Connecting with Nature: U.S. EPA Honors Local Environmental Activists

Left: Kaitlyn, Frank and Tammy Cummings at EPA’s office in New York representing C.O.R.E. Right: Harith Wickrema accepting award for the lsland Green Living Association with Lisa Herbst and Mark Lichtenstein.

On May 19, two of my Fish Bay neighbors, Frank Cummings and Harith Wickrema, were in lower Manhattan to receive Environmental Champion Awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2 office (which covers New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

Frank Cummings, the Education Outreach Director for The C.O.R.E Foundation (Caribbean Oceanographic Restoration and Education), has worked tirelessly over the past few years to protect St. John waters from invasive Pacific lionfish, which are threatening to eradicate many of the local reef fish. With his wife, Tammy, he runs SNUBA diving operations at Trunk Bay and Coki Beach, and was dismayed when he first started seeing lionfish about 5 years ago. He joined C.O.R.E. in 2012 to help develop an effective search, response and education program for the Virgin Islands.

Frank Cummings with speared lionfish. Photo credit: Don’t Stop Talking Fish.

The dramatic-looking lionfish are favorites for saltwater aquariums. A few seem to have gotten loose in southeast Florida in the 1980s, and now they are spreading throughout the Caribbean, where they have no predators, and local fish have no defenses against them. They are very aggressive hunters, and swallow smaller fish whole. Frank has seen them hunt in packs like wolves, circling and steering a bunch of reef fish until they are trapped, then sucking them up in seconds – essentially vacuuming the reef.

C.O.R.E. members have trained and organized local divers and snorkelers to help locate and kill the intruders. But more keep coming.

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Frank is now talking with experts at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about designs for traps that can capture groups of lionfish as they congregate, so management efforts can be more efficient. Trying to finding and spear each one individually is an exhausting task.

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He would also like to learn more about how the lionfish communicate with each other as they form groups and hunt together, in order to figure out how to disrupt those activities. In a potentially relevant study, scientists have recently sequenced the genome of Pacific crown-of-thorns starfish – which eat corals – to search for genetic coding related to the way the starfish communicate using chemical plumes. Learning how to interfere with this communication activity could help scientists protect the corals on the Great Barrier Reef – and it may turn out that lionfish in the Caribbean can be controlled using a similar strategy.

Harith Wickrema was honored by the EPA for his efforts as President of St. John’s Island Green Living Association (Island Green): “His many accomplishments include establishing an aluminum can collection/crushing program, initiating a sustainability curriculum in schools to teach students about the importance of recycling, gardening and composting, and spearheading legislation that bans plastic bags, mandates source separation and imposes a bottle deposit to encourage recycling.”

When accepting the award at the ceremony in New York, Harith was joined by Lisa Herbst from the Island Green Living Association and Mark Lichtenstein, Executive Director of Sustainability at the State of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, who supplied expert testimony on the VI recycling bills. Harith emphasized the importance of teamwork, mentioning the contributions of the Island Green directors and volunteers, as well as VI Commissioners Sharon McCollum and Dawn Henry, Senators Nellie Rivera-O’Reilly and Marvin Blyden, and Governor Kenneth Mapp.

Sustainable waste management is a major challenge on a small island, and many hands are certainly needed to make it happen. Island Green engages volunteers in collecting aluminum cans from stations located near the dumpsters and running them through a crushing machine to facilitate recycling. The association also operates a ReSource Center for distribution of unneeded building materials and reusable household items.

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Government action is critical, and Harith has also played an important role on the board of the VI Waste Management Authority, including co-authoring the recently-passed legislation limiting distribution of plastic bags by local stores. This legislation is important for protecting sea turtles. Many turtles mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, and end up choking on them.

Since there is no good way to dispose of garbage on St. John, Harith envisions a goal of ‘zero waste’. This involves rethinking the whole concept of garbage production and disposal. Island Green’s education initiative introduces students to composting, which can remove a large volume of discarded items from the waste stream, while also providing soil enrichment to support local food production – another critical element for sustainability on a small island.

A number of other Virgin Islanders received EPA Environmental Champion Awards this year as well.

Benjamin Keularts from the VI Department of Planning and Natural Resources on St. Croix was cited for his work on the territory’s Water Pollution Control Program, and Christina Chanes represented UVI’s Water Ambassador Program, which educates students about water conservation and testing.

The award for the Springline Architects firm highlighted their leadership in educating builders and community members about sustainable building design and construction, with a focus on drainage controls, water runoff treatment, and clean energy.

Karl Callwood was recognized for his work on protecting Mandahl Bay on St. Thomas from development, which involved extensive research, photography, and public outreach designed to save this precious local ecosystem.

Finally, the volunteer St. Thomas Bat Team was honored for calling attention to the ecological importance of local bat species, through opportunities for people to ‘Meet the Bats’ at study sites, and through ‘Bat Labs’ where students can learn about bat tagging and conservation techniques. The team also helps community members deal with unwanted bats in their homes.

Reef Bay bats. Photo Gail Karlsson.

There are so many ways to be an environmental champion. Congratulations and thanks to all the awardees.

Gail is an environmental lawyer, and author of The Wild Life in an Island House, plus a guide book Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John.  For more articles and local information, go to or  Contact: