By Neil Hartnell
Tribune Business Editor
A fisheries group is urging the developers behind the $580m South Abaco mixed-use resort project to “abandon” that location amid fears of “detrimental effects for the entire country”.
The Fisheries Conservation Foundation, which has strong ties to The Bahamas due to the research it conducts here and its links to the Eleuthera-based Island School, has renewed its call for Tyrsoz Family Holdings to shift its proposed development to an already-used site such as a marina/resort that is either up for sale or lying derelict.
The group, which was one of multiple environmental organisations to sign an April 15, 2019, letter urging the prime minister to reject the project, doubled down on warnings about the negative impact on Abaco’s bonefishing industry and fisheries population if development proceeded as planned.
“The importance of the bonefish recreational fishery to The Bahamas cannot be overstated,” the foundation said in a statement. “In a country whose economy relies heavily upon tourism, this iconic fishery is a vital component of that industry, particularly in the Family Islands.
“According to a 2009 survey, there were more than 60 bonefish guides on Abaco, and the total economic benefit to the island was more than $20m annually. Since that time, those numbers have undoubtedly grown substantially as a result of the addition of new lodges and the expansion of independent guide services.
“On average, anglers spend $600 more per trip than general visitors, and those economic benefits extend beyond fishing guides and lodges to the broader economy in many ways - to restaurants, shops, car rental companies and tour operators.”
The proximity of the Tyrsoz Family Holdings project to breeding grounds for bonefish and other fish/marine mammals is what is alarming the foundation, which fears those vital habitats will be altered for ever should the project proceed.
Dr David Philipp, the Foundation’s chairman, said: “Bonefish throughout the Bahamas undergo long distance migrations to spawn at one of only a few specific aggregation sites. Because the proposed Tyrsoz development is adjacent to the aggregation/spawning site at South Abaco - one of the largest and most important in all of the Bahamas - construction and operation of such a development would clearly impede bonefish migrations, potentially causing them to abandon this site all together.
“That outcome would undoubtedly trigger substantial declines to the bonefish population throughout the Little Bahama Bank. In addition, the proposed development would also greatly reduce or even eliminate the areas at Cross Harbour that serve as nursery grounds for juvenile bonefish, queen conch and Nassau groupers.”
Dr Aaron Shultz, one of the Foundation’s fisheries biologists, added: “We strongly recommend that plans to develop this site be abandoned. Barring that, a better site in a less ecologically sensitive area should be selected. In that case, serious consideration should be given to selecting a site that has already been altered in the past - an abandoned marina or resort.”
Should the Tyrsoz Family Holdings project remain in the same location following the completion of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Management Plan (EMP), the Foundation called for a “detailed mitigation plan” - showing how it would be built and funded - be approved before any construction takes place.
“We hope that an accurate assessment of the true ecological impacts of the proposed development will be fully conducted, reviewed by outside experts, and made public prior to any decisions on whether or not this proposed project moves forward,” said the Foundation’s Dr Liz Wallace.
“The loss/decline of these iconic species would have tremendously detrimental long-term ecological, cultural and economic effects that would be felt not only throughout Abaco, but across the entire country as well.”
However, Tyrsoz Family Holdings and its principal, Ronnie Ben-Zur, have repeatedly emphasised that addressing all environmental concerns is at the top of their agenda. The developer’s promotional material promises to create “a world-class, environmentally-sustainable luxury island retreat with local appeal via the participating community while, importantly, maintaining South Abaco’s natural charm”.
“Tyrsoz Family Holdings Ltd’s financial advisor and real estate developer, Ra’anan ‘Ronnie’ Ben-Zur, is proposing a low-density, ultra-luxury hotel, residential and marina development for the secluded undeveloped coastal region of South Abaco, Bahamas,” their four-page booklet said.
“Based on sound economical footing, yet designed with great care and responsibility to the environment and original nature of the area, it is intended to provide significant ongoing and expanding employment opportunities for the community and important infrastructure improvements for the benefit of residents and visitors alike.”
Mr Ben-Zur’s career has largely involved transforming existing resort properties, such as the Radisson at JFK Airport and multiple hotels in Atlanta and Florida, rather than the “greenfield” property earmarked for the Tyrsoz Family Holdings project.
The developer is pledging to create 600 full-time jobs, and inject $2bn into south Abaco’s struggling economy, during the development’s first 10 years in operation.