In an effort to halt decades worth of degradation to the coral reefs under its jurisdiction, the Department of Interior is preparing to expand its underwater boundaries in the territory and begin more intensive natural resource management.
What the plan will be for some 21,000 acres of submerged land around St. John and St. Croix’s Buck Island Reef National Monument depends somewhat on the input from the territory’s residents in a series of public meetings, the first of which was held Monday on St. Croix.
Some 12,500 acres of submerged lands off of St. John and about 9,000 acres around St. Croix’s Buck Island, all of which is already under federal ownership, will see some sort of heightened management plan, according to Mark Squillace, a special assistant to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
A combination of approaches will likely be taken, said Squillace, including "no-take" fishing zones. The aim of which will not only be replenishing reef-dependent fish, but also increasing the health of the reefs in federal waters.
"What we want to do is protect the resources so we can see a return of a sustainable fishery," Squillace said.
In the case of Buck Island, the protective boundary around the island will be pushed out farther from its encircling and unique barrier reef, the sole reason the area was made a monument by President John F. Kennedy.
While two-thirds of Buck Island is a no-take marine garden, fishing is taking place right on the monument’s doorstep, said Zandy Hillis-Starr, a resource manager for the Park Service on St. Croix.
"The feature Buck Island was established for was the reef," she said. "The two-thirds that is no-take is not functioning as no-take. The park is ringed with fish traps."
Over fishing combined with other human impacts and hurricanes mean there is less coral, less seagrass, fewer mangroves, smaller and commercially extinct fish throughout the territory, said Ginger Garrison, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist from St. John.
She said that the territory’s take of certain species of grouper fish has fallen into place behind the collapsed fisheries of Jamaica and Haiti. One way to help restore the fishery, she said, is to remove the human element, hence the proposal for no-take zones.
The majority of the 75 people at Monday night’s meeting agreed with Interior’s proposal to heighten its management. But many said it can’t be done in a vacuum, especially considering the V.I. government’s practice of discharging raw sewage into the sea and other pollution and erosion problems.
"Pollution and habitats don’t follow boundaries on the maps," said St. Croix resident and biologist Kelly Gloger. "I would encourage you to encourage (the V.I. government) to look at the sewage outfall problems."
Olasee Davis, a natural resource specialist at the University of the Virgin Islands, said Interior must form a joint venture with the local government to protect the resources. He said if the administration doesn’t do a "good job, take it over."
"I know some of my people in the community will be in opposition, but I’m looking at the future," he said.
What has been done over the past year in conjunction with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources is intensive mapping of the federal government’s holdings in the territory. Through the mapping, Interior was better able to identify lands accorded it through the 1974 Territorial Submerged Lands Act. The majority of those lands are adjacent to the V.I. National Park on St. John and Buck Island Reef National Monument, both managed by the National Park Service.
Now that it knows what it owns, Interior will tailor its management plan, Squillace said. And because Babbitt’s tenure as Interior secretary ends when the Clinton administration leaves office at the end of December, things must be done quickly.
While an Environmental Impact Statement will have to be conducted, that process can several years. In the interim, Interior has the leeway to initiate temporary protective action to ensure the health of the resource.
"We don’t want to take two or three years to come up with a management plan and see what we are trying to protect is gone," Squillace said.
Interior and DPNR will host meetings on the issue Tuesday in the Senate chambers on St. Thomas and Wednesday in the Legislature building on St. John. Both meetings begin at 6 p.m.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here