After a backhoe cleared a wide swath of mangroves and other vegetation as part of efforts to remove a grounded yacht from the Paraquita Bay lagoon last month, government has halted the removal process and officials said they are considering levying penalties including fines.
But the businessman behind the project — a South African named Gerrit Coetzee who came to the territory in hopes of purchasing a salvaged boat — said he believed government had granted him permission to remove the mangroves in order to carry out a difficult salvage operation that others have been reluctant to tackle since Hurricane Irma.
Meanwhile, the clear-cutting and associated dredging have upset environmentalists, lagoon managers and others who said that it unnecessarily damaged the delicate natural ecosystem of the area, where boats are moored for safekeeping during major storms.
“I think somebody should take some firm action if the government is concerned about preserving things,” said Sam Welch, the chairman of the BVI Marine Association, which manages the lagoon from July through the end of November each year.
But in a territory without a law specifically protecting wetlands or banning the destruction of mangroves, taking action might be easier said than done.
The yacht — a 44-foot sailing catamaran named Miss You that previously was owned by Dream Yacht Charter — has been grounded along the roadside edge of the lagoon since Hurricane Irma.
Mr. Coetzee — who said he worked as a prosecutor in South Africa before moving to the United States, where he owns a company that sells tyre chains — explained that he and his wife came to the territory to buy a different boat after reading an online advertisement.
Once here, they learned about the Miss You, which he said was in very good condition, and they decided to make an offer. Though they initially faced delays in the purchasing process — during which they bought a powerboat as well — they said they eventually closed the deal in late October.
As they started planning the salvage process, however, they began encountering problems, according to Mr. Coetzee, whose account at this stage begins to diverge from the stories told by public officers and others involved in the affair.
Mr. Coetzee said this month that he originally hoped to hire a barge and crane to lift the boat over the mangroves and remove it via the lagoon without destroying vegetation.
But he was unable to find a salvage company willing to set a date for the operation, he said, adding that he received “absurd” quotations ranging from $30,000 to $60,000.
“I contacted everyone I could find who had a crane or who knew someone who had a crane,” he wrote in a message last week. “Even individuals, but all roads eventually led back to the same people and the same replies.”
Representatives from two of the companies he contacted, however, disputed his account.
Commercial Dive Services founder Chris Juredin said that he could have used a barge and crane to remove the yacht without destroying the mangroves, though he acknowledged that the process would have been expensive.
Mr. Coetzee, he said, “tried to hire us to lift it out but did not want to pay the money to do it, and we did not want to damage the mangroves.”
Mr. Juredin added that his company has done its best to minimise environmental damage while salvaging dozens of boats since Hurricane Irma.
“The removal of those mangroves was completely unnecessary, and it was very, very sad to see it,” he said of the Paraquita Bay trees. “There was no need.”
He added that Mr. Coetzee got upset after CDS asked for time to review information about the yacht’s ownership and other details
“When I explained to him that we were on other jobs and needed time to review everything, he became rude and made accusations,” Mr. Juredin wrote in a message last week, adding, “At this point I declined the work in writing.”
Richard Starkey, a director at Meridian Construction Company — which Mr. Coetzee said quoted a price of $60,000 for the project and wouldn’t provide a starting date — said he met with Mr. Coetzee for about 30 minutes, but his company never provided an official quotation and he didn’t recall even giving a ballpark figure.
“Any kind of discussion was very short-term with that guy,” Mr. Starkey recalled, adding, “Cost seemed to be critical to the guy. To do something like that, a lot of work goes into it; a lot of planning goes into it.”
Ultimately, he said, he didn’t feel that Mr. Coetzee was very interested, and his company didn’t pursue the job.
Meanwhile, Mr. Coetzee was facing other challenges. Around the time he completed his purchase in late October, he said, he and his wife left the territory for about a week and returned to find that their new acquisition had been stripped of some $35,000 worth of equipment, including a large generator that would have required special tools to remove.
“When we got to the boat, the boat was fully stripped of everything except for the mast and one fridge,” Mr. Coetzee recalled.
