POINTE-A-PITRE— It's a construction site unprecedented in scale for Guadeloupe, the French island in the Caribbean. The dredging boats arrived in late February and are now working 24/7 on the Jarry site in the bay of Pointe-à-Pitre. If all goes well, the island will have a mega-terminal for containers in early 2016. That will require increasing the depth of port waters from 11.5 to 16 meters, which in turn means extracting seven million cubic meters of sediments from the seabed.

Guadeloupe seems to have succumbed to an imperious construction fever sweeping the entire Caribean region. In Jamaica, in Cuba, everywhere, there is digging and upsizing of discharge platforms designed to be ready when the new locks in the Panama canal become operational in 2016. These will allow the biggest container ships to sail through, meaning ships that can carry 16,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) of cargo, or 16,000 boxes measuring 38.5 cubic meters.

Pointe-à-Pitre will not be able to handle these container monsters, but it aims to receive the preceding generation of ships that will be rerouted in the region. There is also on the horizon even more changes that could come with a whole new Chinese-backed canal planned for Nicaragua to further connect Atlantic to Pacific.

The idea in Guadeloupe is to triple the island's annual cargo traffic from the 3.7 million tons registered in 2013. Half of that came in containers (200,000 TEU). The port wants to be able to receive ships with 5,000 TEU cargo capacity, or twice the size of those docking in Jarry now, and 12,000 TEU ships by 2020.

"We have no choice," says Yves Salaün, head of the Guadeloupe port authority's board of directors. "We have to follow the general movement in development or our goods will pass through other ports and their cost will increase." Predicting losses to the Guadeloupe economy of some 50 million euros a year without the expansion, port authorities convinced regional politicians and the French state to invest 210 million euros in the project. But this has turned out to be a veritable overhaul, and more complicated than its promoters had initially thought.

Impact on marine life

The problems began in October 2013, when the French Ecology Ministry's environmental and sustainable development agency CGEDD reviewed the construction site, likely the biggest in volume it had ever had to assess. Of the seven million tons of seabed that had to be dredged out, only 630,000 cubic meters could be used as backfill, the rest having to be thrown back into the sea, 10 kilometers from the coast.

But the environmental agency became concerned by these sediments whose composition was "not clearly identified" because of insufficient sampling. Drilling three times for samples then revealed the presence of arsenic, copper and heavy metals

Wide body squeezing through the Panama Canal. Photo: Dozenist

CGEDD also noted a "direct impact on marine life of great ecological value" in the form of noise, cloudiness and other factors. The risks would be particularly high in March and April, when humpback whales and large dolphins come to reproduce near the island.

The CGEDD was especially surprised that the public dossier on the project did not devote a single line to Martinique, the neighboring island, which was also planning to extend its container terminal, directly threatening a huge swath of coral reefs.

"The assessment is very strict, a little discouraging even," Salaün says, adding, however, that "we have made progress because of it."

Salaün, who took over in 2014, begins a kind of mea culpa to highlight all the efforts made since the project was first sketched out five years ago. "Gradually, we realized we were not up to this project, and our compensation estimates had been too low."

The first operations to transplant no fewer than 4,150 coral colonies and 3,300 square meters of healthy seagrasses suited to tortoise reproduction began in January, at the prefect's request. None of this had been foreseen before state services began battling to minimize the damage done by the work site.

Financial compensation

Guadeloupe fishermen have been at the forefront of this battle, not surprisingly as the future port will complicate their fishing activity. They have already been forbidden from working fewer than 500 meters from the east coast of the Basse-Terre because of chlordecone (CLD) pollution. This was an insecticide long sprayed onto banana plantations. They must also deal with invading lionfish, a fearsome predator that arrived from the Indian Ocean, and now with an immense, marine cloud of dredging mud, filled with hydrocarbons and paint residue from boats.

In October 2014, Guadeloupe hosted the Second International Conference on Biodiversity in the European Overseas. Fishermen used the opportunity to defend their cause with Nicolas Hulot, the French president's special environmental envoy.

Nicolas Díaz, general secretary of the regional fishing committee, explained that fishing here is essentially 800 little boats under 12 meters in length and one or two thousand professional fishermen catching 4,000-5,000 tons of fish.

The work will create tons of sediment that will spread over 70 square kilometers at least, suffocate the bed and deposit silt on the tourist beaches in the Gosier area. And that excludes the marine mammals that will also suffer.

The fishermen have also appealed to French Ecology Minister Segolène Royal directly. She was surprised by the simultaneous development of France's two Caribbean ports. "It is rather strange, the money being spent on both ports, all the environmental damage," she said.

The European Union is contributing 18.7 million euros by 2016 to the first phase of work at Jarry, expected to cost 87.8 million euros.

In mid-January, Guadeloupe fishermen finally made some progress: There would be more analysis of sediment, more ecological surveillance of the seabed, and they would be compensated for lost revenues. The Guadeloupe region estimated the cost of compensation, mitigation measures and further tracking of the environmental impact at 17 million euros.