LOCAL environmentalists are urging caution over the Government’s plans to develop the Manatee Bay area into an exclusive tourism product, warning that such a move would likely prove disastrous to both wildlife and potential investors.
“The Manatee Bay area contains the least disturbed and most valuable coastal habitat remaining on the island,” said zoologist Dr Byron Wilson.
“The area’s most famous ‘resident’, the Jamaican iguana, is one of the world’s rarest lizards, and its population is restricted to the dry limestone forest that borders Manatee Bay,” added Wilson.
Earlier this month, Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett told the Observer that the Government was examining the possibility of developing the prime waterfront property, which extends beyond Hellshire, and that he had even taken potential investors to look at the area.
“Manatee Bay has tremendous potential for tourism development and one which could be developed into a new frontier,” Bartlett said then.
He added at the time that Portmore in general had great potential for tourism development, noting that, among other things, it would be a good catchment for tourist workers.
But local environmentalists say it’s a bad idea to disturb the area which is also a spawning bay for the southern stingray and home to the crocodiles. It is also in that area that the bluetailed galliwasp was rediscovered in 1997, “not having been recorded since the late 1930s”.
“Survey efforts at the time also revealed the presence of the critically endangered cave frog, and one the island’s three endemic dwarf boa species. Hellshire also supports one of the island’s healthiest
populations of the Jamaican hutia (coney) — the island’s only native land mammal. And the list goes on,” the zoologist added.
“Together with a suite of endemic birds, invertebrates, and plants, and the most intact dry forest on the island, Hellshire is a treasure trove of Jamaica’s natural heritage, and is clearly the most important remaining natural coastal habitat left on the island. Sea turtles nest in Manatee Bay as well, which renders the area critically important for these endangered creatures — in large part because most of their historical nesting beaches have already been destroyed by tourism development,” he added.
But not only is it an invaluable habitat for certain critical species, the environmentalists insist that the area is completely unsuitable for tourism.
“The Manatee Bay area is in fact a horrible location for tourism development. This was the conclusion reached by a joint UWI-Institute of Jamaica study commissioned in 1970; more recent research has served to underscore this assessment,” Wilson said, who has done extensive research in the area.
“For starters, the water in Manatee Bay is extremely turbid; it's usually not possible to see one's feet while standing in only a foot of water. That is not the sort of clear blue Caribbean sea that tourists want to swim in,” he added.
“The combination of turbid water and plentiful but “invisible” stingrays renders the area decidedly unfriendly when it comes to water sports. I know because I was stung by a stingray at Manatee Bay several years ago, and at least four other UWI researchers have recently suffered the same fate,” the zoologist said further.
And Wilson is not alone in his opposition to the development of the area in the interest of tourism. President of Northern Jamaica Conservation Association (NJCA) Wendy Lee is also against any development there.
“It is so unsuitable (for tourism development). Everything creepy and crawly lives down there. It is a wilderness and it should remain a wilderness. It would be really a shame, totally a disaster, to try to do something to it. It is not some clear water, sandy bottom,” she told
“Are we gonna have no wilderness left in this country, nothing wild anymore? Are we going to allow hotels on every piece of coastline? We have to say enough is enough. Not only is it (Manatee Bay) extra special for endemic wildlife, it is totally unsuitable for hotel development,” the NJCA boss added.
Diana McCaulay, executive director of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), was in full agreement.
“I hope they are not seriously considering putting a hotel there. It would be a disaster. They really should try to learn the lesson from the north coast,” she said, while echoing the red flags raised by Wilson.
“Essentially, it (Manatee Bay) has important natural resources and there are some very practical things like the turbidity of the water and the existence of stingrays, (which) don't go well with tourists, (that should prevent any development there),” noted McCaulay.
She added that there was also the concern that Jamaica has “absolutely no track record in building of appropriate scale with developments like that”.
“Where in Jamaica is going to be left a protected areas or a national park for people to enjoy? Is the entire Jamaican coastline going to be ringed with hotels that you have to pay to get into?” she asked.