Environmental Issues in the British Virgin Islands

by Clive Petrovic, H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands

The British Virgin Islands lie on the eastern end of the Puerto Rican plateau at approximately 18 N. and 64 W. This island group is comprised of more than sixty islands, cays and offlying rocks with a total land area of just over 150 square km. The eighteen inhabited islands have only 18,000 residents but support over 300,000 tourists annually. To appreciate the environmental problems of the BVI, it is necessary to understand the geological and historical development of the islands.

Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and other seismic events formed the majority of the British Virgin Islands. Geologic activity stretching back some 70 million years to the late Cretaceous produced the mountainous terrain characteristic of the Eastern Caribbean island arc. These islands remain active as witnessed by recent eruptions on Montserrat, some 300 km to the Southeast. Even today, the Virgin Islands experience numerous earthquakes annually, although most are minor tremors generally going unnoticed. However, earthquakes occuring approximately once each century have altered the topography and caused widespread damage to human habitations. Further changes in topography were associated with sea-level fluctuations during glacial maxima. As recently as 10,000 years ago most of the Puerto Rican plateau was above sea level. Dispersal over land was possible between all the British Virgins and neighbouring islands as well as to Puerto Rico approximately 150 km west. Clearly, the present distribution of flora and fauna was affected by these sea level fluctuations.

Today, the Virgin Island group are pinnacles on the Puerto Rican plateau separated by channels rarely exceeding 50 meters in depth. Both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands extend over a distance of more than 130 km.

The first humans arrived in the eastern Caribbean at least 6,000 years ago, probably island hopping from South America. Evidence of human settlements from the nearby islands of Puerto Rico and Anguilla suggests the British Virgins were inhabited over 4,000 years ago. Recent excavations of a pre-Columbian site on Tortola produced artifacts from the Saladoid and Ostionoid tradition, approximately 600 AD. Pieces of marine shells, sea turtle and other animal bones recovered from middens reveal a dependence upon marine resources for food, tools and other artifacts.

Plantation Era

The recent history of the area begins with the European voyages of discovery. Columbus sailed past the islands in 1493, naming them Las Virgenes after St. Ursula and the 11,000 martyred virgins. Following the initial “discovery,” Spaniards briefly inhabited the islands, particularly Virgin Gorda where they started a copper mine. The mine had several periods of activity during it’s 400 year history and is currently a national park managed by the BVI National Park Trust. The first permanent European presence was established in the mid-1600’s when Dutch colonists settled the western end of Tortola. By the late 1600’s, Britain took control of the islands. This ushered in the plantation era with the lucrative sugar, rum and slave trade. Following a brief period of unimaginable wealth for a few and unspeakable miseries for most, the islands entered into a long downward economic spiral. Changes in international politics and economies such as the decline of Spain’s influence and the rise of Britain’s sea power, the loss of value of sugar production and the abolition of slavery all contributed to the European abandonment of the BVI.

The newly emancipated slaves, lacking education or money, inherited a land stripped of valuable resources and largely depleted of the nutrients necessary for commercial agriculture. For more than a century the Territory languished with a subsistence economy. Small scale peasant agriculture and artisanal fishing provided the economic mainstay for the islands. Trade with nearby islands produced small returns and the area’s chief export was labor. It was not until some years after World War II that the BVI began to build the twin pillars of its future economy; tourism and offshore banking. Through the determined efforts of a few farsighted individuals, the Territory’s economic outlook gradually began to improve. Tourism, in particular, was embraced for its potential in providing employment opportunities for the local population. Paralleling the worldwide development in tourism, the BVI began to capitalize on its tropical climate and its excellent combination of sun, sea and sand. Within two decades the economy made dramatic improvements and with it, the expectations of the local populace rose.

Economic Onslaught

The new found economic success fueled desires to emulate the standards and lifestyle of the developed world. The rush toward growth proceeded without a master plan for development. Construction experienced a boom that has not yet subsided. Pressures for development of coastal areas escalated year by year. Lacking a comprehensive plan, zoning restrictions or development controls, an assault on the environment began on numerous fronts. Coastal wetlands were reclaimed at an alarming rate. New roads began to crisscross the islands. The road cuts, coupled with extensive construction projects forged ahead without proper environmental safeguards. Consequently, torrential rains on the steep slopes caused large-scale erosion. Following heavy rains, much valuable topsoil was washed into the sea contaminating once clear water.

