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Coral Reefs, Marinas and Golf Courses

March 5, 2011 | Coral Reef

Coral Reef in Saipan Impacted by Golf Course

Laolao Bay

A recent survey by Dr. Peter Houk of Pacific Marine Resources Institute and the DEQ Marine Monitoring Team at Greg Norman's Laolao Bay Golf Course have revealed that 20 years after construction, dramatic negative effects on the coral reef's health have occured.

From an article from the Saipan Tribune:

* Significant increase of seasonal brown macroalgae, as well as persistent red algae on the reef flats. This proliferation of macroalgae is considered undesirable, and has cascading impacts to other components of the coral reef ecosystem;

* Coral assemblages have shifted from larger, more structurally-complex colonies to numerous small encrusting colonies, providing less habitat for reef-dwelling organisms;

* Species richness of coral has declined throughout most of LaoLao, and is most pronounced in the eastern portion of the bay;

*Fish densities have shown significant declines, mainly a shift from large-bodied fish to smaller ones;

* The functional diversity of fish has also declined significantly, meaning reduced grazing efficiency on the reef associated habitats, and more space for macroalgae and undesirable substrate to grow. The full article on the Laolau Golf Course and Coral Reefs can be read here.

These negative effects are typical of the types of environmental consequences of golf courses built in ecosensitive areas, and precisely the type of effect that coral scientists warned prior to the approval of the Bakers Bay Golf & Ocean Club in the Northern Bahamas.

January 01, 2010 | whereabouts

Floating Golf Course Inside Maldives Coral Reef will have Zero Impact on Environment, according to Developers

Bridgette MeinholdA developer in the Maldives has released a press release saying they will be building a floating golf course, inside the ring of a coral reef. They claim that the coral reef golf course will have zero environmental impact.

The fact that several news agencies and blogs reported this as fact is absurd. Although, I think we should focus on the story by Bridgette Meinhold, who writes in the green design website, Inhabitat, "Threatened with rising sea levels from climate change, the island nation may be doomed to a watery grave unless it transitions to floating developments. Developed by Dutch Docklands and designed through a collaboration between golf course developer Troon Golf and Waterstudio.NL, the zero-footprint solar-powered golf course will be one of the first floating developments..."

Meinhold, who appears to have taken the press release at face value, has fallen for a classic trick that golf developers employ to confuse the public. A floating golf course, by all means will have a devastating effect on the nearby coral reef. This story plays out again and again around the world. The developer has, and probably does not require, an ounce of an environmental impact statement, but, through bloggers and journalists, is able to spin an audacious golf plan in the middle of a coral reef as a positive way to save an island nation! For all we know, the fertilizer and human waste will be dumped directly in the coral reef. But Meinhold fell for the idea that the developer spun, that this golf course development is actually a good thing for the Maldives, because it will save the island nation from certain doom once sea levels rise.

Golf Course in the MaldivesGolf Course in the Maldives

This is the lowest level of greenwashing I have ever heard, and I suspect that Bridgette Meinhold will want to amend her article with notes on the impact that golf courses have on coral reefs. If Inhabitat, hopes to live up to their credo that "design will save the world," they should live up to that credo by publishing real articles on sustainable development, not repurposing greenwashed press releases from new spins on megadevelopment environmental fails.

Note also that Meinhold calls the golf course "zero-footprint," an absurd statement, considering this golf course will likely cause permanent damage to yet another coral reef.

April 21, 2011 | Coral Reefs

Golf Course Megadevelopment Threatens Baja Coral Reef

Robert F. Kennedy Jr cowrites article on Mexican golf development.

But now Hansa Baja Investments, a Mexican subsidiary of the Spain-based real estate development firm Hansa Urbana, plans to build a massive resort complex directly north of the National Marine Park. The developer has proposed what amounts to a sprawling new city on the scale of Cancún: 10,000 acres including 30,000 hotel rooms and residential housing units, at least two golf courses, 2 million square feet of office and retail space, a 490-boat marina and a private jet port.

Read the article here.

January 01, 2010 | whereabouts

Mangroves and Coral Reefs

Abaco Grouper

Construction site at Bakers Bay Club. Photo courtesy SGCR.

