Bermuda may look like a pristine paradise, but pollution, pesticides, and overdevelopment are wreaking havoc on the island’s ecosystems.
Warning signs are causing scientists to become alarmed; they note that reductions in plant and animal species, as well as the ebbing health of some species, are important barometers of environmental degradation. Since 1997, the island’s sea grass beds—vital habitats for conch, sea urchins, rockfish, turtles, and spiny lobsters—have drastically declined; marine biologists say 20 percent of the 5,100 acres have been eradicated in the last decade alone. Leaching cesspits and dredging are blamed for the loss, but authorities promise sea grass beds will now be added to the list of protected areas of the island.
Disposal of waste, including sewage, is one of Bermuda’s biggest problems and one of the most prominent on the minds of environmentalists, who have worked in recent years to make sustainable development a public debate. The island burns its garbage at an incinerator constructed for $64 million in 1992; its tower, at Tynes Bay, Devonshire, is visible along the North Shore. Sewage waste, dissolved and pumped three miles out to sea from the South Shore in Paget has caused a growth surge in marine weeds that choke slower-growing corals—an ecological imbalance scientists are monitoring.
Pollutants in ponds and nature reserves—evident in the resulting populations of deformed toads—are also raising concern. A large part of the problem may be the lackadaisical attitude Bermudians have long held towards pesticides. For decades, householders have liberally sprayed bug-killers such as Baygon and Raid, prompting an organization called Pesticides Focus Group to push for the ban of such insecticides and the use of less-toxic alternatives.
Even Bermuda’s air quality is susceptible to modern contaminants. The large number of high-emission motorbikes, as well as cars, has raised air pollution to dangerous levels in some areas around the City of Hamilton, even exceeding annual readings of some European cities, scientists report. These are issues Bermudians must grapple with and find solutions to as island development, traffic, and population—along with their ugly fallout—seem only certain to worsen.
Rainwater is at a premium on an island, as households depend on it as their main source of freshwater—at least to run faucets, showers, baths, and toilets, if not for drinking. Large water tanks are built under every home, and rain is caught as it has been for centuries—on traditional white limestone slate roofs, whose pipes and gullies channel it to a subterranean tank. From there, water is pumped into domestic plumbing systems. There are also large public water-catchments for government use. Not surprisingly, water conservation is the rule amid chronic droughts. The summer of 2005 saw an extreme period of drought, with just 0.64 inches of rain in June, causing the worst water shortage in 50 years.
Conservationists have sounded warnings about the problem of increasing water consumption on the island, particularly the pressure it exerts on underground lenses, which supply larger private users, such as hotels, as well as the City of Hamilton. Bermuda residents consume an estimated 1.58 billion gallons of water annually; each cruise ship consumes up to 50,000 gallons daily in port. The island has just one reverse-osmosis plant, to supply the hospital and offset shortages, but experts argue several more plants are needed to avert future crises.
The extent to which the cruise industry benefits Bermuda has generated much debate on the island, but perhaps even more controversial is the question of whether Bermuda’s infrastructure could support the inevitable advent of far bigger ships. The world’s cruise liners are estimated to have nearly doubled in size every decade. The current generation of Panamax vessels launching from shipyards are longer (965 feet), wider (106 feet), and have a deeper draft (39.5 feet) than conventional ships; they are named for an enlarged superstructure design that fits maximum lock dimensions of the Panama Canal. Such ships can carry 3,000–4,000 passengers, double that of standard ships. However, critics question whether Bermuda could absorb that many cruise visitors without a negative impact on other tourists and residents. Another concern is the strain on the island’s already stretched transportation, garbage, sewage, and water systems, given that ships in port make liberal use of those services. King’s Wharf and Heritage Wharf at the Dockyard will receive the bulk of cruise ship passengers in the future, as these are the docking spots for mega-vessels. The government promises that enhanced public transport will provided to help move cruise visitors to points around the island, but the long-term fallout for the island’s other key ports, Hamilton and St. George’s, remains to be seen.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition