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View of Buck Island from East End, St. Croix, USVI
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St. Croix East End Marine Park, St. Croix, USVI

Along with global, local and governmental organizations, the St. Croix community is working to preserve the natural beauty, wildlife, and history of our island. One way St. Croix has worked to achieve this goal is by establishing national parks, protected areas, and wildlife refuges. In addition to being the home of three different national parks managed by the U.S. National Park Service, St. Croix is also home to the first territorial park established in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the St. Croix East End Marine Park (STXEEMP). 

Established in 2003 to protect the largest island barrier reef system in the Caribbean, the mission of the STXEEMP is to manage the natural, cultural and environmental resources within the boundaries of the Park. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it – in this case it’s the VI Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR), Coastal Zone Management. Leading the charge to manage and protect the STXEEMP is the DPNR Marine Park Coordinator, Caroline Pott. When the GOTO Team spoke to Caroline, she explained what is included in the STXEEMP, how DPNR is working to protect the area, and what the biggest challenges have been for the Park. Hilary Lohmann, a NOAA Fellow working alongside Caroline at the Park, also joined us and shared some great information about the park and the supportive non-profit organization, Friends of the East End Marine Park. Based on our discussion, here is what you should know about STXEEMP…

Coral Reff in st. Croix's East End Marine Park, St. Croix, USVI

One of the coral reefs in STXEEMP (photo by NOAA)

The Park and its Uses:

The waters of STXEEMP envelope the eastern tip of St. Croix and includes 60 square miles of water along 17 miles of shoreline. The boundaries of the Park extend from the high-water mark of the beach to the 3 mile territorial limit, Habitats include seagrass beds, coral reefs, and sandy bottom. The management plan for the park was developed by The Nature Conservancy (as a paid agent of the VI Government) in a collaborative effort with local fishermen and dive operators, professionals at local and national universities, and local and federal agencies. The Park is zoned for multiple uses to accommodate a variety of users while protecting vulnerable and valuable habitats. For those that are not familiar with the different zones and what they mean, here is map and descriptions of the different zones:

St. Croix East End Marine Park Map, St. Croix, USVI

  • Recreation Zone: Provides areas for snorkeling, diving with a flag, boating, personal watercraft use, and hook-and-line fishing from the shore. Marine Park permits may also be issued for catch-and-release guide fishing and cast-net bait fishing. All other traditional fishing is prohibited.
  • No Take Zone: Designed to protect the near-shore environments and encompass large, contiguous, diverse habitats. All fishing, extraction and use of personal watercrafts is prohibited. Diving with a flag, snorkeling, and transit in a boat are all permitted. 
  • Wildlife Preserve: Intended to protect nesting sea turtles. Activities that may disturb or harm nesting turtles are prohibited in these waters. The Endangered Species Act prohibits harassment, take, or alteration of behavior of sea turtles. Please keep 50 yards away from turtles.
  • Open Zone: Open to activities except for those that could injure coral or live rock or alter the seabed.

Wildlife and Natural Resources in the Park: 

STXEEMP was created to protect a wide array of wildlife and natural resources found on St. Croix. The reefs within STXEEMP were created by hard corals such as elkhorn and staghorn corals, as well as various species of brain, lettuce, finger, star and starlet corals. The last half century has seen a significant decline in the quality (health) and quantity (distribution) of these corals in the Caribbean. Although seagrass beds are not as flashy as coral reefs, they are an integral part integral part of the life-cycle of many reef-dwellers. Predatory fish (such as grouper, snapper, shark and barracuda) as well as algae-eating fish (such as parrot fish, doctor fish and surgeon fish) rely on both the reefs and sea grass beds for their food, shelter, and as a breeding ground and nursery. In fact, an estimated 400 species of fish live in and around the East End and utilize these habitats!

STXEEMP Seagrass Beds, St. Croix, USVI

A cushion sea star in a seagrass bed within STXEEMP’s Cotton Garden Bay

Reefs and seagrass beds in the Park’s waters are also feeding grounds for hawksbill and green turtles. The beaches along STXEEMP are known nesting grounds for endangered green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles. Over the past few years, populations of green turtles have stabilized, while hawksbill populations are still declining. In addition to the large variety of marine life,  STXEEMP also hosts 17 species of seasonal and year-round nesting seabirds, including: shearwaters, tropicbirds, boobies, pelicans, frigate birds, gulls and terns.  

Green Sea Turtle Nesting, St. Croix, USVI (by Marjo Aho)

Green Sea Turtle nesting on St. Croix (photo by Marjo Aho)

Management of the Park and its Resources:

The resources within STXEEMP provide environmental, economic and social benefits to both residents and visitors of St. Croix, so they must be managed in a way that guarantees they remain available for present and future generations. According to The Nature Conservancy, protecting the park is vital because: “Coral reefs are dying because erosion caused by construction sends soils, pollutants and excess nutrients into the Caribbean Sea. The building of houses, restaurants, hotels and other businesses that attract visitors to this tourist-dependent economy is a threat to native plants and animals. Careless divers and boaters harm reefs, and over fishing of species such as grouper, snapper and parrot fish upsets the sea’s natural balance and puts the future of fishery stocks in jeopardy. About 70 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ original wetlands, prime habitat for nesting seabirds and juvenile fish, have been destroyed. Over-fishing depletes seabirds’ food supplies, pollution makes their food unhealthy, and the birds die when they become entangled in fishing gear.”

Birds on Southgate Pond, St. Croix, USVI

Birds on Southgate Pond in the STXEEMP (photo by Lisa Yameta)

DPNR’s focus when it comes to STXEEMP is to enhance public understanding of the benefits of the Park, promote responsible recreational use of the park, and to enforce the rules and regulations in order to conserve the natural resources of the park for future generations. DPNR conducts outreach and educational programs, monitoring programs, and is currently working on a new visitor’s center and living museum at the STXEEMP office located on the South Shore at Great Pond. To learn more, you can visit the offices of STXEEMP between 8:00am – 5:00pm on weekdays or call 340-718-3367.

How You Can Help:

  • Enjoy the STXEEMP responsibly! Follow the park rules and regulations; feel free to call the office with any questions. Keep the shorelines and waters free of trash, and “take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints”.
  • Support the Friends of St. Croix East End Marine Park organization. There are many ways to get involved!
  • If you witness a suspected violation of the park rules and regulations, call the Park office at 340-718-3367.
  • Volunteer your time on park projects and programs.
Friends of STXEEMP Clean-up, St. Croix, USVI

Friends of STXEEMP clean-up the shorelines

Take in the beauty and bounty STXEEMP offers by exploring on your own. You can also learn more about the ecology and history of St. Croix and the STXEEMP by taking a guided snorkel, kayak tour or bayside tour. However you choose to enjoy STXEEMP, please do so responsibly! 

– Jennie Ogden, Editor (with assistance from Caroline Pott, DPNR Marine Park Coordinator)

 

 

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