Throughout the Caribbean in the last 20 years, poorly managed coastal land has been threatening coral reefs. In particular, large developments and government projects have cleared acres of coastal mangroves, in order to bring hotels, airports and golf courses closer to the water.

The effect has been stunning.

Mangroves are rich in biodiversity. In the Abacos, which are the first stop for birds along the Atlantic flyway, rare birds nest in these mangroves. More importantly for the local habitat, mangroves are nurseries for lobsters as well as the fish who eventually inhabit the coral reef. Even more importantly, the mangroves filter the rainwater run-off.

This is the key for Great Guana Cay, because the mangrove forests of Great Guana Cay have now been removed by the Bakers Bay Club. Mangrove forests are essential at absorbing the nutrients produced by the land. Coral reefs require a nutrient-poor ecosystem in order to survive. By removing the mangroves from Great Guana Cay, Bakers Bay Club has engaged in a mistake seen again and again throughout the Caribbean.

Abaco Grouper

Swimming up the mangrove river, "Joes Creek" located on the crown land of the Bakers Bay development. Photographed by Jane McClanahan.

Nutrient-rich water, created by removal of mangroves (or by altering the natural landscape of terrestrial flora in general near coral reefs) increases the nutrients entering the porous skin of the coral polyps. The coral polyps cannot contain an explosion of thick algae, which quickly suffocate the corals, and kill the reef. These algal blooms disrupt the balance of the reef, crashing not only the corals themselves, but the fishes and invertebrates upon which the ecosystem depends.

It was reported by locals who met with Discovery Land Company's CEO at an informal meeting at Nipper's bar, that he asked them why they were so interested in saving the mangroves. Even at this meeting held in 2006, a CEO of a company whose project is at risk for the threat it poses to mangroves and coral reefs, did not even understand why.

This attitude has been consistent throughout the Caribbean, resulting in further degradations of coral reefs throughout the region.

In her excellent critique of modern tourism trends in the Caribbean, Last Resorts, Polly Patullo offers several examples of the dangers posed by removing mangroves. I quote an extensive passage while firmly recommending this book to everyone interested in the region.

"McKinnon's Saltpond in Antigua was no exception, even if it had earlier been subjected to damage from oil spills from a now abandoned refinery. Yet, like thousands of other stretches of mangrove throughout the Caribbean, the attractions of unused land close to stretches of fine sandy beach, were to great a temptation for developers to ignore. In the mid 1980's, the St. John's Development Corporation, a statutory government body, and an Italian investment company, planned to build condominiums and a marina on land that included the salt pond. Before this could happen, an environmental impact assessment was made, which recorded, among other things, that the condition of the reef at that point was, "fair" and that the salt pond prevented the outflow of polluted fresh water into the two bays. It recommended various remedies to limit the environmental damage that would be incurred by the Marina Bay Condominiums project.

Abaco Grouper

Corals near the development site are already showing stress. This photo shows coral bleaching, a climate change related stress. Photographed by Jane McClanahan.

The report was shelves and the project went ahead. Part of the pond was reclaimed by dredge and fill methods and the condominiums were built. Within a few years, the impact of these changes had been felt: divers confirmed that there was dead coral on the reef, together with fewer fish, turbid water, and patches of dead sea grass around the channel. The salt pond, which had become a swamp, also suffered. Its mangroves began to die, because untreated sewage from hotels, was periodically emptied into the swamp. For several consecutive summers following the draining of the pond, thousands of fish died from lack of oxygen, their bodies rising to the surface of the rotting swamp. To solve this problem, the government pumped seawater into the swamp. The 'dilated' sewage spilled out of the swamp and ran down the beaches before escaping into the sea to join the frolicking tourists. There were also reports of raw hotel sewage being pumped directly into the sea that laps at its frontage, and so, as one observer noted, 'dispersing offal among the tourists, who are so happy to be in the sun, they do not notice what else they are in.'

The majority of Great Guana Cay's mangroves were removed by the Bakers Bay Club. This is a travesty. But there is hope. Locals and supporters of the opposition to the development have expressed interest in restoring this habitat after the developer leaves. Successful mangrove reintroduction projects have been successful in the past. And a motivated local population makes the hope for restoring the mangrove habitat that much closer to a reality.

