Record Number Turn out for Town Hall Meeting, Decry Bimini Environmental Damage, Urge Marine Protected Area Legislation

A crowd reported to be the largest in Bimini’s history for a public meeting turned out for a town hall organized by locals who sought support from Save The Bays and Waterkeepers Bahamas to crystallize the urgency of enacting the already declared North Bimini Marine Reserve in the face of ongoing environmental damage that could take hundreds of years to repair and restore.

A crowd estimated to be the largest ever to gather for a public meeting in Bimini packed a school auditorium last week, many passionately decrying what they described as environmental devastation threatening to erode fish populations, wipe out endangered species and suffocate the island’s famous coral reefs and critical wetlands.  

 
A few in the highly charged audience claimed the resort, casino and residential development in North Bimini that is being blamed for the damage created jobs. Most shouted the consequences were too great. They cited world-famous coral reefs clobbered or choked by sediment during dredging for a 1,000-foot pier that a year after its construction sits unused. They pointed to materials they could not identify strangling mangroves. They spoke of 163 acres of wetlands smothered by waste and in places what appears to be cement. 
 
The meeting, called by locals who asked environmental advocacy groups Save The Bays and Waterkeepers Bahamas to assist, tackled unsustainable development, the need for true local government and the repeated call for legislation to enact the North Bimini Marine Reserve. 
 
Perhaps more importantly, it crystallized a devotion to Bimini’s famed waters and reefs among locals and visitors to whom Bimini is a second home, several of whom traveled to the island just for the meeting.
“What this meeting should be about is the legislation for the North Bimini Marine Reserve (NBMR),” said Neal Watson II, whose family has been leading dive tours in Bimini for nearly 50 years. “I don’t think there is anyone here tonight who does not agree. Going forward, the clear discussion should be: Where is it, what is it and what are the rules?” Watson traced the history of promises of a marine reserve back to the 1980s when the Bahamas Dive Association first called for it. By 1999, it had official attention and between 2008 and 2009, government announced the declaration of the North Bimini Marine Reserve with the news receiving wide local and international attention, but no legislation followed. Nearly a decade later, that declaration remained just that – lacking the legislation to create it that would include boundaries, policy, rules and regulations.  
 
“Right now, globally, 50% of the reefs are gone, 50% of the mangroves are gone, 50% of the forests are gone, more than 50% of fresh water is gone,” said environmentalist Sam Duncombe, urging Bimini to protect its remaining reefs and the mangroves. “When you bring in the green economy, when you make a living because you are taking your visitors to places of natural beauty, you are preserving what is giving you that money, the beauty that those visitors came to see and enjoy. You are allowing future generations to live on that.”
 
Duncombe’s words fell on wide open eyes following the viewing of a video by Switzerland-based Save Our Seas that painted a real time picture of the waters and marine life, the dredging and destruction, the mangling of the mangroves.
 
One woman said she attended the meeting because she was scared that the Bimini she fell in love with for its beauty was being compromised.
 
“I thought Bali was the most beautiful place in the world and then I saw Bimini,” she said.
“We feel Bimini is at a critical place right now,” said Jenny Cook, who spearheaded the organization of the meeting. Cook, who operates a yoga retreat and conducts tours to swim with dolphins in the wild, said the meeting represented “a new beginning.”
 
For Waterkeepers Bahamas Executive Director Rashema Ingraham who lives in Grand Bahama, the meeting had special meeting. Her family hails from Bimini and relatives were among those begging to save the waters that drew about 50,000 visitors a year to the islands in the northern Bahamas before a sophisticated high rise Hilton, megayacht marina and gambling came to the island. Her welcome remarks hit home with many.
 
“These gems, called the Bimini islands, have a special place in history. The natural beauty, captivating mangroves forests, colourful dive sites – the magnificent and diverse marine species, have touched the hearts of Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King II. There is no mistake that Emmanuel Francis, Alexander Weech, Benjamin Saunders and George Levarity have all, in days of old, made Bimini their home.  Here, making a living and feeding their families because of the abundant blessings from the waters surrounding us.
 
