By Robin Mahon
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Barbados gave several cruise ships permission to anchor off Barbados. In extending this helping hand, mistakes were made that have cost Barbados dearly.
The anchoring has destroyed extensive areas of live coral reef on the South and West coasts. This is the conclusion of recently published research carried out at The University of the West Indies.
The report also notes that this is an opportunity for Barbados and the region to learn from its mistakes, which is the purpose of the research report.
The project obtained data on the 28 cruise ships permitted to anchor off Barbados between March and September 2020, several of which anchored multiple times resulting in a total of 132 anchor drops.
Thousands of square metres of reef were visually confirmed by divers to have been destroyed. The potential area of habitat damage from all anchoring events was estimated to be in the region of millions of square metres.
So what mistakes were made? It appears that there was inadequate understanding of the potential damage caused by anchoring such enormous ships, as well as inadequate surveillance of exactly where anchoring was taking place.
When a large cruise ship anchors it not only drops an enormous anchor weighing in excess to five tonnes, but must also lay down up to 300m of heavy anchor chain.
As the ship swings at anchor the chain is dragged back and forth through an arc of up to 180 degrees, creating a semicircle of destruction on the sea floor the
size of a playing field.
In this way, huge areas of reef were destroyed last year on the south and west coasts of Barbados, as far north as off the cement plant. The time for recovery of these reef areas is in excess of 100 years.
The sheer space needed to anchor a cruise ship was also an issue with so many cruise ships seeking safe harbour in our waters. The fact is that there are very few shallow sandy areas off Barbados large enough to accommodate anchoring of ships this size without damaging reefs.
Reefs have long been recognized as essential for the Barbados tourism industry as they protect the shore, generate the white sand beaches and support livelihoods for those offering SCUBA diving, snorkeling, glass bottom boating and catamaran cruises.
So highly valued are our reefs that according to the Coastal Zone Management Act the fine for damaging just one square metre of reef is US$150.
The important lessons that could be learned and acted upon are: (1) the benefits to be gained from the decision to allow anchoring could never offset the losses of such large-scale and long-lasting damage caused to our coral reefs; (2) cruise ships should never be permitted to anchor in the shallow coral rich waters of Barbados or any other Caribbean destination; (3) cruise ships do not need to anchor since they can still find safe harbour in our waters by using the port facilities as needed, by holding the ship stationary in any location using the advanced onboard technology, and by drifting nearby in our waters when not working.
These lessons show a win-win option for all – no damage to sensitive reefs, no bad press for the cruise industry, no negative repercussions for governments.
Yet, despite awareness of the potential for reef destruction, cruise ships are still being permitted to anchor here in Barbados and important lessons do not seem to have been learned or acted upon.
It is time to demand that the government takes its drive for a blue economy more seriously. This is not even a hard choice to make.
Robin Mahon is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES), University of the West Indies,
Cave Hill Campus