Armed with Seedlings, Ecologist Gary Ray Sets Out To Stop Erosion at Maho Bay


New plantings at Maho Bay beach, above, will hopefully help to stabilize sand and soil and cut down on erosion in the area.

V.I. National Park rangers and local ecologists have long known about the serious erosion issue facing Love City’s famed north and south shore beaches, yet they had no budget to tackle the problem — until recently.

“This all started with a discussion I had with [VINP Chief of Resource Management] Rafe Boulon regarding the park’s need to control erosion on some of the beaches,” said local plant ecologist Gary Ray. “In particular the number one problem was Maho Bay because of the vehicles parking on the sea side of the road which led to the elimination of vegetation there.”

The two decided to focus on a few native tree species with root systems effective at anchoring the soil,  Ray explained.

“Rafe asked me what I could do and I said, ‘Let’s focus on a few native beach forest species,’” said Ray, who owns Virgin Forest Restoration. “Also I suggested we look at the bigger picture and for each beach we drew up a plan to minimize erosion and restore native plants.”

While the beach specific plans were formed, VINP officials began the Maho Bay beach protection program by halting parking on the beach side of North Shore Road and creating a parking area nearby.

Plastic white posts and “No Parking” signs now clearly delineate where vehicles can and cannot park in the area.

Yet there was still no budget for Ray to get started reintroducing native plants on the shoreline. Which is when green villa Eco Serendib owner Harith Wickrema got involved in the project, Ray explained.

“Harith Wickrema was looking for a way to allow his guests to contribute to conservation because his villa itself has a lot of sustainable amenities,” said the plant ecologist.

Eco Serendib’s Beach Restoration Program aims to counteract carbon emissions while combating erosion by planting one native tree at an area beach for every night booked at the villa.

“We had a meeting and then we brought all of these things together; the unfunded park project and his desire to put something back into the park and help move ahead with the strategy to stem the erosion,” said Ray.

Now, thanks to funding from Eco Serendib, Ray is set to try to keep as much sand in place on the beaches as possible. He has plans for eight beaches, five on the north shore and three on the south shore.

“In the immediate term I drew up a plan for Maho, so we’d start there,” he said.

Ray has already planted about 50 native tree species at Maho Bay beach and near the museum building at Cinnamon Bay, with more planned for both locations.

Ray relies on sea grape trees (Coccoloba uvifera) as one of the main species to anchor sand.

“Sea grape is kind of our poster plant,” said Ray. “Ecologically speaking, it’s our most important and the reason is the root system is so prolific.”

With both feeder roots fairly close to the surface, yet deep enough to keep sand in place, and woody growth which expands out horizontally from the tree, sea grapes are ideal for halting sand erosion.

“Sea grapes evolved in a way that the top six inches of the roots are not touched by the tide which washes away the sand,” said the plant ecologist. “And the species also puts the appropriate roots into the sand deep enough that they rarely fall over in storms. We’re relying on this ecological adaptation to be the number one erosion control.”

Most of the plantings at Maho Bay are sea grape trees, yet Ray also plans to plant orange manjack (Cordia rickseckeri) in the area.

“Orange manjack trees have a single erect stem and grow very tall and put down very deep roots,” said Ray. “The idea is to have trees that reach the canopy and put down very deep roots that are really good stabilizers.”

Ray also plans to use false nutmeg (Cassine xylocarpa), which produces a fruit called “nothing nut.”

“You grab the fruit and hammer it with a cleaver and cut in half and it looks like wood all the way through,” said Ray. “But the outer coating of the seed is tasty and nutritious for bats who have been feeding on them for centuries. They are also extremely salt and drought resistant.”

Other trees Ray plans to plant to help halt erosion include caneel (Canella winteriana), gree gree tree (Bucida buceras), dog almond (Andira inermis), black mampoo (Guapira fragrans), and water mampoo (Pisonia subcordata).

While all of the plantings are still thriving, Ray was shocked to find that two plantings had been run over by cars.

“The biggest threat is still the traffic at Maho,” he said. “What happens is the removal of trees by cars tearing up the roots and compacting the soil. Even though the park has the white markers and signs, people still park on the sea side of the road.”

“A few little seedlings have been run over there,” said Ray. “You could see tire treads in the sand there so there is no doubt how it happened. But both of them survived.”

After plantings are complete at Maho and Cinnamon Bays, Ray plans to address erosion at Hawksnest, Trunk and Francis Bay before heading south to Salt Pond Bay, Lameshur Bay and eventually Reef Bay.