Saturday, January 16, 2010

Biodiversity Law 2010 - Mermaid's Chair

For the 10th year in a row, Biodiversity Law is being taught in the Virgin Islands. Here is the University of Kansas School of Law Biodiversity Law class' report from Day 1:

Today we went to Mermaid’s chair, located in Botany Bay on St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. First we walked along the beach and observed the native flora and fauna. We noted a variety of flora, ranging from cactus to sea grapes, and a variety of fauna, ranging from soldier crabs to pelicans. We then observed tide pools, which acted as natural hatcheries.

After exploring the land we hit the water for some snorkel time to observe the marine life. As we snorkeled for an hour and a half, we were impressed by the abundance of fish and coral in such a small area. As a group we estimated on average each person saw 35 “species” of fish and coral. A few examples are:

Parrot fish
Blue tang
Squirrel fish
Zebra fish
Trumpet fish
Neon fish
Sea urchins
Ghost crab
Duster worm
Surf perch
Clown wrasse
Sergeant Major
Tube sponge

Brain coral
Staghorn coral
Fire coral
Pipe of pan coral
Elkhorn coral
Fan coral (in shades of yellow and coral)

Ecosystem Generally

Mermaid’s chair is a small cove at the intersection between the Caribbean and Atlantic. The cove is protected from the worst of the swells of the unprotected open sea, but enough waves crash into shore that the animals that call this place home must be adapted to the rough life. The water is temperate, with year round temperatures warm enough allowing for the existence of an incredible amount of coral and fish. Soldier crabs, ghost crabs, and snails live on virtually every land surface, from holes in the sand to various rock formations. The watershed feeding the cove with fresh water runoff is heavily forested and contributes little runoff or sediment, allowing for clearer water in the cove.

Policy Change/ Preexisting Laws For Mermaid’s Chair

Currently, there are laws and institutions in place for the conservation of biodiversity in Mermaid’s chair that could be applied to the existing ecological situation. For instance, the Endangered Species Act could prove useful to protecting many of the various organisms from coral to fish and birds. The Elkhorn coral is in such limited supply that is qualifies as an endangered species, as is the brown pelican. Extending the protection of the Endangered Species Act would ensure that government agencies had to be mindful of their actions as it would affect the endangered species. The ESA would also protect against takings by private parties; thus, individuals would be prevented from breaking coral or causing harm in any way to any endangered species. The ESA is already applicable to these endangered species, but further enforcement is necessary for the species to be effective.

Another possibility for conserving the biodiversity on the land and continuing to keep the beach a quiet and less-traveled beach is acquiring conservation easements on the private land currently slated for development. By stopping the development of the area, it would keep the integrity of the soil intact, would help prevent more destruction of native species, and keep further invasive species who hitchhike in on lumber and personal gardens out.

Possibilities for conserving the biodiversity at Mermaid’s chair include enacting zoning requirements and entering into use and development agreements with the builders. Zoning requirements would have to be enacted by the local government and would have to be constitutional in nature, but these could be anything as building density requirements to setbacks from the water. Entering into use and development agreements with the builders could accomplish these same goals, and could additionally require the development to be environmentally respectful and to preserve as much of the existing biodiversity as possible. These could take the forms of restricted covenants or contracts. This option allows the developers to take more initiative, and keep a better public relations perspective from the community and potential buyers.

There will be more tomorrow.


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