April 23, 2002 – Two national treasures in the territory are trashed, according to a report on waters within the V.I. National Park on St. John and Buck Island Reef National Monument on St. Croix.
"There is compelling evidence that efforts to protect the resources within V.I. National Park and Buck Island Reef National Monument have not been effective," the authors of the report state. "A combination of natural and human disturbances has degraded the mangroves, seagrass beds and reefs around the Virgin Islands, and fisheries appear to be near collapse."
They continue that the decline in living coral and an increase in algal growth are cause for concern. Federal and local regulations have failed to protect reef fishes or to reverse the declines in the abundance of the large grouper and snapper. "Effects of intensive fishing are evident," they write.
Their conclusion is that their data support the need to establish no-take marine reserves to reverse an alarming degradation of coral habitats and declines in the number of fish therein. It is clear "that greater protection is needed," the authors write.
The report is by Caroline Rogers, who heads the U.S. Geological Survey on St. John, and Jim Beets, former fisheries chief with the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department. Beets is now an associate professor at Jacksonville University's Department of Biology and Marine Sciences. The report, which appeared several months ago in the journal Environmental Conservation, is based on studies by the authors and others that span more than a decade.
Beets said last week that he hopes National Park Service and other federal officials will now admit there is a problem so that they can do something.
Help is on the way for Buck Island. Superintendent Joel Tutein on St. Croix said that a chief enforcement ranger will start work in June and that money is now available to hire three entry-level enforcement rangers to protect Buck Island's resources.
Until that happens — and as it has been for the past dozen years — Tutein is the only staff person with enforcement powers. He said because there is a shortage of enforcement rangers throughout the National Park Service, he plans to recruit locally.
Concern for outside influences
John King, superintendent at St. John's national park, said he doesn't know if there is an answer to solving the park's marine resource issues, because "the park doesn't operate in a vacuum." He added, "We're limited in what we can do outside the park."
He said that outside influences include development, anchoring, and increased fishing to the point where fishermen now have 15 to 20 traps on a line, whereas decades ago they only had one. Fishing with a hand line and trap, considered traditional fishing methods, are allowed within St. John's park. However, Tutein said that at Buck Island fishing is allowed only in certain areas, and fishermen must check with park officials to see where they are.
Beets called on the V.I. government to impose limits on the type of fishing gear that can be used as well as the number and types of fish that can be caught.
Rogers and Beets wrote that authorities had expected to find the resources within the V.I. National Park and Buck Island in better shape for several reasons: Both have been areas protected as parks for more than four decades, both come under the United States flag, there are no large population centers nearby, and both fall under both federal and local regulations.
While there's not much that can be done about damage from hurricanes and coral diseases, damage from humans can be addressed through enforcement of park regulations as well as cooperation from the local government in areas outside the park. "The territory needs to take action," Beets said.
He and Rogers reported that damage to reefs by boat anchors and groundings has been severe. Ten years after a cruise ship hit a reef within park waters south of Whistling Cay off St. John, there has been no coral recovery, they said.
"When you damage a reef, the reef doesn't recover quickly or ever," Beets said. In popular anchorages, seagrass beds have seriously declined because of anchor damage. Hurricanes have created "blowouts," large areas where no seagrass exists.
Soil runoff as a result of accelerating development on St. John poses another problem. Rogers and Beets wrote that this runoff is one of the biggest threats to water quality and reefs in shallow waters near the shore. Some bays turn brown after major rain storms and remain that way for three days or more, they said.
King said park officials try to work with the local Coastal Zone Management Commission, which controls development in coastal areas, as well as with developers to ensure that safeguards such as silt fences are used to help keep runoff out of the water. However, St. John has so much development and so many unpaved roads that the park's efforts appear to be a drop in the bucket.
Fishing has increased greatly in the last 40 years, mainly due to the increased demand for fish caused by an upswing in population and tourism. In fact, 30 years ago, before the island saw extensive growth, studies found evidence that the number of fish already was declining.
Overfishing has a direct impact on the parks because fish migrate. Fishing continues within park waters on both islands.
Even in areas where all fishing is prohibited — Trunk Bay on St. John and the Marine Garden at Buck Island — degradation continues. In Trunk Bay, heavy recreational use is the problem. At Buck Island, fishermen continue to fish in the marine garden and adjacent waters. "We have poaching going on," Tutein said.
Support for monument designation
The authors as well as King and Tutein support the federal government's creation of the V.I. Coral Reef National Monument adjacent to park waters off St. John and its extension of the Buck Island National Monument boundaries as a way to protect the resources. Fishing will be prohibited in those areas, providing diminished fish populations a place to regrow.
King said that in other areas with national monuments, fisheries improved within three to five years of the designation. Beets, however, isn't sure that the monuments will improve the situation all that much, since the deep waters of the monument don't provide a good fish habitat. Meanwhile, the local government shows no sign of stricter enforcement outside of federal waters.
The authors stated that eight hurricanes have hit the territory since 1979, causing varying amounts of damage depending on their path and strength. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 caused extensive damage to the coral in St. John's Lameshur Bay, and as of 2001 there had been no significant recovery.
Hurricane David in 1979 caused extensive damage to elkhorn coral at Buck Island. Recovery had begun when a bout with white-band disease set the process back. And then, in 1989, Hugo reduced some coral areas on Buck Island's south side to rubble. Much of what recovered was later impacted or destroyed by Hurricane Marilyn in 1995.
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