This loss to the land also had catastrophic consequences to the marine environment where coral reefs and seagrass beds suffered repeated and often fatal smothering from land based sediments. Modern technological achievements allow local fishermen to use improved materials in traps, fish new areas farther afield and process, freeze and export their catch. As a result, populations of fish, crustaceans and molluscs were rapidly decimated. Without effective enforced fishing regulations, fishermen continued to overharvest virtually all species of marine life including endangered species of sea turtles.

The economic onslaught has placed entire habitats at risk. Endangered species of endemic wildlife are poorly understood, lack protection and may become extinct before their plight is recognized. Already, at least one species of lizard, a bird and the Caribbean Monk Seal have been lost forever. One species of amphibian, a toad, not reported since the 1960’s, is almost certainly extinct. Several additional species balance precariously on the brink of extinction. Natural habitats and indigenous species are threatened by the large-scale introduction of exotics, both intentional and accidental. Exotic plants imported for ornamental and agricultural purposes have introduced pest species of insects, mites and snails. Numerous viral, bacterial and fungal diseases are now established on the islands and causing considerable damage. Mongoose, feral goats and cats represent a monumental plague on fragile island ecosystems in the BVI and worldwide.

Coastal Development

The tourist industry, which caters largely to boating, yachting and diving interests needs a healthy, pristine marine environment. It is not surprising that the demands of the tourist industry come into conflict with the results of commercial activities along the coast. What little flat land exists, lies along the coast. Consequently, development pressures are greatest along the shore, especially in wetlands. Mangrove communities, estuaries, shallow water seagrass beds and coral reefs are particularly vulnerable. Since many of these ecosystems are close to the shore, they are easily affected by human activities. Many of the bays and littoral zones of the BVI contain alluvial and salt pond deposits. Thus, they are likely sites for reclamation projects.

Well over 75% of the mangrove communities on Tortola have been lost. The remaining few stands are under assault, either by slow piecemeal reclamation projects or by large-scale development plans. A classic example concerns a large healthy Red Mangrove forest that existed at Pockwood Pond on the south coast of Tortola. The mangroves were adjacent to the power station, incinerator, cement plant, rock quarry and various commercial ventures. The commercial interests needed to expand but available land was scarce. An “accidental” fuel spill killed most of the forest. Rather than clean up, replant and restore the mangrove community, permission was granted to reclaim the area as an industrial site. Furthermore, the reclamation efforts extended well out to sea beyond the limits of the mangrove forest. Coral reefs and all near shore marine communities were affected.

The largest stand of mangroves still intact lies on the south coast of Tortola at Paraquita Bay. This large semi-enclosed lagoon supports a healthy thriving mangrove ecosystem. The government has designated the bay an official hurricane shelter for boats and yachts and given mangrove protection a high priority. Nevertheless, trees are cut, presumably for the making of charcoal, and the shoreline is filled for human use. Effective enforcement of local environmental laws is sadly lacking.

Salt ponds have not fared much better. These “wastelands” that do nothing but “stink and breed mosquitoes” have also been filled or dredged for marina development. Few salt ponds remain intact.

The need for raw materials for the construction industry encouraged the mining of beach sand in several locations. Josiah’s Bay on the north coast of Tortola has been heavily mined for years. The result is disastrous for the beach and dune ecosystems in the area. Erosion by the sea, particularly during the winter months caused considerable habitat loss.

Extensive dredging at numerous locations in the islands provide fill for reclamation projects, sand for the construction industry and create channels and basins for shipping interests and the yachting industry. Dredging generally proceeds without the use of turbidity screens or other mitigation efforts. The impact on the surrounding marine communities has been devastating.

Waste Disposal

The problems associated with waste disposal are becoming acute in several areas. Sewage, solid waste disposal, oil, fuel and chemical contamination have become topics of concern and debate in recent years. The developing tourist economy has only exacerbated the problems. In general, per capita energy consumption and waste production is greater in areas dependent on tourism. Tourists require more water, more fuel for transport and activities and tend to prefer foods imported from their home countries. The resulting waste must be disposed by the host community. On small islands like the BVI, solid waste disposal consumes valuable flat land. The incinerator processes a large portion of the waste produced. However, abandoned cars, large appliances, batteries and much debris still litter the landscape. Recycling is of limited value because of the prohibitive costs of shipping recyclable materials to recovery or reprocessing centers.

