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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, February 7, 2023
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Open Forum: Dead Sea Turtle Signals a Need For Change on St. John

Members of the St. Croix Hiking Association, including Olasee Davis, third from left, at Haulover Bay area on St. John. (Submitted photo)
Members of the St. Croix Hiking Association, including Olasee Davis, third from left, at Haulover Bay on St. John. (Submitted photo)

This December, the St. Croix Hiking Association gave a helping hand to the Virgin Islands National Park through the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park by planting endangered species plants such as the Solanum canocarpum, clearing historical structures, and giving input during the Cinnamon Bay lecture and discussion on different topics relating to St. John’s natural and cultural resources. 

Olasee Davis
Olasee Davis (Submitted photo)

I believe the last time I visit my beloved St. John was in 2015 or 2016 when I was conducting hikes throughout the British Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, and St. John when the St. Croix Hiking Association was on a 12-day adventure. December was my first visit back to St. John since the two devastating hurricanes of 2017 that impacted the island’s residents as well as the terrestrial and marine environment. 

However, I got a belly ache while on St. John. What I mean by a belly ache is that the historical landscape of the Virgin Islands National Park is changing rapidly. My ancestral roots on the island of St. John are extremely deep. Catherine Jurgensen (1855-1960), my great-grandmother, was born on St. John. Her great-great-grandfather was a white Dane from Denmark who owned enslaved Africans in the Danish West Indies. 

Then, I have my grandmother, Catherine Smalls, who was born on St. John on April 9, 1888. The Smalls, Jurgensen, Jacobs, Wiltshire, Prince, Hodge, Sprauve, and other family members on St. John are relatives to me. However, this article is not focused on family members, but on the impact of humans on the marine, cultural, natural, historical, and terrestrial habitats of the island of St. John.

I knew St. John from when I was a little boy when it was a paradise of extraordinary natural beauty blessed by God. It was a paradise indeed of breathtaking beauty and heaven on Earth for Virgin Islanders. 

There were only about 800 or 900 people living on the island when I visited family members as a child in the late 1960s. In fact, the censuses of 1917, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s give the population of St. John. According to the census of 1917, the total population was 956. In the 1930s there were 765 residents, in the 1940s there were 722, and in the 1950s there were 749 persons living on St John.

However, today the private holdings within the Virgin Islands National Park are growing at a fast rate, which is changing the historic landscape of one of the most beautiful parks within the United States National Park system.

This causes me great concern. But nevertheless, I want to focus on the marine resources of the Virgin Islands National Park. The bays of the park are over-crowded with people, especially Maho Bay with its pleasure boats. While I was there, the beaches within the park, particularly Hawksnest, Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, and Maho Bay were packed with vehicles and people. I saw marine resources beginning to decline not so much by a natural phenomenon of nature, but because of humans who indulge in recreation activities. 

An endangered green sea turtle washed up on St. John recently, with its carapace damaged by a boat strike and shark attack. (Photo by David Tiene)
A dead endangered green sea turtle washed up on St. John recently, with its carapace badly damaged by a boat strike and its flippers by a shark attack. (Photo by David Tiene)

While we were planting endangered species plants at Peace Hill trail, a call came in of an endangered species sea turtle washed up on shore somewhere between Caneel Bay and Hawksnest Bay beach. All sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles who must regularly swim to the surface to breathe. While swimming, these animals need to breathe about every five to 10 minutes. Sea turtles also spend time at the surface basking in the sun and searching for a suitable nesting beach. 

A sea turtle in the park waters was struck by a boat, the investigation concluded. It was a green sea turtle, one of the rarest nesting Caribbean Sea turtles in the waters of the Virgin Islands National Park. The investigation also concluded that the sea turtle was eaten by sharks as indicated by wounds in addition to the strike from the boat. In fact, there was a shark in the water while four men moved the dead sea turtle to the shore. 

Deep lacerations from a boat strike are evident on this endangered green sea turtle that washed up on St. John recently. (Photo by David Tiene)
Deep lacerations from a boat propeller strike are evident on this endangered green sea turtle that washed up dead on St. John recently. (Photo by David Tiene)

In 1587, John White was on his way to colonize Virginia for Sir Walter Raleigh and anchored  for three days off the coast of Salt River Bay on the island of St. Croix. While he was there, his men encountered sea turtles. “Also, the first night of our being on this Island, we tooke five great Torteses, some of them of such bigness, that sixteene of our strongest men were tired with carrying of one of them but from the sea side to our cabins,” noted White. Today, a green sea turtle is about 200 to 500 pounds as compared to more than 500 years ago. 

One afternoon while I was reading a book at the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park campsite at Cinnamon Bay, I could hear boats speeding across the park waters. Believe me, this should not be. Park officials needed to monitor closely and get control of speeding boats in the surrounding water of the park. There is something called carrying capacity in the parks management system. Carrying capacity refers to the maximum number of individuals of a species that the environment can carry and sustain. 

Over the years, the carrying capacity of the northwestern beaches in the Virgin Islands National Park has stretched the limit of what the physical environment can sustain. Thus, the quality of one’s experience in the park can decrease because of noise pollution by boats, over-crowded beaches, non-point sources of pollution off the land into coastal waters, and other factors that degrade the marine and terrestrial environment.

Example of signage on nesting sea turtle beaches. This is a removable sea turtle signage at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge. The same concept can be used on nesting beaches in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John. (Photo by Olasee Davis)
This is a removable sign warning of sea turtles nesting at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge on St. Croix. The same concept could be used on nesting beaches in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John. (Photo by Olasee Davis)

All three endangered species of sea turtles in the Virgin Islands are protected by federal and local laws. This includes the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), Green (Chelonia mydas), and Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). Under the Federal Endangered Species Act and the Territorial Endangered and Indigenous Species Act, it is illegal to harass, harm, capture, or collect sea turtles or their eggs. 

Violators can be prosecuted under civil and criminal laws and charged heavy penalties, such as up to one year in prison, up to a $100,000 fine, and the confiscation of any equipment used during the criminal act.

It is very important for the park to educate the public and to have signage on nesting beaches. Installing turtle lights along the park shore where houses are located is critical for sea turtle survival. In my opinion, a boat speeding across park water is harassing sea turtles and affecting their ability to breathe. That is a criminal act. I encourage the park to get serious in enforcing the laws and protecting and preserving the gems of the Virgin Islands National Park. 

— Olasee Davis is a bush professor who lectures and writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.

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