Previously, he said, it had been fully outfitted.
“Other boats that have been salvaged or stripped in this place, things like the compass, the steering wheel and some of the other smaller, unimportant gauges are left — nobody is interested in it,” he said. “This boat was even stripped of that. Now you tell me: Is this an act of a person that is only trying to steal the expensive equipment or is it someone that has an ‘if-I-can’t-have- it-nobody-will-have-it ’ type of attitude?”
Mr. Coetzee said that he hadn’t reported the theft to the police, but he is now offering a reward of $10,000 to anyone who can provide information that leads to the arrest of the perpetrators and the recovery of the stolen equipment.
In part because of the delays and the theft, he explained, he decided to expedite the removal process by cutting away the mangroves and hillside vegetation so that the boat would be accessible without a crane and barge.
By that time, he said, he believed he had permission to remove the mangroves because of a late-September e-mail exchange with Ronald Smith-Berkeley, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour.
“I knew there were problems with the boat where it was situated, and I was early on advised that one cannot cut through the mangroves without permission, and I was told that I will not get permission to cut through the mangroves,” Mr. Coetzee explained this month. “So I did the most logical thing and I wrote an e-mail to the [government] departments.”
On Sept. 25 he had written to Mr. Smith-Berkeley, copying the Conservation and Fisheries Department. His e-mail, which he provided to the Beacon, included a photo of the mangroves on the lagoon side of the Miss You and a letter addressed to Mr. Smith-Berkeley, who he incorrectly addressed as the permanent secretary of the National Parks Trust.
“From the photo you will evidence [sic] that there is less than some 20 feet of mangrove to be temporarily relocated reaching the yacht and salvaging it,” Mr. Coetzee wrote, adding, “If this letter meets with your approval, we wish to receive permission in reply, as for the work to commence without undue delay.”
The message, which appears to describe a removal through the lagoon, does not mention the hillside vegetation above the boat.
Mr. Smith-Berkeley responded by e-mail the next day.
“Firstly, as it relates to the mangrove, we asked that extreme care be taken when removing the vessel,” the permanent secretary wrote in a message that Mr. Coetzee provided to the Beacon. “Ideally, we recommend that the vessel be lifted over the mangrove, especially the undergrowth, instead cutting them [sic]. However, if this is not possible, please ensure that enough care is exercised to keep the damage to the mangrove to a minimum.”
Mr. Smith-Berkeley copied Captain Raman Bala, the acting director of the Virgin Islands Shipping Registry, who he said would provide further instructions.
Mr. Coetzee said he understood Mr. Smith-Berkeley’s email to grant permission to cut the mangroves if other options failed. Following the theft, he decided the time had come.
“My hands were tied when nobody wanted to lend me the barge and the crane,” he explained.
Though his earlier request to Mr. Smith-Berkeley didn’t mention clearing the hillside, Mr. Coetzee said the equipment operator he hired — who he declined to identify — obtained verbal permission to remove that vegetation from Dr. Angel Smith, the director of the hurricane recovery at the nearby H. Lavity Stoutt Community College.
The same day, he said, the project got under way.
“We were busy three days,” he said. “This is also a funny part of the story: That is in a very visible portion of the land. It’s not hidden. For three days, we were busy working there.”
The excavator dug a channel between the lagoon and the boat that appears to be about 30 feet wide and 80 feet long. Much of that area had been home to mangrove trees that were removed.
On the hillside above, an area at least 80 feet wide and 100 feet long was cleared.
But when workers were about 30 minutes away from floating the vessel on the afternoon of Nov. 16, Mr. Coetzee said, a group of government officials arrived accompanied by two police officers.
Though he didn’t name them, Mr. Coetzee said the group included representatives from the “environmental department,” the Shipping Registry and three other people who refused to identify themselves.
“I went to them not knowing what is this big commotion about now. And the first thing I was told by the [Shipping] Registry was ‘who gave me permission to cut through the mangroves?’” he said, declining to name the registry official. “I told him how can you ask me this when you were privy to the permission e-mail? And everyone there said nobody gave permission.”