“The bayside to the East, the Oceanside to the West, meeting together by waves – giving Bimini life.  Precious life, sacred life, abundant life, harmonious life. Tonight, let’s remember the memories of Captain Manny Rolle, Captain Bob Smith & Bob Gladden. Let’s remember Bonefish Ray Pritchard and Rudy Dames and of course Bonefish Ansil Saunders and my dear Cyril Saunders.
 
Let’s remember all before us, and those after us as we work towards HISTORY – his-story, her-story, your story – OUR STORY that respects and appreciates the magnificence of the natural, tranquil but complex systems of the islands of Bimini.
 
“Words, pictures, videos, voices, emotions, passion, curiosity, perseverance HOPE but no fear emits from us all.  This is the NEW BEGINNING. The African Proverb says “If you want to go somewhere fast, go alone.  If you want to go somewhere far, go together.”  We are going together, working together – to SAVE OUR HOME.
According to Cardinal Bain, too much has already changed. 
 
“The time right now is critical. I remember Bimini back then as a tropical paradise,” said Bain. “Fast forward. There are no birds left. No butterflies. I haven’t seen a butterfly in two years. The sea turtles have diseases. There’s no sand on the beaches. There’s beach erosion. The waters of our island are not as clear as they used to be. Fifty percent of the mangroves have been ripped up for development.”  
 
Resorts World Bimini spokesperson Michelle Malcolm attended the meeting along with other representatives from RWB, RAV and related companies. Malcolm insisted that much of the damage being discussed was not the fault of Resorts World, but when the dredging issue for the 1,000-foot pier was raised, she said, “What happened, happened,” and indicated that Resorts World wanted to move on and develop better relationships with more dialogue with locals, one of whom immediately spoke of promises in abeyance.
 
“What we are calling for is for Mr. Capo to carry out the promises he made legally… in Phase One for a new school, new water plant, new fire truck, an expanded and improved clinic,” said one participant who called for a halt to construction to allow time for assessment.  
 
Now, many fear that the plans for a golf course will go through.
“What I know is that I been a fisherman all my life,” said Denver Stuart. “Tourists ain’t really coming here to gamble because they have the same from state to state in the U.S. They ain’t come here for the Hilton. They tell me that. They coming here for the fresh conch, the fresh fish, the clean waters and all the marine life we have that is available for them to snorkel or to scuba.” 
 
Stuart said the thousands of shrimp that lined the coast a few years ago had now all but vanished, their habitat in the wetlands devastated by concrete and other waste covering the mangroves.
Speaker after speaker spoke of dramatic changes.
 
“Bimini has 300 years of history, now we have to put sea walls where they were never needed before,” said Aaron Franklin Smith.
 
Clifton-Western Bays Waterkeeper and Director of Legal Affairs for Save The Bays Fred Smith, QC, declared the root of the problem went beyond environmental impact to how decisions were made.
 
“The big challenge that Bimini has and all the islands of The Bahamas face is that the government in Nassau runs the country. It is called the Commonwealth of The Bahamas islands, not the Commonwealth of Nassau,” said Smith. “Nassau needs to experience the power of the people. I can feel the frustration, I can feel the anger, I can feel the disgust, I can feel the hope. You should not have be talking to the (Cabinet) minister about whether or not you should have a park. Save The Bays is not against development. We never have been. We need true local government in The Bahamas.”    
 
Save The Bays had begun legal action on behalf of Bimini Blue Coalition but that action came to a dramatic halt when the government filed a motion to place a $600,000 security for costs for the case to move forward.
Speaking to a standing room only crowd at the close of the two-hour, sometimes volatile meeting, Save The Bays Chairman Joe Darville pleaded with Biminites and those who flew or boated in for the meeting to stand up for what they believe in.
 
“Contact the Minister of Environment and Housing, or your MP, let your local government representatives know Bimini is our home and our voices will be heard.”
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