09.25.07 | Coral Reefs

Caribbean Coral Nears Extinction, Runoff Responsible

Time Magazine discusses the role of development runoff in the death of corals in the Caribbean in a recent article on the subject. The article states, "...Six species of reef-building coral could vanish from the Caribbean due to rising temperatures and toxic runoff from islands' development, according to a study released Thursday. "

The importance of runoff and mangroves destruction in the health of coral reefs was almost never discussed in the media only a few years ago. But they are catching on.

February 23, 2007 | Coral Reef

New Photo Horrifies Locals, Scientists

Coral Habitat

Photo Courtesy SGCR

A new photo reveals the rate of development on the northern end of the Bakers Bay Club development. This photo, which only shows about half of the development, reveals the construction pattern for the golf course and many of the mansions. The photograph reveals a rate of construction which is leaking harmful nutrients into the reef at a rate that has likely already caused damage to a reef which scientists call the 'finest example' in all of the Bahamas.

The photo also reveals a light white streak in the bottom half of the image, in the Sea of Abaco. That is silt escaping from the silt curtain. In the 1980's, Disney and Premiere Cruiselines dredged here, and the photo reveals their massive deepwater dredge operation in the very bottom of the image.

January 01, 2010 | whereabouts

Global Coral Issues Report on Bakers Bay

 

Internationally recognized coral scientist Tom Goreau has issued a statement regarding the Bakers Bay development on behalf of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. Below is the complete text of the statement:

Thomas J. Goreau, PhD
President, Global Coral Reef Alliance

The massive destruction of mangrove forests in northwestern Guana Cay, Abacos, by the Bakers Bay Development Scheme (“Passerine at Abaco Resort Community Development”) to create a huge marina and golf course in mangroves and low lying forest areas, and to nearly quadruple the number of houses on the island, should be stopped immediately before it destroys what is left of the coral reefs and fisheries of the region.

Damaged Coral

Mangroves, essential to Guana Cay's fisheries, have been torn apart only feet from the vital estuary that feeds the relationship between the island's reef, seagrass beds and saltwater flats.

The Bahamas needs sound economic development that protects it’s environmental resources, but this is a classic case of the sort of developments that have been allowed to cause untold damage in the past and which should no longer be permitted, now that the cumulative damage is clearly visible, and will be made far worse by climate change in the near future. Much stronger environmental laws and oversight are urgently needed because the Bahamas has permitted developments whose environmental costs have neither been recognized nor compensated for, and the accelerating pressures of global climate change make continuation of such policies a fool’s paradise of profiting today and ignoring all the consequences that will strike tomorrow.

Large areas of critical mangrove habitat on the site have already been bulldozed and burned in order to create space for a golf course, marina, and more than 400 houses plus hotel accommodations, in an area that was flooded by the last hurricane. These developments already have, or soon will, destroy critical nursery areas for many species of reef fish, conch, and lobster.

Of critical importance are the coral reefs, lying just offshore from the areas being destroyed for this development, which rank among some of the best left in the Bahamas, and which are critical for the livelihood of Guana Cay residents. These reefs are extremely vulnerable to any nutrients that will inevitably wash onto them from the adjacent fertilizers of the golf course and the inadequately treated sewage of the more than 400 houses and other residential units that will be constructed on this currently uninhabited site.

Coral reefs are the most nutrient-sensitive ecosystem on earth. They are adapted

Construction Crew

Corals can survive only a light footprint. Image of construction crews in the early days of the Bakers Bay development.

to clear, clean waters, and are overgrown and killed by weedy algae at lower nutrient levels than any other habitat. We now know that it takes only 0.014 parts per million of nitrogen and only 0.003 parts per million of phosphorus to turn healthy coral reefs into masses of algae devoid of all marine life except a couple of algae eating fish. My ecological assessment of the site indicates that the entire area is already close to this threshold even before the massive new fertilizer and sewage releases from this project begin.

My assessment of this site is based on personal observations of the algae and over 50 years of experience of studying the role of algae on coral reefs, and the impacts of nutrients on them. I watched the coral reefs of Jamaica and many other places around the world destroyed by algae overgrowth caused by nutrient buildup in coastal waters from fertilizers and inadequately treated sewage, studied the impacts of nutrients on algae growth. I wrote the review on the impacts of land-based sources of nutrients on coral reefs and fisheries, and how to control them, for the United Nations Expert Meeting on Waste Management in Small Island Developing Countries. In addition I also wrote the National Coral Reef Assessment and Management and Restoration Strategy for the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Bahamas’ closest neighbour and the most similar country ecologically. Turks and Caicos is the only country in the world that forces all developers to recycle all their waste waters on their own property.

