(L to R) Friends of VINP volunteer Mike Marruquin, St. John plant ecologist Gary Ray, Eco Serendib owner Harith Wickrema and Friends of VINP Development Director Karen Vahling with a seagrape sapling at Maho Bay beach.
Years of high traffic human use on St. John, from parking vehicles along the shoreline at Maho Bay to thousands of feet walking to the beach at Cinnamon Bay, have caused severe shoreline erosion throughout V.I. National Park.
Several years ago, local plant ecologist Dr. Gary Ray devised a native plant restoration plan for five beaches along the island’s north shore as a way to anchor sand in place and fight the ongoing erosion. The plan included banning vehicles from parking on the coastline at Maho and planting native species of flora at Cinnamon, Trunk, Hawksnest, Francis and Maho Bays.
Although Ray had the plan completely designed, it needed funding in order to take root.
When environmentally conscious villa owner Harith Wickrema — who owns the progressively green Eco Serendib Villa and Spa — heard about the program, he knew it fit perfectly with his rental villa’s mission.
“We became involved in the Eco Serendib Beach Restoration Project because we very much wanted to give back to the St. John community while supporting our mission to reduce carbon emissions,” said Wickrema. “This program not only protects the island from the devastating impact of erosion — preserving our natural beauty and supporting the tourism industry which is so vital to our local community — but also counteracts the carbon footprint we all create.”
The project is coordinated by Friends of V.I. National Park, which is committed to protecting local resources.
“The Friends is deeply concerned about the ongoing deterioration of the beaches along the north shore and would like to do what we can to mitigate this damage and protect against future damage,” said Friends of VINP Executive Director Joe Kessler.
The program is supported by a portion of each stay at the eight-suite Estate Chocolate Hole villa. Wickrema was recently on island and presented Friends of VINP’s Development Director Karen Vahling with the latest donation from Eco Serendib.
“Our objective is to set aside a portion of income for every night the villa is rented while educating our guests about the vital work of Friends of VI National Park,” Wickrema said.
“Eco Serendib Villa and Spa is only eight suites but we have contributed nearly $20,000 to this program.”
The project began two years ago with a pilot program at Maho Bay and has since spread to Hawksnest Trunk and Cinnamon Bays, with work at Francis Bay planned next.
The money has been used to fund the propagations and reintroduction of native plant species along the shoreline as a way to halt the destructive erosion which threatens both natural and cultural resources, explained Ray.
“This erosion harms natural communities, but also threatens cultural resources, particularly at Cinnamon Bay beach where active archeological sites are getting undermined by massive dune wasting attributable mostly to winter storm events,” said the local plant ecologist.
Simply eliminating vehicle tires from Maho Bay Beach is not enough to bring back native plants to the area, which now fight with invasive species for space and nutrients, according to Ray.
“Human foot-traffic and construction has brought in exotic species with shallower root systems, including limeberry (Triphasia trifolia) shrubs, coconut (Cocos nucifera), and the expansion of a cosmopolitan weed tree called seaside maho (Thespesia populnea),” said Ray.
“These introduced species compete with our native flora for light, moisture and nutrients.”
So far, the project has seen about 60 trees planted on four of the five target shorelines, Ray explained.
“To date, more than 60 trees have been planted at four of the five beaches; only Francis remains, yet more saplings are needed at most beaches,” he said. “Seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera) composes most of the saplings being planted in this phase of our beach restoration project. It is a species of choice due to its massive root systems, which can help re-stabilize primary dunes.”
The plant list also includes smaller numbers of orange manjack, a deep-rooted, fast-growing coastal tree that attracts hummingbirds; false nutmeg, an evergreen shrub with woody seeds dispersed by bats; and canella, a handsome, red-berried evergreen tree of sand dunes, according to Ray.
The local plant ecologist has also overseen the installation of hardward cloth cages to protect the seasgrape saplings at Maho Bay beach from white-tailed deer, he added.
As Ray continues his work along the shorelines, Wickrema pledged continued support of the beach restoration project and hoped to inspire others to do the same.
“It continues to be our hope that our efforts will be an inspiration to others in the hospitality industry and beyond,” said the Eco Serendib Villa and Spa owner.
VINP officials also hope to educate beach-goers to the effects of erosion.
“Besides the technical solution of replanting trees, we also need to find ways of better educating visitors and residents on this issue,” Kessler said. “We are very grateful to the Harith Foundation for the forethought on the issue and generous support of this project.”
For more information about the beach restoration program, contact Friends of VINP at 779-4940. For more information about Eco Serendib Villa and Spa check out the website ecoserendib.com.