seen around Swallow Caye. The mammal often goes to that place because it’s quiet, calm and relatively safe,” Galvez explained.
Last Wednesday, Civil engineer, Roque Matus, of M&M Engineering, the company which the Feinstein Group has contracted to build the causeway, says the causeway will actually diminish the threats to manatees.
Matus said the causeway would considerably reduce boat traffic in the area, since the port would remove the need for cruise tenders which presently ferry 150 to 200 cruise pasengers at a time from the cruise ships to shore.
This, Matus argued, would improve the manatees’ chances of survival, since many of them have been injured or killed as a result of collisions with fast-moving boats or from cuts from a boat propeller.
He added that the concrete pylons which support the causeway eleven feet above the sea will be entirely benign to manatees and all marine life, since that part of the structure, which will be submerged, will serve as a base.
It is to serve like an artificial reef, for all forms of marine life and vegetation to grow upon, including the sort of vegetation upon which the manatee feeds, Matus said.
Galvez, however, was not convinced. He told Reporter that tenders do not currently traverse that area, so they have not been posing any consistent threat to the manatee population in the sanctuary.
Cruise Ships don’t ‘park’ near Swallow Caye, so there have been no need for those boats to be in that area. This project, however, could potentially bring traffic to that area,” Galvez explained.
He also pointed out that even the construction of the structure itself would disturb the very same “quiet and calm” that had attracted the docile mammal to the caye in the first place.
The action of driving piles into the seabed will create noise and sound travels much faster through the water than through the air. There’s no telling if the manatees will find the underwater noise levels intolerable during the months of construction, he said.
“The noise might cause the mammals to abandon Swallow Caye altogether,” Galvez suggested..
He also underscored the fact that it may pose a threat to the vegetation in the area, which the manatees use as food.
While it may not necessarily be in the immediate vecinity, Galvez also expressed concern about the proposed dredging that would be necessary for the cruise ships to be able to approach the port..
Galvez recalled that there are presently only about 1,000 West Indian manatees in Belize.
The proposed deep-water port for cruise ships at Stake Bank could earn Belize about $700 million per year, the Feinstein Group’s Mike Feinstein explained at a press conference last Wednesday.
The causeway is to stretch from the Stake Bank Port to the North Drowned Caye, where the developer proposes to build a US$89 million resort named Ocean Grand View.
At its closest point, the causeway passes a mile from Swallow Caye.
In the past, pioneer manatee conservationist Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia (R.I.P.), who founded Friends of Swallow Caye, had proposed that a pier be built outside the caye where tour boats might dock.
The tourists could then walk by an elevated walkway through the mangrove to points where they could observe the manatees without need for boats to enter the lagoon. The idea was scrapped when it was considered that the manatees might find the construction of such a jetty too disturbing.
Reef conservationists who have been battling the cause against offshore drilling for oil are equally concerned about the possibility of a fuel spill from the fuel barges which the Stake Bank port proposes to use to refuel cruise ships.
Mike Feinstein says there’s really no cause for alarm as the equipment the port would use would be to international standards, the same as is used to refuel the ships in Miami or anywhere else in the Caribbean.
He said the barges which will be used are double hulled, so even if the outer hull were to be pierced, the inner hull would still contain the fuel cargo against any possibility of a spill.
Similarly, the hose linking the barge to ship is very short, so even if the hose were to rupture, the most that would spill would be about 30 gallons of fuel.
Any project of this size requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which the 13-member National Environmental Assessment Committee (NEAC) reviewed in an all day meeting at the Belize Biltmore Plaza in Belize City last Tuesday, the day before the Feinstein Group announced the project.
Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria has been deafeningly silent on how close they are to granting approval. If NEAC approves the project’s EIA, NEAC would then draft an Environmental Compliance Plan, which the company would need to follow.