Tarpon are in danger

Tarpon swim along the Great Guana Cay barrier reef. Photo by Erik gauger

I dived at several coral reef sites near the Bakers Bay development on February 9 2007. It should be noted that this is the coldest and driest time of the year and therefore the corals are the least affected by bleaching, diseases, and algae overgrowth, in contrast to the earlier independent assessments made at warmer times of the year by Dr. Michael Risk and Dr. James Cervino. Nevertheless, my observations completely back their conclusions, and refute the claims of the environmental impact assessment made by the development’s hired consultants, which irresponsibly downplay or ignore the impacts to the reefs and fisheries that the development would inevitably cause.

Although widely regarded as some of the best reefs remaining in the Bahamas, these reefs have clearly suffered from the cumulative impacts of accelerating stress from increasing nutrients over the last decade. Older photographs of these reefs taken by Erik Gauger show little or no algae, but at present there is about 2-3 times more bottom coverage by algae than live corals, even though these observations were made at the season of minimum algae abundance. The buildup of algae and bacterial slime will rapidly smother most of what is left once new nutrients are added. At present there are still large numbers of sand producing algae that build the beach, but as nutrients increase these will be overgrown and killed by weedy algae that produce no sand, so that they new supply of sand will vanish while the corals that protect the beach from waves die from algae and disease, as sea level rises, and while hurricanes greatly increase in strength.

Especially worrisome is the high abundance of weedy algae species indicating high nutrient levels, especially Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae, but which here are predominantly slimy and reddish in color) overgrowing dead and dying corals, sea fans, and gorgonians. This problem will get far worse when the water warms and more nutrients are added. That this algae abundance is due to excessive buildup of nutrients from existing developments in the Abacos and not due to over-fishing is clear because the fishes are dominated by algae-eating surgeonfish and parrotfish, but they are unable to control the algae buildup from smothering and killing corals. Local fishermen who have known these reefs for decades say that the algae buildup has happened over the last 5-10 years. In addition the water on the leeward side of the island, where the Marina entrances will be located, is already chronically green, indicating high nutrients.

Proud Bahamians join to protest Bakers Bay Club

Guana locals protest the Bakers Bay Club.

It is clear that a long term plan to identify and map all the nutrient sources to the coastal zone, and the use of modern methods to recycle all of the nutrients on land and prevent coastal pollution need to be used in the Bahamas. Most of the corals are already gone, and it is only a matter of time for the rest if the current path of development continues in which all the waste nutrients go into the ground and then into the sea. Instead new methods need to be used to recycle the nutrients on land and feed them to plants and forests that are clearly starved of nutrients. Several new and highly efficient methods to do just this will be presented on May 7 2007 at the Partnership of New Technologies for Small Island States at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, which I am organizing and invite the Bahamas delegation to participate in.

It is therefore clear that nutrients are already excessive and must be reduced through improved sewage management and nutrient recycling, not only in Guana Cay, but also in the Marsh Harbour region, if these reefs are to survive in the long run. It is equally clear that any conversion of the site from natural mangrove and forest to marinas, golf courses, and houses will inevitably add huge new nutrient sources from fertilizers and sewage that will swamp the existing nutrient sources, and very rapidly kill the remaining reefs and fisheries within a few years. Not only should the Baker’s Bay project be stopped, the developers should restore and mitigate the damage they have caused, and in my view they should be required to pay compensation to the people of Guana Cay for the destruction they are causing to local reefs and fisheries.

Reefs before Disney and Bakers Bay Club

Photographs taken before Disney and Discovery Land Company reveal the story of a reef before unchecked development. Photo by Erik Gauger

In addition to damage from algae there has clearly been a large amount of mortality several decades ago of the magnificent elkhorn and staghorn coral forests that my grandfather photographed in the Bahamas in the 1940s. Large dead elkhorn corals dominate the shallow water, and the amount of living ones are small, young, and less than one percent of what they were. Not a single live staghorn coral was found, although their dead broken skeletons are common on the bottom. These two species are the most important in protecting the shoreline from erosion. There has clearly been a large amount of partial mortality of the large head and brain corals from coral bleaching caused by global warming, and much of this took place in 2005. However, one unusual feature of these reefs is the unusually high abundance of young corals of the uncommon species Manicina areolata or “rose coral”.