That day, Mr. Coetzee was instructed to stop the removal process until the matter could be reviewed.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Bala, the acting registry director, wrote to him to officially block the removal until further notice.
Mr. Bala, who is also the territory’s receiver of wrecks, told the Beacon this month that Mr. Coetzee claimed he had the necessary permission for the project.
“But when we checked the authorities, they … categorically said that they have not given such a permission,” Mr. Bala explained. “So we stopped them from doing anything further.”
Contacted by the Beacon earlier this month, Mr. Smith-Berkeley denied that his ministry had granted permission to remove mangroves or other vegetation.
After this reporter later sent excerpts from the e-mail provided by Mr. Coetzee, the permanent secretary insisted, “Approval to create the kind of destruction at Paraquita Bay was not approved. Mr. Coetzee was supposed to prove ownership to Captain Bala, after which he would seek the least destructive means to remove the vessel.”
Kelvin Penn, the acting director of the Conservation and Fisheries Department, spoke similarly.
“What he did was not cut the mangroves,” he said. “He actually dug out some of the shore and the shoreline. That’s a big difference between cutting the mangroves and removing the shoreline. … What he had in his mind and what we had in our mind concerning the mangroves was totally different.”
Dr. Smith, the HLSCC recovery director, also denied Mr. Coetzee’s claim that he had granted verbal permission to cut the hillside vegetation.
“We can’t give permission for a project that has nothing to do with us,” Dr. Smith said on Dec. 18. “Why would the college be giving permission for that?”
When this reporter tried to explain Mr. Coetzee’s account — which included an allegation that Dr. Smith asked the backhoe operator to cut a wider swath than originally planned — Dr. Smith interrupted, “I’m not interested in what he told you or what he said otherwise.” Shortly thereafter, he hung up.
The previous week, HLSCC President Dr. Judith Vanterpool spoke similarly.
“They did not ask us permission,” she said of the project, adding, “That has nothing to do with the college. We had no involvement with that at all.”
Though the college’s culinary arts centre is located on the same parcel of Crown land where much of the clear-cutting took place, the parcel is leased not to HLSCC but to an entity called Phryne Holdings Limited, according to Land Registry documents.
The Beacon was unable to obtain information about Phryne, which holds a 99-year lease from January 1977, and Dr. Vanterpool declined to comment on the ownership of the property.
“Anything with land we would not be able to comment on,” she explained.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bala said the Shipping Registry is still waiting on Mr. Coetzee to prove that he owns the yacht.
“I told him you cannot remove it without permission, and he said it belongs to him and I said show me the relevant proof of that,” the director said earlier this month. “He has given certain documents, but we told him those are not acceptable, so that is it.”
Mr. Coetzee said he feels unfairly targeted by unreasonable demands. Though he has provided a contract, a bill of sale and other information, he claimed, the registry is now requesting other documents that he believes are not typically required, including the previous owner’s bill of sale. Some of these documents, he added, are extremely difficult to acquire because of the multiple jurisdictions and languages involved.
But Mr. Bala maintained that when Mr. Coetzee proves ownership the registry will clear him to remove the vessel pending approval from other agencies.
“The Shipping Registry has got a remit only for the vessel as such and we do not have the authority now for the environment, so we will say that if he establishes ownership we have to allow him to take his boat out, but he will have to get the relevant government permission before he does anything,” Mr. Bala said.
As Mr. Coetzee works to prove ownership, other branches of government are considering their next steps.
“While we understand that the removal of the vessels would have adversely affected the mangroves, we were certainly not expecting to see this level of destruction,” Mr. Smith-Berkeley wrote in his Dec. 18 e-mail to the Beacon. “At the moment that this was brought to our attention, we immediately intervened and stopped it. The situation is being assessed and we will communicate with the responsible individual in due course.”
Mr. Penn, the Conservation and Fisheries head, said officials are considering levying a fine that would at least cover the cost of restoring the mangroves in the area.
