July 20, 2018 | ° F

Residents protest research center

Photo by Openstreetmap.org |

Salt River Bay, one of the few bioluminescent bodies of water left in the world, borders the site where the a Marine Research Education Center is proposed to be built. The University is a partner in this project.

One of the few bioluminescent bays left in the world is preserved in the Virgin Islands, in a small town called St. Croix. The concentrated nutrients in the water make it glow in the night, a site tourists come to see.

Within this area, the University has plans to partner with the University of South Carolina, the University of the Virgin Islands and the University of North Carolina to erect the Salt River Bay Marine Research and Education Center.

The consortium is working with the state park under strict partnership construction process protocol to realize a dream for the Salt River Bay area that was conceived in 2004, said Michael Bayer, the center’s director.  

Bayer said the $45 million project would begin to materialize for another four or five years.

But an opposition group is up in arms about the plans, called Save Salt River Bay. The group represents about 50 St. Croix households, not including the residential area adjacent to the park known as Judith’s Fancy, according to the group.

Members of Save Salt River Bay said in an unsigned letter that Judith’s Fancy residents unanimously oppose the project, because residents had no previous knowledge of the planned construction, according to a recent poll.

Along with a bioluminescent bay, St. Croix is home to 25 endangered species, including sea turtles and birds. The opposition group said they demand the facility be moved to spare the ecological treasures of their town.

“Salt River Bay is one of the great ocean side wildlife [refuges] left in St. Croix,” they said in an unsigned letter. “We cannot afford to lose this wilderness, like so many others that have gone before it, to the sprawl of human development.”

While Save Salt River Bay membership aims to reflect the community, no members would disclose their names but Leslie Miller, the group’s president.

“A lot of people don’t want their names published because of conflict with the National Park Service,” Miller said. “People that own businesses have a lot of dealings with National Park Service personnel and evidently they just don’t want to rock the boat.”

David Goldstein, chief interpreter of the National Park Service, said the consortium tried to get residents involved by inviting homeowners to a public program and encouraging discussion, but did not see any evidence of such a movement.

“In this particular case it’s clear that they’re interested in getting as much air time as possible without revealing who they are,” he said. “I don’t know where these guys are. We’re trying to figure out how these people got missed, because it’s not clear to us how we missed this particular minority.”

St. Croix actually had a marine research facility once before, but it was destroyed in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo, Goldstein said.

He said the space has remained vacant for almost 40 years, with the surviving laboratories housing files upon files of data that were left behind. It was the consortium that moved in to reclaim this property in the sake of science.

But Miller said the community would prefer the consortium to move away from their territory and integrate their research center in an area where sea life and vegetation would not be endangered.

Goldstein said he does not understand why other facilities are not put up for research purposes.

“We’ve got a big university here. If they’re going to put so much money in it, why not put it in an existing university?” he said.

Though this would be a theoretical possibility, the east side is the perfect place to study the environment, as it is a center of marine history with a diverse ecosystem of coral reefs, sea turtles and evident tectonic plate shifts, Goldstein said.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the impact of climate change on coral reefs,” Goldstein said. “They’re very sensitive to climate change. Sea water elevation and temperature aggravate the ecosystem in ways we don’t really understand, so this is becoming an important place to come back to for research.”

Holly Nelson, head of the University’s division of MREC, said the neighborhood has an uninviting atmosphere that might indicate the root of the hostility. A driver’s license is required for beach access, including a big bar that goes down to keep cars from going anywhere, she said.

“I can’t tell you enough how off-putting it is,” she said. “[The employees are] not nice to you. It’s possible that the people who live in that neighborhood want it to remain private. They’ve removed easy public access.”

As there is no suitable space for construction anywhere else, the facility will have to be built on the east side of St. Croix. But the universities are collaborating to analyze the stability of the bioluminescent bay in a study that will launch in January, Bayer said.

“We want to understand why bioluminescence actually took root in that location,” he said. “If there’s a way to protect it, we’re going to try to do that.”

But he said he doubts that avoiding construction will preserve the bioluminescence for much longer.

“We need to better understand that there is a certain life cycle to something like bioluminescence,” he said. “In fact, it was created by human intervention at the site. It may naturally change over time, so even doing nothing at the site may not guarantee long term survival.”

Nelson said the project is looking to help improve the St. Croix community by providing education and unemployment, which was 13.2 percent in the month of August, according to the V.I. Workforce System website.

“They want to help make St. Croix a better place,” Nelson said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs, so people tend to get a college degree and come over to the mainland.”

By Lisa Berkman

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