Spring Break on St. Thomas: A Look at Caribbean Coastal Development

Spring Break on St. Thomas: A Look at Caribbean Coastal Development

Over spring break, Prof. Gaboury Benoit’s Coastal Caribbean Development class traveled to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to study firsthand the impacts and processes of coastal development. St. Thomas presents an interesting case study for tourism and development due to its high volume of tourists, limited resources, and vulnerability to hurricanes and climate change.

St. Thomas has an interesting history and culture. Originally owned by the English and then the Danish, it served as an important center for shipping and sugar cane production. After about 100 years as an independent port, the U.S. government purchased the island for strategic purposes during the First World War. Since then, it has remained a U.S. territory. However, the culture of the island is far from homogenous. From its time as a major trading center in the Caribbean, there is a strong West Indie and “frenchie” culture, especially among the fishing communities.

During our one-week visit, we met people from the fishing communities, regional NGO offices, the desalination plant, and wastewater treatment center. We learned about the successful closure of the Nassau grouper fishery, which has helped that species recuperate, as well as about the corruption and lack of enforcement that impede further successful management of fish stocks. We discovered a strong, community-built commitment to protect the environment. This included real estate developers, a woman starting her own, small-scale ecotourism business, and local fishermen. However, we also discovered that while their actions help impede and slow down some of the more destructive development projects, the overall success of their mission is challenged by the pervasive corruption and the high earnings of cruise ship tourism.

We also conducted our own studies about the state of the environment in St. Thomas. We collected soil and water samples from lagoons and stream guts in key points on the island, studied marine habitats during snorkel and SCUBA activities, and explored forest and mangrove ecosystems. The data we collected will be used to study sediment transport, carbon levels, and relative abundance of coral coverage and fish populations over time, as students continue to visit and study St. Thomas each year.

From our visit, it is clear that St. Thomas has a long way to go before achieving “sustainable” development. Despite the prevalence of solar panels, rainwater catchment systems, and cisterns and the presence of community stewardship, huge operations are needed to import food, generate fresh water and energy, and provide for the thousands of tourists that arrive daily via cruise ships and planes. The high volume of unchecked tourism, which drives the development of attractions such as the controversial installation of a “swim-with-dolphins” area, and poorly enforced regulation of fishery and development policies threatens the very aesthetic beauty that attracts so many visitors to the island.

PHOTO: Master’s students explore the impacts of erosion on Caribbean coral reefs. (Courtesy of Stephanie Stefanski)