Although the U.S. Interior Department has plans to increase protection of coral reefs in the waters surrounding the Virgin Islands, federal officials have yet to fully explain how it will be done.
During a trip to Buck Island Reef National Monument off of St. Croix on Tuesday, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt discussed the need to protect the coral reef resources at Buck Island and around the V.I. National Park on St. John, both of which Interior manages. Babbitt said Interior and other federal agencies have been considering for more than two years how to further protect coral reef resources and fish spawning areas as part of President Clinton's Coral Reef Initiative.
While local officials have been briefed on Interiors proposed protection plan, the public will have to wait for hearings set for Sept. 18 on St. Croix, Sept. 19 on St. Thomas and Sept. 20 on St. John.
What is known at this point is that Interior has identified some 37,000 acres of submerged lands around the U.S. Virgin Islands that it wants to better protect, most likely by imposing no-fishing zones.
According to Delegate to Congress Donna Christian Christensen, Interior has its eye on some 12,000 acres of submerged lands to the north and south of St. John. What is proposed for Buck Island, however, is unclear.
But with Babbitts tour there Tuesday, which included a snorkel tour of the barrier reef and the discovery of illegal fish traps, speculation has it that Interior plans to extend its existing no-fishing boundary around the island.
After his snorkel trip, his third at Buck Island in the last four years, Babbitt said he was encouraged by the regrowth of elkhorn coral on the reef, which has been ravaged by hurricanes and disease over the last 10 to 15 years.
"But the decline of the reef fish is noticeable," he said. "There aren't nearly as many fish on the reef as there used to be. Its basically a fishing problem."
The problem was illustrated by an illegal fish trap that National Park Service personnel hauled out of the water. The trap contained about two dozen blue tang fish and a few other species. All the fish were undersized.
Joel Tutein, superintendent of the Park Service on St. Croix, said overfishing is affecting the overall health of the reef.
"Fish are one component of what the reef needs," he said.
But neither Babbitt nor Tutein would reveal the management plan proposed for Buck Island. Babbitt hinted that it would have to do with more stringent fishing regulations.
"Its not just coral reefs," Babbitt said. "Well have more fish. The idea behind good management and sustainable fishing will be more fish at the Saturday fish market."
While much of the submerged lands that Interior wants to protect are already under federal jurisdiction, some are under the purview of the V.I. government and would require a transfer to accommodate a new federal management plan. With that in mind, Christensen submitted a bill in the House last July seeking local control of all submerged lands between St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John.
The bill, she said, is primarily a message to the federal government to consider local residents, particularly the fishing industry, when it passes down mandates like the proposal to strengthen coral reef protection.
While the 37,000 acres of submerged land that Interior has identified represents just 2 percent of the total in the territory, Christensen said, "The question is, what does that 2 percent represent to the people of the Virgin Islands? Is that the best fishing?"
Babbitt said he was aware of Christensens concerns but contended the proposed protections arent a federal land grab.
"The issue isnt who has title," he said. "The issue is how were managing the resources together to ensure sustainable fishing and the protection of coral reefs."
The memorandum of understanding signed by Babbitt and Gov. Charles Turnbull almost a year ago contained language aimed at protecting the territorys natural resources because of their tourism value.
"The economy is the water and the water is the economy," Babbitt said. "We need to take steps to proctect these . . . resources."
The memorandum set forth a plan to establish a V.I. Conservation Fund to provide money for protection efforts. The fund, however, hasnt been established, Babbitt said.
"The V.I. Trust is an issue were still talking about," he said. "Were not there yet. Were still working on it."