Opponents of the multi-million dollar Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club development yesterday told Tribune Business their “worst fears have been realised”, alleging that US marine biologists had uncovered evidence that nearby coral reefs were being damaged by fertilizer run-off from the project’s golf course.
Troy Albury, president of the Save Guana Cay Reef Association (SGCRA), called for “greater teeth in environmental enforcement” by the relevant Bahamian government agencies after a January 2012 assessment by two scientists produced what they termed as “unambiguous evidence” of an increase in coral disease/algae growth as a result of the golf course run-off.
Expressing concern that coral reef destruction would harm both the tourism and fisheries industries, and the Bahamas that was left for future generations, Mr Albury called for resort development to emphasise niche, boutique properties. Otherwise the “whole character” of the Family Islands would be changed forever.
Yet the findings by Dr Thomas Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, and Dr James Cervino, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, were yesterday dismissed as “irresponsible and bogus” by Dr Livingstone Marshall, senior vice-president for environmental and community affairs at Baker’s Bay.
Responding on behalf of the project, which is being developed by Arizona-based Discovery Land Company, Dr Marshall said the two men’s conclusions were not supported by any scientific processes or data.
Instead, he argued that their findings appeared to be based on personal observations and photographs they had taken, and alleged that it was impossible to tell whether the latter had been taken at Baker’s Bay, let alone the reef area they claimed.
Telling Tribune Business that Baker’s Bay had asked the Association and the two men to share their date, presented at the recent Abaco Science Alliance forum, with it, Dr Marshall pledged that the developer would take the necessary action if genuine environmental issues were proven.
He gave Baker’s Bay and its developers a “96 per cent or 97 per cent grade” for its environmental performance to date.
That is unlikely to cut much ice with the Save Guana Cay Reef Association or its science consultants. Mr Albury said Messrs Goreau and Cervino had first assessed the situation six years ago, when the campaign opposing Baker’s Bay was at its height.
“They came back in early January, and were able to do an assessment of the reef as well as the shoreline where the Baker’s Bay development is,” Mr Albury told Tribune Business.
“At the two golf course closest to the northwestern tip of the island there’s a massive bloom of algae on the shoreline, right from the beach outline to 12-15 yards offshore. There’s no buffer zone between the green and the beach.
“This has been an issue right from the very start. The golf course needs to fertilized; it needs pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals, and we were concerned about the run-off on to the reef.”
Mr Albury said the area next to those two holes, the eighth and the ninth, was “the only place” on Great Guana Cay where such algae growth was taking place. This, he added, was “clearly the only place where fertilizers are leaking out”.
Algae, the SGCRA president said, required fertilizers to grow. At the spot identified by the scientists, both green and red varieties were growing, on the rocks and “in some places on the lower beach sand”.
“The scientists said that’s clear indication those [golf course] greens are leaking,” Mr Albury said.
The two scientists, he added, also examined coral reefs at two other spots – one seven miles to the south of Great Guana Cay, the other seven miles to the north. At the site closest to the Baker’s Bay golf course, where the algae was also located, they found 17 cases of White Band disease on the coral reef, compared to three at the northern site and one at the southern site.
“It may be a coincidence, but it’s highly unlikely,” Mr Albury said of the findings. “The primary concern is that the Bahamas prides itself on its natural resources. The only natural resources we have are sun, sand and sea.
“If we destroy it, there will be nothing left for our kids. Coral reefs are an important part of our tourism product and important part of our fisheries resources as well.”
Conceding that Baker’s Bay’s developers had done some innovative and beneficial things when it came to environmental protection, undertaking initiatives never seen before in Bahamian resort development, Mr Albury indicated they had failed to follow through on several promises.
“Baker’s Bay did some very good things, but they promised there would be no fertilizer leakage, and that the University of Miami would be monitoring. The University of Miami said Kathleen Sullivan-Seeley had not been involved in monitoring since 2008. They’re not following through with their environmental plans,” Mr Albury told Tribune Business.
Not surprisingly, Dr Marshall disagreed, articulating views he made plain to the SGCRA and its scientists at the Abaco Science Alliance Forum. He told Tribune Business there was no scientific process, data or underpinning that could justify the conclusions reached in relation to Baker’s Bay.
“I can’t tell if the pictures they took are Baker’s Bay, because there are no reference points. Where they showed this algae, I can’t even tell where it is,” Dr Marshall said. “Their conclusions were based on observations by one or two individuals. They promised to share their data with us, and we said we’d be interested to look at it.
“Baker’s Bay is environmentally responsible, and if it turns out we need to do something better or need to correct, there’s no doubt we would address it in the shortest time possible. I believe we’re on track to ensure the project’s sustainable and does not harm the environment.”
The study produced for the SGCRA, Dr Marshall added, appeared not to account for the potential effects on Great Guana Cay’s coral reefs from climate change and other man-made impacts, plus storms such as Hurricane Irene.
“It’s just a bunch of pictures,” he added. “There were conclusions drawn based on their pictures, and I thought that was irresponsible of them. It was bogus, and they did not utilise basic scientific processes and scientific methods. That’s not the way to come to a country like the Bahamas, and convince individuals something is happening that needs to be addressed.”
Adding that he was “not surprised at this juncture that they [SGCRA] would come out and say this”, Dr Marshall also refuted the Association’s claims that there was no buffer zone between the beach shoreline and the holes closest to it.
He added that the developers were using folia fertilizer, which was more easily absorbed by plants and other foliage, on the golf course. Fertilizer, Dr Marshall said, was being applied “very sparingly and strategically”.
The Baker’s Bay golf course, he reaffirmed, had been designed and shaped to ensure any fertilizer and chemical run-off went inland into the lined lakes. And, on the 8th, 9th and 15th holes, where the buffer zone between the ocean was less, they had been lined with an impermeable material to prevent any run-off.
Asked about the allegations concerning lack of environmental monitoring, Dr Marshall confirmed that Dr Sullivan-Seeeley had not been involved for several years. He said the developers had taken a decision to let nature take its course for several years, and would resume monitoring this year.
“Environmental monitoring is expensive,” Dr Marshall said. “We are running a business, and looking for the proper balance, so we will go back in and do some additional monitoring this year.
“With the measures we had in place and the economic downturn, we felt we would hold off on the monitoring for a couple of years, and then go back and make comparisons between when we started the monitoring and where we are now. We will resume it this year.”
Asked about Baker’s Bay’s environmental performance, Dr Marshall added: “I think, in a fair and honest assessment, it would give us a 96 per cent or 97 per cent grade at this point.”
Indicating, though, that the Association was attempting to spur the government agencies into action, Mr Albury told Tribune Business: “Our worst fears are being realised.” Rejecting Dr Marshall’s reassurances, he described the scientists’ report as “indisputable, irrefutable proof” of the golf course’s impact on nearby coral reefs.
Expressing concern that this could happen on other Bahamian islands, the SGCRA president said “there’s no follow through on Environmental Impact Assessments at all. There has to be some teeth in the environmental enforcement. If people do not stand up, we’re going to be over and done with”.
“We have to go back to how we started off in tourism, with small, quaint eco-sensitive resorts where we no not have 500 people,” Mr Albury said.
“It would be a resort with 10 people in with nature and enjoying the natural environment. There’s so many things you can do with the natural environment without building huge resorts, huge casinos, huge hotels. People come to Guana Cay to get away from that.”