I have compiled long term satellite temperature records for the Bahamas, and the trends are clearly upwards, so severe bleaching events, like hurricanes, are bound to become more frequent and intense in the future. Given the fact that the Bahamas is the most vulnerable country in the Atlantic to global warming and global sea level rise, it is crucial that the Bahamas develop a strong leadership voice in international efforts to stop human-caused climate change. Given that it would be the first Atlantic country to be drowned, its silence at international climate change conferences has been astonishing, as if people would rather hide their head in the sand than face the facts confronting them and stand up for their own long term interests.

Unparalleled Beauty

The Guana Cay reef is a unique and beautiful treasure; more than a tourist draw for Guana Cay, it is of international importance.

The Bahamas is now racing down the same unsustainable track which has destroyed the reefs of Florida, and where 50 mile long blooms of slime have smothered the reefs next to sewage outfalls, and where hiding the sewage underground by deep well injection of wastes has been claimed to be the “dilution solution to pollution”. It is not: the sewage has been held back for a few years underground but is now pouring out of the deeper rock layers into the sea, causing blooms of algae and bacterial slime that are now killing reefs from the offshore side. Tragically, the Florida developers and sewage injectors are now bringing their methods to the Bahamas, which is even more vulnerable. South Floridians have a whole continent they can move to when the rising seas drown South Florida, but Bahamians do not have this option and must protect what they have.

One could hardly imagine a worse site for such a development if we desire to preserve our coral reefs, mangroves, and fisheries. This project would only temporarily enrich a handful of speculators and their hired help at the price of severe long-term costs to the Bahamian environment and people, like the developments underway in Bimini and so many other places. It should be stopped immediately before it causes further harm. If allowed to continue this development will devastate the resources from which the people of Guana Cay live, for the benefit of foreign speculators who are unlikely to ever see the consequences of their irresponsible actions. It is typical of an outdated model of development that enriches large foreign investors with no real long-term concerns about the future of the Bahamas, and will provide mainly low paid jobs for Haitian immigrants. In sharp contrast, Guana Cay is a model for small-scale locally owned tourism, which creates a completely different ambience that more tourists prefer, causes far less environmental damage, and in the long run is more economically beneficial to the Bahamian economy.


Global Coral team examines the reef

A team organized by Global Coral Reef Alliance examines a 200 year old coral structure just feet off the shore from Bakers Bay Club. This reef structure, stressed and 'bleached' by rising sea temperatures in this 2006 photograph by James Cervino, faces insurmountable obstacles posed by the Bakers Bay Golf course.

I urge the Government of the Bahamas to promptly enact and enforce environmental laws to protect the Nation’s natural resources before they are further destroyed or degraded, and in particular to immediately stop this damaging “development” scheme. It is astonishing that the Bahamas is one of the few countries in the world with no real laws to protect the environment, especially the coral reefs and mangroves that are so crucial to it. For years long-term divers in the Bahamas have been telling me how fast the reefs are disappearing. In fact the damage is now so extensive that even saving and strictly protecting ALL remaining habitat in good condition will not be enough. Large-scale restoration of damaged coral reefs and mangroves will be needed if the country is to maintain its shore protection from rising sea level, its fisheries, and its ecotourism value. A long term sustainable environmental policy that is enforced is the badly needed first step.

I have voluntarily looked at this site, with no payment for my time, because of the urgency of the issues involved in this particular project, which has achieved worldwide notoriety for its destructiveness, the incompetence of its environmental impact assessment with regard to marine impacts, the give-away of Bahamian Crown Lands to foreign developers, and the near unanimous opposition of local residents. I have dived longer and in more reefs all around the Caribbean, Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia than any other marine scientist in the world, and advise international agencies, governments, non-profit community groups and environmental conservation groups, hotels, and dive shops on protecting and restoring coral reefs all around the globe. My only personal consideration is the preservation and restoration of the coral reefs for future generations.