Sewage treatment facilities are virtually non-existent. Most dwellings still use septic tanks while a few discharge their effluent directly into the environment. Until recently, a drainage channel functioning as an open sewer ran through downtown Roadtown, Tortola and emptied into Road Harbor. The noxious odors emanating from that channel became a potential health hazard and such an embarrassment to government, that it was finally covered. Few yachts or boats sailing in the BVI have or use holding tanks for their waste. In crowded anchorages or marinas the sewage produced affects water quality. When yacht generated sewage is combined with run off, sewage and pollution from land, the result is often devastating to the marine environment. Two examples in the BVI include Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor and Wickhams Cay in Road Harbor.

Unfortunately, even if boats were required to use holding tanks, not one pump out facility is currently operating in the BVI. Furthermore, no treatment facilities exist which can handle the effluent produced by the hundreds of charter yachts cruising the BVI waters every day. A few hotels, resorts and commercial enterprises have installed small scale sewage treatment plants. These are commendable efforts and deserve encouragement, but much larger, more comprehensive government mandated and supported projects are desperately needed.

Boatyards and yacht haulout facilities are environmental nightmares. Lacking government controls and exercising little self restraint, these businesses are caught in a catch 22 position where they cannot afford to initiate environmental safeguards while trying to survive in an increasingly competitive world. The result is that toxic anti-fouling paints, hazardous residues from painting, fiberglassing and other yacht work, including oil and fuel, foul the waters near boatyards. The detrimental affects on marine life can be seen by even the most casual observer. In addition, boatyards, and auto service stations have become storage areas for large quantities of used motor oils. This oil waste is often stored in metal containers which eventually corrode and spill their contents on the ground. Much of this oil finds its way into the sea. It is hoped that in the future most of this oil will be burned in the incinerator.

Environmental Management

It is against this backdrop of environmental deterioration that the future of the BVI must be planned. While development is likely to continue long into the foreseeable future, environmental concerns are becoming a high priority issue. Individuals and organizations are advocating new approaches to environmental management. As habitat loss and environmental degradation become more apparent, and occasionally critical, the collective voice of the community is beginning to be heard. Government is responding by providing support for environmental education, initiating monitoring programs, encouraging public cooperation and proposing legislation to protect the remaining natural resources. Nearly everyone recognizes the problems and the dire predictions for the future if no action is taken.

The economy of the BVI is based on tourism that markets a pristine environment. Advertising itself as “Nature’s Little Secrets”, the BVI is attempting to attract ecotourists. Yachting and diving are among the most popular activities attracting visitors to the islands. Both depend on healthy environments. The loss of these environments, or even the public perception of environmental degradation, would have dire consequences for businesses dependent on tourism. Any stagnation in tourism could reverberate throughout the economy very quickly and government would be hard pressed to remedy the situation.

The primary branch of government mandated to deal with the environment is the Conservation and Fisheries Department that functions under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labor. With a staff exceeding a dozen individuals and headed by Bertrand Lettsome, the C&FD; has wide ranging responsibilities. The Department is subdivided into two divisions, Conservation and Fisheries, each with different activities and responsibilities. Monitoring water quality throughout the Territory, sea turtle nesting studies and marine resource management represent a few ongoing efforts. As the official government representative, the C&FD; is often the first agency to respond to an environmental problem. Oil spill response, pollution and wildlife issues are all under the jurisdiction of the Department. In addition, the C&FD; patrols the marine environment aboard its own vessels or those of other governmental agencies. Environmental education programs for the public schools are frequently developed and implemented. Within the limitations imposed by finances and staffing the C&FD; does a commendable job.

The National Parks Trust is an NGO that receives some government funding. Public education, establishing and maintaining protected areas and a boat mooring system are major activities of the NPT. The most popular parks and protected areas include the wreck of the RMS Rhone, a mass of huge boulders on the shoreline called the Baths at Virgin Gorda, The Copper Mine, the rainforest at Mt. Sage National Park and the J.R. O’Neal Botanical Gardens in Roadtown. Substantial resources are required to manage and maintain a park system that encompasses both terrestrial and marine habitats. The Trust’s marine patrol boat, the Rhone Ranger, is used primarily to install and maintain the boat mooring system on popular dive sites throughout the BVI.

