Indiscriminately dropped anchors pummel fragile pillar coral and drag through beds of seagrass while, above water, outboard motors tear through the waves at breakneck speeds, endangering swimmers and sea turtles alike.
Conditions at Round Bay, a remote St. John cove, are perilous for both sea life and the boaters increasingly visiting the area, people living nearby said Thursday.
Two East End residents have sued the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and its commissioner, John Pierre Oriol, in an attempt to increase regulation enforcement. They and others see the once tranquil bay turned party spot as indicative of a larger trend in the territory.
Enforcing existing rules will keep people safe and limit visitors’ damage to the pristine bay, said Haulover Road residents Kathy and Ronald Vargo. Not doing so encourages bad behavior, they said.
The suit filed in March said DPNR stopped enforcing laws meant to protect the bay as a way of attracting visitors more than two years ago. The suit alleged it was a plan to lure charter boaters from the British Virgin Islands during the COVID pandemic lockdowns by creating a no-rules zone. The charter boat industry boomed in 2021.
The Vargos said they and their neighbors have pleaded with Oriol and Government House to remedy the situation, which includes illegal sewage and trash disposal. They only sued because they ran out of options, Kathy Vargo said.
“This bay needs a fighting chance,” she said. “We want enforcement. That’s what we’ve asked for since the very beginning.”
Government House did not reply to requests for comment.
Earlier this year, a young snorkeler fished a dead sea turtle from the bay, likely killed from blunt-force trauma, Ronald Vargo said. But plants and animals aren’t the only things at risk. So is the tranquil, off-the-beaten-path lifestyle that drew people to the outpost on the far east side of the Virgin Islands National Park.
“Instead of a couple of boats a day, all of a sudden there were 50 boats anchored everywhere, and anchored for days and weeks at a time, dumping things overboard, making noise,” said Ronald Vargo. “We’re trying to preserve what’s here for a long, long time. We’ve been watching it get degraded and destroyed without any penalties for the people doing it.”
Officials at DPNR said patrols have been stepped up in recent months but that St. John lacks a dedicated enforcement officer.
The Vargos said it was too little, too late. The bay had already been discovered as a largely lawless region where near-shore water skiing, jet skiing, and other dangerous activity goes unpunished.
In a February Senate hearing, Oriol acknowledged he didn’t have enough enforcement officers territorywide. He suggested it impractical to post one in Round Bay every day.
Ronald Vargo said he’s seen less than five patrols in the area recently and knows of no citations issued.
“There are a lot of ways to enforce the law, including giving one citation, which would have probably dissuaded a lot of people of breaking the laws,” he said, likening it to police pulling over a speeding motorist: It slows down that driver and serves as a warning to others.
The situation has turned local residents, some of whom have ancestral roots at Round Bay going back several generations, into amateur detectives and information officers. One resident hand-painted signs outlining laws protecting the bay, the Vargos said. Others snap photos of carelessly anchored sailboats rafted together.
Kathy Vargo was swimming out to the 18th century shipwreck nearby twice a day in recent months to ensure anchor chains weren’t damaging the historic site. She became an underwater photographer, showing boat captains they were anchored on endangered coral. Some shrugged, she said, saying they anchored there all the time.
DPNR published a draft plan for the bay in early September. It calls for 14-day-use mooring balls, a designated swim area, three channels for beach drop-offs/pickups, and an area where no anchoring would be allowed. The Department plans to hold a public meeting on the plan in early November, according to officials.
The Vargos were concerned the no-anchor zones didn’t include known coral and seagrass areas.
St. Thomas-based Lighthouse Marine Corp. has been retained to install the buoys if the plan goes forward. Ross Vincent, the company’s diving operations manager, said undersea conditions in the inlet were stunning.
“Installing some of this stuff will help protect the area,” Vincent said.
While the mooring balls and well-defined no-anchoring sites could help, area residents like the Vargos fear the measures will only invite more boaters. They believe that without proper law enforcement illegal anchoring could continue to go unchecked.
The Vargos and others have stressed they don’t want to ban the legitimate use of Round Bay. The area simply isn’t set up to be a free-for-all party zone is a feeling of some residents.
“It’s still 100 percent residential. The homes are either on the water or on the hillside, so anything going on in the water reverberates everywhere,” Ronald Vargo said. “While mooring balls might be better than anchors in selected areas, the human impact from more boat traffic could overwhelm one of the last living bays in St. John.”