On Wednesday, July 29th, 2009 a second public meeting was held for the construction of a cruise ship pier in the historic town of Falmouth on Jamaica's north coast. The meeting was necessary because the plan presented to the public in 2008 had changed substantially from a “finger” pier to a solid quay. In addition, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) had required a hydrodynamic study to ensure the currents in the inner Falmouth harbour (Oyster Bay) were understood, in order to assess the impacts of the quay construction on the Luminous Lagoon.
The organisms that cause the phenomenon of luminescence are called dinoflagellates (Pyrodinium bahamense). They are common, tiny animals the size of a pinhead. These are little critters that shine. The conditions that lead them to clump together and to persist over time, however, are extremely uncommon. The Luminous Lagoon near Falmouth is one of only FOUR such places in the entire world.
Essentially, the mechanisms that cause the persistently high concentrations of dinoflagellates at Oyster Bay are unique to this particular location. They are: (1) the position of the Martha Brae River causing a certain pattern of currents in the bay, a stratification of brackish and sea water and a concentration of nutrients favourable to these organisms; (2) the presence of sea breezes, starting at mid morning; (3) the absence of wind at night.
What happens is this: At night, the water column becomes stratified into brackish and salty water. At dawn, the dinoflagellates congregate upwards towards the light into the least dense salty layer, but not into the topmost layer. The morning trade winds then move this top layer of fresh/brackish water in a westerly direction. The sub-surface, uppermost layer of saline water, full of the dinoflagellates, is moved in an easterly direction towards the eastern shallows of the bay where the dinoflagellates find conditions to their liking –salty and warm. In short: it's complicated.
The question thus became: what will happen to these local conditions during and after the construction of the enormous solid cruise ship quay?
Smith Warner International carried out a hydrodynamic study to assess the currents in Oyster Bay, using a computer model. They tested the predictive power of their model by using a combination of a current meter as well as drogues (floating items). Current measurements were collected over only 45 days, using the meter. Two drogues were used to track currents over two days in May. This limited period of data collection will not capture any kind of seasonal variation – Smith Warner’s study had to meet a deadline that was apparently too short. Further, the data were averaged over the entire water column, and did not incorporate any of the stratification described above. As a result, the modeling done is extremely limited in its ability to predict how the proposed Falmouth Cruise Ship Quay will affect the Luminous Lagoon and its concentration of dinoflagellates.
This notwithstanding, it was clear at the July 29th public meeting that a decision has been taken to go ahead with this project, regardless of its potential impact on the heritage or natural resources of Falmouth and its environs. It was clear in the exuberance of the meeting Chairman, who, despite NEPA’s requirements for neutral chairmanship, was obviously in favour of the project. It was clear in the slick presentation on the new quay which did not mention the written reservations of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust – who did not see fit to attend the meeting themselves, to let the public hear of these reservations. It was clear in the speed with which the hydrodynamic study had been conducted, and in the references to work starting “shortly.” It was clear when NEPA reduced the requirements for notice of a public meeting from 21 to 10 days, and reduced the public comment period from 30 days to 14. It has been clear for several weeks in the advertisements in local newspapers for concessionaires. And it is crystal clear that new permits will be granted and this project will go ahead, as equipment has already started arriving at the port area.
Not even questions about the economics of the project were welcome at the public meeting. The Chairman of the Port Authority, Noel Hylton, initially responded to a request from a member of the public (that would be me) as to the financing with a brusque: “Submit your question to the Minister of Finance.” In response to murmurings from the crowd and encouragement from those around him, he did then take the microphone and say that yes, this is a loan of US$121 million at 4% over ten or eleven years, and yes, it will have to be paid back by already struggling taxpayers. There was no detailed information given on the economic benefits to the people of Falmouth or Jamaicans in general, beyond a mention of the amount of visitors that will result from these ships and a vague promise of jobs. Mr. Hylton’s reluctance to take the microphone suggested he felt no need to involve the public in these decisions.
And so it is that in all likelihood, the light of the little critters that shine will be dimmed, even extinguished entirely from that special place. It is also likely that this murky experiment with Jamaica's natural resources - I have not here described the cutting of the coral reef to accommodate the giant ships, or the dredging - will bring very small economic benefits to the people of Falmouth by way of short term, low paying jobs. It is very likely that an authentic place of history will be part Disneyfied, wholly faked, and this old town constructed on a crime against humanity - for Falmouth's wealth and status was built on the enslavement of Africans - will welcome cruise ship passengers with rum punches and mento dancers. And the little critters that shine will become part of history, perhaps part of a report headed "lessons learned," a story told by old people, perhaps eventually assuming the realms of myth.
So to anyone reading this living in Jamaica, my advice is this: go and see the Luminous Lagoon. And do it very soon...