This mooring system, originally conceived, funded and implemented by the BVI Dive Operators in the mid-80’s, now covers most dive sites in the islands. Well over 100 moorings are in use and plans call for more than twice that number. The value of moorings in reducing anchor damage to marine habitats is well documented. It is encouraging that the BVI has been a world leader in this area. In addition to the efforts by the National Parks Trust, private businesses and individuals have installed and used moorings in the BVI. One private company, Moor Seacure, Ltd. began installing moorings in 1983. With over 100 moorings currently in use, this company is at the forefront in demonstrating how a private enterprise can protect the environment and still make a profit.

In addition to the mooring project, the NPT is involved in reforestation programs, primarily on park lands. School groups, service organizations and private individuals all participate in tree planting activities. Efforts are also underway to establish a new national park on Anegada.

The Guana Island Wildlife Sanctuary is privately funded but works closely with government and NGO’s. The Sanctuary’s goal is to preserve the island ecosystems of the BVI. Toward this goal, visiting scientists from many countries conduct ecological research on land and in the sea.

Community College

The H. Lavity Stoutt Community College is a center for environmental education and research. This tertiary institution began offering classes in 1990. Since that time student enrollment has increased more than tenfold with new courses and programs introduced every semester. The College is funded primarily by government and enjoys broad community support. As the Territory’s highest educational institution, the College is frequently called upon to provide scientific assessment and education in environmental matters.

Community involvement goes well beyond conducting scientific research and the teaching of courses. The College seizes every opportunity to serve the local population through enrichment programmes, technical guidance or collaborative projects. A public lecture series focuses on environmental issues. Whenever possible the College prefers to work with the NPT and C&FD; on environmental matters. This cooperation covers both marine and terrestrial related issues.

In its efforts to serve the larger Caribbean region, the College has been designated a Centre of Specialization in Marine Studies by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States [OECS]. This designation helped secure OECS funding for the pending construction of a Marine Science Center. While the marine studies programme is intended to focus on the yacht tourism industry, environmental issues are also a major consideration. The marine science center is envisioned as a resource for the local community with a sphere of influence that will extend throughout the Caribbean region and beyond. Marine related projects and interests of the science faculty include mangrove reforestation, hypersaline pond ecology, Queen Conch biology, artificial reef construction, reef monitoring and fish population studies to name but a few.

Aquaculture has recently been introduced into the islands to provide additional sources of income for the population and to help reduce fishing pressure on the reef fish communities. This project started with the introduction of hybrid varieties of Tilapia, particularly Oreochromis mossambicus. This fish was stocked in small ponds used by farmers to irrigate crops and water livestock. Since the BVI lack significant fresh water ecosystems, the introduction of Tilapia pose little threat to native flora and fauna. Future plans call for the mariculture of marine algae, mollusks, crustaceans and fish. Several projects have been proposed and are under consideration.

As a project linked to the International Year of the Reef, Reefcheck 97 evaluated the current status of coral reef health throughout the world. The BVI’s involvement was first proposed by the Association of Reef Keepers [ARK], and the project gained momentum and considerable public support. Scientific leadership was provided by College faculty and the International Center for Living Aquatic Resource Management [ICLARM] office in Tortola. Reefcheck enlisted dive shops, local SCUBA divers and many enthusiastic individuals. In the future the BVI plans to build on this success by participating in the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network [GCRMN].

The BVI has long depended on technical expertise from outside sources. Despite intensive educational efforts by the College and other organizations, the needs are too great to be met by such a small population. Consequently, numerous environmental projects are funded and staffed from external sources, most often the UK. One such project currently underway is funded by ICLARM. Under the direction of John Munro and Maggie Watson, this study focuses on larval recruitment of coral reef fish populations. As part of a long term investigation, it seeks to understand the dynamics of population change in important commercial species of fish.

