Happy World Oceans Day!
Legendary caribbean musician Harry Belafonte sang the famous line, “Oh, island in the sun, willed to me by my father's hand, all my days I will sing in praise of your forest, waters, your shining sand.”
Being surrounded by water is part of the very definition of a being an island. As islands, we don’t exist without the ocean.
In fact, we are more ocean than land! When we consider The Virgin Islands’ 200 nautical-mile Exclusive Fisheries Zone, we have more than 500 times more ocean real estate than land.
Our ancestors had a very close and personal relationship with the sea. We come from a long line of sea-faring people for whom our waters were a means of survival. Those traditions are reflected today in The Virgin Islands being the sailing capital of the world. Yet, today we do so much to impact our marine environment, we know so little about our waters - the life that inhabits them and the other resources that lurk beneath the sea, and we have yet to really capitalize on our “Blue Economy.”
As we join the world in celebrating World Oceans Day, today June 8, under the theme “Planet Ocean: Tides are Changing,” let us pause to reflect on our marine environment in The Virgin Islands. How is it changing; how can it better serve us; and how can we better protect it to ensure its benefits can be reaped for generations to come?
So, how it is changing?
The truth is, we don’t have nearly as much data as we should but we do know that the general state of our marine environment is declining. We see the symptoms in sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs which are bleaching, becoming diseased and covered in algae due to a myriad of impacts, many of which we can control.
As one indicator, we know that Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease has now infected coral at more than 45 of our dive sites, including sites that are fisheries protected areas and RMS Wreck of the Rhone, our only marine park.
I am pleased to say that by World Ocean Day next year, we should have a much better understanding of coastal water quality in the Territory through expanded and new testing that will be supported under the project “Strengthening The Virgin Islands’ Water Quality Monitoring Programme” with the European Union (EU) funding through the Resilience, Sustainable Energy and Marine Biodiversity Programme (RESEMBID).
The second question - How can it better serve us?
You’ve probably heard the buzz term, the “Blue Economy”. According to the World Bank, the Blue Economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, while preserving the health
of the ocean ecosystem." The Blue Economy has been recognized as a growth opportunity for both developed and developing countries.
What does the Blue Economy mean for The Virgin Islands specifically?
- It could be mean the growth of fisheries as a third pillar of our economy.
- It could mean harnessing marine renewable energy - that is energy harnessed from the natural movement of water, including waves, tides, and ocean currents.
- It could also mean exploring the tourism potential of our marine environment outside of sailing, swimming and diving. For example, very initial research by Beyond the Reef has found over 4 species of whales and 2 species dolphins in the waters north of Anegada. We are just starting to understand the extent and behaviour of these magnificent creatures in our waters and their presence may hold potential for eco-tourism.
In November 2022, Cabinet approved the Strategic Blue Economy Roadmap, which was developed with support from the United Nations Development Programme.
The Blue Economy Roadmap outlines the direction and development pathways for future investment in and development of a sustainable ocean-based economy in The Virgin Islands. Specifically, the Roadmap aims to create a revitalisation process that results in healthy ecosystems that are able to sustain growth in a number of economic sectors and provide an opportunity for building equitable societies. In other words, the Roadmap provides the framework to ensure that the sort of opportunities highlighted a few moments ago can be realized, and this Government commits to its implementation.
And the third and most important question - How can we better protect it?
As signatories to the St George’s Declaration of Principles for Environmental Sustainability in the Organishation of the Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) ,better protection of our marine environment is incumbent upon us.
When the Premier shared his message for World Environment Day just a few days ago on June 5, he highlighted that he looks forward to sparking an Environmental Revolution in The Virgin Islands over the next 4 years and will be soon coming to the public to outline that vision and how you can be a part of it.
Leveraging and better protecting our marine environment will be part of that Environmental Revolution and, today, I’ll highlight just a few things that will include:
- Reconnecting the youth to the ocean – If our efforts to protect and harness the benefits of our waters are to be sustainable, we have to reconnect our youth to the sea. Every child’s education should include environmental education, including experiential learning at sea. No child should, for instance, grow up without the awe-inspiring experience of seeing a coral reef.
2. Increasing the percentage of our marine real estate that is protected. There is a global movement to protect 30% of our blue planet by 2030. Over 50 countries have committed to the goal of 30% marine protected area by 2030. You may be shocked to know that the percentage of the Territory’s marine environment that is protected is just 0.06%. Virgin Islands – we can and will do better than that! Under this Administration, we will work through the National Parks Trust and the Ministry of Environment, National Resources and Climate Change to significantly increase that percentage by crossing the finish line to declare proposed national parks under the Protected Areas System Plan.
The science and evidence on protected areas is clear. They are critical to ensuring the overall health of our marine environment and actually serve to enhance our fisheries.
3. Investing in marine monitoring and restoration programmes, including for coral reefs and related ecosystems, including seagrass beds, mangroves and salt ponds.
4. Unlocking resources from the Environmental Protection and Improvement Fund to support this important work. Just earlier this week we saw the re-establishment of The Virgin Islands Climate Change Trust Fund Board which will receive a percentage of the Fund as well the National Parks Trust.
5. As I close, let’s remember that these beautiful islands and the ocean that is an integral part of our existence were willed to us by our fathers’ hand. Let us not take our land and our waters for granted.
Remember that you have an important role to play as individuals. Kids, remember the words from Finding Nemo, “All drains lead to the ocean.” Whatever you dispose on land ultimately ends up in the sea! And, landowners, homeowners and farmers, remember that all soil, debris and pollution that washes from your land also ends up in the sea. Let’s all be better stewards of our ocean by being better stewards of our land! Again, Happy World Oceans Day!