I just learned that the territory is set to host The United States Coral Reef Task Force annual jurisdictional meeting, Oct. 20—27, on St. Thomas. That means that representatives from all over the U.S. will witness how well the Department of Planning and Natural Resources’ Division of Environmental Enforcement does its job to protect and preserve Virgin Islands coral reefs.
What attendees will see, if they learn the truth, is that DPNR-EE is not doing its job at all. It makes me wonder how J.P. Oriol, commissioner of DPNR, who also chairs the All Islands Coral Reef Committee, is going to explain the extensive and documented destruction of our coral reefs from boat anchors and chains that has been allowed to happen under his watch.
Under the current administration, at any given time, there are often no working patrol boats, no availability of trained officers, no enforcement officers at all, no answers to the very clear call for clarity of the V.I. boating and anchoring laws, and NO CITATIONS or fines to actually put some teeth into the current V.I. laws intended to align with the exact goals of the Coral Reef Task Force.
It will be interesting to see how he is able to show his face during this weeklong event. It is the commissioner’s duty to oversee the protection and preservation of our valuable coral reefs. He seems to have lost sight of that duty. I see the coral reefs in Round Bay on St. John taking a beating daily from inexperienced and indifferent boaters and their guests. This has been reported to him by his staff and many concerned citizens, and yet we do not see him take the action to stop this coral reef destruction. Worse, there is every reason to believe that the territory’s other coral reefs are being similarly disrespected. Round Bay is one of St. John’s last living bays, but not if Mr. Oriol continues on his current path.
If Mr. Oriol wants to save face, redeem himself, and go down in history in a gloriously positive light, he would declare Round Bay with a protective designation that would immediately halt the coral destruction and keep Round Bay from becoming another Coral or Cruz Bay. It is within his power to do this. St. Thomas has East End Reserve, and St. Croix has the East End Marine Park. St. John already has an East End, but Round Bay in East End needs an official Marine Protected Area designation to be protected and preserved as it should be. St. John deserves her own sanctuary as much as her sister islands.
East End and Round Bay are precious jewels in the crown of St. John’s majesty. Currently, these jewels are being chipped away from their pristine setting by repetitive and constant attacks on the coral reefs, the seagrass beds, the HMS Santa Monica wreck, and the entire ecosystem of Round Bay. Our treasured home now experiences pollution from sewage, disturbance of submerged aquatic vegetation, as well as light and noise pollution and the destructive force of boat anchors and chains.
There are laws in place that offer preservation and protection, but they are never enforced. The HMS Santa Monica shipwreck, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, lies off the shore of Hansen Bay, and it is the preferred anchoring spot for almost every vessel that overnights in the bay. Every day it is in danger of becoming rubble, like the corals that used to surround it. The sea turtles are constantly at risk of boat strikes from speeders violating the no wake speed limit. Anchors and tackle uproot the seagrasses that used to flourish all over the bay. Round Bay is a treasure trove being pillaged and exploited by a blue economy that favors profits over preservation.
Commissioner Oriol could change this. He has the power to protect Round Bay from this destruction and preserve it for generations. He could enhance Round Bay’s value even more by encouraging and supporting the creation of a St. John East End Marine Protected Area. Such a designation could supply a steady and sustainable income for the territory by way of true eco-tourism and lay the foundation for proper management and actual enforcement and accountability.
East End has both land and water components to attract both nature lovers and history buffs. East End has a remarkable history that differs from the rest of the territory. Research reveals that the past East End economy was not plantation based, like most of the Virgin Islands. Residents here were free well before the official emancipation proclamation of 1863. This is a place abundant in Virgin Islands culture that can be showcased in respectful ways. It is home to the East End school and community cistern that was built by residents and financed by the Moravian Church in 1906. The schoolhouse is ripe for attention and renovation and a perfect place for a museum to house artifacts, such as the legendary baskets created by former East End residents and others.
This is an opportunity to create a land and water space for and by the territory that we could take real pride in, totally independent of the National Park. Two thirds of St. John is National Park; that is a huge hunk of real estate that is no longer ours. Let us keep one of OUR only living bays on St. John alive. Only by taking care of our treasures will they be there for our children and their children.
Citizens, please get involved in the Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan. Tell the commissioner you want an MPA designation for Round Bay. Tell him you want to see enforcement of our laws so that our natural resources are preserved, protected, and respected.
Finally, Mr. Commissioner, you seem to be banking on advancements in coral propagation in the laboratory to save the coral reefs. It is more important for everyone to save the coral reefs we already have. Be a hero. Save Round Bay now.
— Kathy Vargo is a resident of Round Bay on St. John.