But taking such action might not be easy. Because the territory has no law specifically banning the destruction of mangroves, any penalties might have to be levied through the Physical Planning Act of 2004, which restricts coastal development, Mr. Penn explained.
But Greg Adams, the head of the Town and Country Planning Department, said the mangrove removal might not be banned by that law either.
“The Planning Act specifies that you have to apply for development permission and then there’s a legal definition of what development entails, and cutting trees and clearing the landscape or the vegetation is not necessarily — quote, unquote — development,” Mr. Adams explained.
He added that no one had applied to his office for permission for the work in Paraquita Bay, but it was difficult for him to say if such permission was required because he didn’t know anything about the project.
Mr. Coetzee, meanwhile, said he is ready to do what it takes to remove the boat.
Besides submitting documents to the Shipping Registry, he said, he is prepared to replant the mangroves or take any other steps required by the government in order to mitigate the damage.
“I have an obligation to replant these very precious mangroves,” he said, adding that he offered to do so when he requested permission for the removal. “Allow me to take the boat off. We can keep it in safekeeping in any one of the marinas. Let me replant the mangroves, and then the environmental impact has been minimised.”
Biologist Clive Petrovic said the environmental damage caused by the project is substantial, but mitigation efforts would be worthwhile and should be carried out as soon as possible.
“There are consequences from two things: removal of mangroves and all the vegetation and also the dredging,” he said. “In both cases the biggest risk is erosion.”
The mangroves and other vegetation will grow back eventually, but the process will take time, Mr. Petrovic explained.
“The risk is that before that happens you’ve got a whole steep slope of unsecured, unstabilised soil,” he said, adding, “Land sediments washing into the sea carry fungus and various pathogens that can affect marine life.”
The sediment can also cover marine plants and prevent them from photosynthesising, according to the biologist. And if the dredging created a hole deeper than the nearby lagoon, he added, it could trap organic matter like seaweed and leaves.
“That collects and decomposes and the decay takes the oxygen out of the water and it creates other environmental problems,” he explained.
Mr. Petrovic added that such issues can be mitigated from the start of a project with fairly simple measures including silt fences and other erosion-control devices.
“The sad thing in this case is that if it was going to be done it would’ve been nice to at least try to reduce the environmental downside,” he said.
Upset by damage
For such reasons, members of the Marine Association of the BVI — which manages the lagoon from July through November, when yachts use it for protection from hurricanes — were upset with the clear-cutting, according to Mr. Welch, the organisation’s chairman.
“The Marine Association in no way sanctioned this act,” he said this month, adding, “We’ve made every endeavor to preserve and protect. We’ve gone to the effort of overspending in order to ensure that we’re preserving and protecting.”
As part of those efforts, he explained, the association has installed moorings in the lagoon and blocked boats from tying off on the mangrove roots.
“We’ve spent a considerable amount of money in recovering the area and reestablishing moorings so that the fleet could be protected and preserved in the event of a hurricane,” he said.
In spite of the damage to the clear-cut area, Mr. Petrovic said it’s not too late to take mitigating actions.
“I would think at the very least silt fences and erosion control measures would be a good idea, and replanting as soon as possible would be a good idea as well,” the biologist said.
The Beacon was unable to reach Lynda Varlack, the acting director of the National Parks Trust, which oversees the lagoon during the months that the Marine Association doesn’t manage the area.
For his part, Mr. Coetzee said that he came to the VI looking for a bargain on a first boat for him and his wife.
“I have no boat experience,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the opportunities with the sunken boats, I would never have gotten involved in the boats. It ’s just a question of the price.”
He also argued that he has done his best to properly carry out a difficult salvage operation that ultimately will benefit the territory.
“I was accused of being opportunistic, and I thought I’m no more opportunistic than anyone else that comes here to the island to buy a boat,” he said, adding, “If it isn’t for opportunistic people to buy the boats, the boats would still be strewn over the island.”
He added that he intends to persist in his efforts.
“I feel harassed, I feel prejudiced — and unfairly so — against anyone else who bought a boat on this island,” he said, “but I will jump all the hurdles that they have given me.”