The environment extends across all governmental and private-sector actions and operations. As such, the Virgin Islands government should establish a strong environmental programme.
Proper environmental management entails conserving, protecting, employing and preserving environmental resources for the benefit of current and future generations.
A sound environmental programme typically includes the following: a) environmental compliance (air quality attainment; noise abatement; wastewater collection, conveyance, treatment and discharge; and hazardous waste management, for example); b) environmental restoration and remediation; and c) natural and cultural resource management (archeological and historical resources, as well as land and renewable/non-renewable resources).
Further, the environment is vital for developing, growing and sustaining the territorial economy.
The economy is linked to the environment, and in this commentary the focus will be on environmental protection and compliance: how to preserve the pristine nature of the sea and its potential use beyond traditional activities like tourism, fisheries and marine transport. Per the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the oceans and seas provide food and minerals, generate oxygen, absorb greenhouse gases, determine weather patterns and temperature, and serve as highways for seaborne international trade. And oceans and seas can play a major role in achieving sustainable development, economic growth and livelihoods.
The twin pillars of the VI economy are financial services and tourism. Though financial services contribute more revenue (about 60 percent) to government coffers, tourism generates more direct, indirect and induced employment. Tourism contributions make up approximately 40 percent of gross domestic product, according to the BVI Tourist Board’s Tourism Education Manual.
Together, the two sectors must be the anchor for diversifying the economy. In the tourism sector, the sea is a major attraction for both land- and water-based tourists. Moreover, in addition to supporting the tourism sector, the sea provides a habitat for the marine life; marine transportation; a major food source for residents; and a source of income for commercial fishers and other entrepreneurs.
Additionally, both tourists and residents use the sea for a myriad of recreational activities, including fishing, swimming, surfing, kayaking, snorkeling, diving and yachting. And given the importance of the sea, it must be protected and preserved for the use and enjoyment of current and future Virgin Islanders, as well as to support, grow and sustain economic growth.
The VI is made up of 59 square miles spread over 36 islands, cays, islets and rocks with approximately 50 miles of coastline ringed with white sand beaches and turquoise water. The territorial sea extends out about three nautical miles (some countries extend territorial sea up to 12 miles), and includes approximately 500 square miles — almost eight times the size of the land area. The exclusive economic zone (fishing zone) extends out about 200 nautical miles to the north and northeast and about 45 nautical miles southeast from the low water mark. But to ensure that the sea can continue to support, grow and sustain the economy, it must be maintained in a healthy state.
Process and actions
The following are some suggested actions that can contribute to maintaining the sea in a heathy state:
- require an environmental permit to discharge into the sea consistent with established requirements;
- establish a public education and outreach initiative to educate the public on the cost of polluting the sea, contaminating seafood, and harming reefs and other marine life;
- restrict discharge of raw sewage into the sea, especially along the coastline, to outside the three-mile territorial sea from central sewage plants, septic systems, marine vessels and pump trucks;
- require yachts and other marine vessels have holding tanks on board;
- construct pump-out facilities ashore for yachts and other marine vessels;
- construct central/municipal sewage treatment plants across Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke;
- monitor and take action to improve storm water runoff, as well as pollution from pesticides, brake fluid, hazardous substances and so on;
- protect remaining mangroves and initiate an aggressive replanting programme;
- restrict dumping of trash, hazardous substances and so on into ghuts, ditches and other drainage channels; into the sea, particularly along the coastline; and within the three-mile territorial sea;
- establish a water laboratory for use by the Water and Sewerage Department; and
- monitor and routinely test water along the coastline, especially after heavy rain.
The ‘blue economy’
Such measures would help protect the oceans and lay the groundwork for developing the so-called “blue economy.”
Per the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihood and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.” The European Commission, meanwhile, defines the term as “all economic activities related to oceans seas and coasts,” and the Commonwealth of Nations calls it “an emerging concept which encourages better stewardship of our ocean or ‘blue’ resources.”
The VI must actively explore the use of the sea beyond the traditional uses of fisheries, tourism and maritime transport. It must look at the sea as a new frontier of sorts and explore its potential and possibilities for adding another leg to the economic stool and diversifying the economy. Potential blue economy sectors include renewable energy, aquaculture and marine biotechnology.