On the terrestrial side, significant steps are being taken to restore natural habitats and prevent the extinction of endangered flora and fauna. College staff are working with the NPT to protect and preserve the Anegada Rock Iguana which faces extinction from habitat loss and competition from feral goats This effort has several facets including the creation of a national park on Anegada. This important project is facing considerable local opposition. Issues related to land ownership and rights of use are of great significance to the native Anegadians. Until the problems surrounding the land ownership issues are resolved, most locals will oppose the creation of any park, protected area or environmental project. They generally insist that their long standing demands be given first priority. Numerous political issues must be solved before a park could have any chance of success.

The reintroduction of Flamingos to the Anegada salt ponds has been hailed as a resounding success. Flamingos, once abundant throughout the islands, were extirpated as a breeding species early in the 20th century. Through the combined efforts of the NPT, Guana Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Bermuda Zoo, Conservation Agency and others, a small flock was reintroduced nearly a decade ago. The birds quickly adapted to their new surroundings and responded to the abundant food supply. Within a few years, courtship and nest building was observed. In 1995, breeding members of the flock successfully fledged five young. With the occasional arrival of transient Flamingos, the flock now exceeds 20 birds and further increase is expected.

The reintroduction of additional extirpated species is underway. White-crowned Pigeons have been released at the Guana Island Wildlife Sanctuary and additional species will be reintroduced in the future. Attempts are underway to build enclosures to protect young iguanas during their most vulnerable period. The idea is to release the headstarted animals in fenced areas where feral competing livestock is excluded.

Members of the student Nature Club have joined with the Department of Agriculture to begin a native plant nursery. The use of native plants, rather than exotics, will be encouraged wherever new landscaping is planned. Such plants can also be used in habitat restoration projects, particularly when re-establishing native animals like the Anegada Rock Iguana.

Preventing the extinction of additional flora and fauna is the goal of an Endangered Species Restoration Project. Ecological research into the life history needs of rare species is used to develop captive breeding programmes. Offspring produced by this effort can be used to rebuild wild populations and restore natural habitats.

Growing Environmental Awareness

Numerous additional environmental initiatives are underway and the Anegada Horseshoe Reef protected area deserves special mention. As the largest coral reef system in the BVI, and one of the largest in the Caribbean, its value cannot be overstated. Several years ago, the government declared the entire reef area off limits to commercial and recreational activities. Patrolled by the Conservation and Fisheries Department, the protection seems to be working. Although some fishermen are still permitted to work the waters, most of the reef remains undisturbed.

Meanwhile, the local government has taken steps to deal with the growing problem of sewage disposal. The first public sewage treatment facility will be constructed at Cane Garden Bay on the north shore of Tortola. This moderately populated bay is lined with houses, hotels, restaurants and bars which service the many pleasure yachts stopping every day. Discharges from the boats combined with run off from the land has significantly reduced the water quality. Periodic algal blooms discolor the water and discourage the visiting tourists. Public opinion is firmly behind efforts to preserve the water quality along Tortola’s most popular beach.

Private businesses have also made strides in environmental protection. Some have taken pride in demonstrating how a business can make a profit while preserving the quality of the environment. A case in point may be found at Hodges Creek in Tortola. Two adjacent marinas have adopted vastly differing views on environmental awareness. The marina developed by Tropic Island Yacht Management exercised considerable care in preserving the mangrove fringe along the shoreline. Docks were constructed outside the mangroves with few access points through the trees. Dredging was controlled and at some distance from the mangroves to minimize disturbance. The result permitted the operation of a successful business while saving a valuable mangrove ecosystem. The adjacent marina project has removed all shoreline mangroves in its reclamation and is proceeding with virtually no environmental safeguards.

The British Virgin Islands was catapulted from a sleepy third world economy to the mainstream of the 20th Century experience within the timespan of a generation. The problems of environmental degradation are more severe when space is limited. With a small land mass and population, the Territory was ill prepared for the hordes of tourists and rampant development of modern times. As the economy boomed, the environment suffered. The seriousness of the problems and the speed with which they arrived caught government and the people by surprise. Yet, despite the problems, hope is on the horizon. Government, supported by NGO’s and a concerned citizenry, is taking steps to meet the challenge. While the problems surrounding the environment are complex and often political, everyone recognizes the need for action.

The B. V. Islanders want a clean healthy environment for themselves, and for their children. It is the responsibility of the current generation to hold the environmental future as a sacred trust. Most in the BVI believe that a clean, healthy environment is the way to remain “Nature's Little Secrets”.