East End Marine Park, the first territorial park in the U.S. Virgin Islands, will protect the largest island barrier reef system in the Caribbean. Legislative approval recently made the area an official park. Extending from the high-water mark out three miles (4.8 kilometers), it encompasses 60 square miles (155.4 square kilometers) of offshore coral reef and other marine habitat.
The park includes about five square miles (13 square kilometers) of "no-take areas," which are off limits to any fishing and harvesting. A turtle refuge will extend about a mile (1.6 kilometers) into the Caribbean Ocean from the shoreline of the island's primary hawksbill and green turtle nesting beaches on Jack Bay, Isaac Bay and East End Bay.
The appropriately-named park encompasses the last six miles (10 kilometers) of the eastern end of St. Croix. It includes about 12 miles (20 kilometers) of coastline.
St. Croix reefs, like those in most of the Caribbean, are dominated by elkhorn and staghorn corals, and various species of brain, lettuce, finger, star and starlet corals. In the early 1980s, scientists began noticing what has evolved into a rapid decline of these hard corals. They are being replaced with macroalgae, fire corals and species such as sea whips, sea rods and sea plumes.
Tropical sea grass communities, among the most productive in the world, are ideal for fish and other sea creatures. Turtle grass is the overwhelmingly dominant sea grass off the shores of St. Croix. Manatee and shoal grasses are less abundant, but do thrive in sandy shoals.
Predatory fish such as grouper, snapper, shark and barracuda, and algae-eating fish such as parrot fish, doctor fish and surgeon fish rely on the reefs and sea grass beds for food and shelter and as a breeding ground. An estimated 400 species of fish live in and around the East End.
The park is also home to endangered green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles. The population of leatherbacks nesting at Sandy Point (managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) has grown almost 10-fold over the last two decades. Over the last three years, populations of green turtles have stabilized, while hawksbill populations are declining. Hawksbill shells are used to make valuable jewelry and purses.
Some 17 species of nesting seabirds rely on East End Park for food and shelter. These seasonal and year-round residents include shearwaters, tropicbirds, boobies, pelicans, frigate birds, gulls and terns.
Short trees such as manjack, frangipani and sea grapes dominate the coastline of the tropical dry scrub typical of the bays, while various grasses and species such as stovepipe and Turk's cap cacti grow throughout the entire bay area.
Turtle and turtle egg poaching and urbanization near beaches are causing populations of endangered sea turtles to drop. 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. Overfishing depletes seabirds' food supplies, pollution makes their food unhealthy, and the birds die when they become entangled in fishing gear. Also, exotic animals such as mongooses and rats prey upon bird eggs.
The Virgin Islands Government hired the Conservancy to develop a management plan to guide the future of East End Marine Park. The Conservancy collaborated with local fishermen and dive operators, professionals at local and national universities, and local and federal agencies to develop the plan.