A proposed new management plan lays out a comprehensive strategy for Long Bay Beach on Beef Island. Government held a meeting last week to gather input. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Long Bay Beach on Beef Island serves a different purpose to every visitor. Some enjoy exercising, cooking out, snorkelling among the corals, swimming, participating in water sports, visiting as tourists, and running businesses selling food and beverages. Animals, meanwhile, find refuge in nearby bird habitat or turtle nesting grounds.

Government officials are seeking feedback on a proposed management plan designed to balance all these interests while protecting the beach for future generations.

To that end, they invited community members to a public meeting on Oct. 13 at the East End Methodist Church.

“It’s one of the few places in the entire territory, really, where we still have a full, intact beach ecosystem with everything from fringing coral reefs along each side of the beach that is supported by the pristine water of the bay, all the way through to salt ponds that help to actually protect that pristine water quality,” said government Climate Change Officer Angela Burnett-Penn, who walked viewers through the proposal. “So it’s really a rare gem, as has been highlighted in many ways already.”

The proposed management plan considers feedback from previous community meetings held this spring and a public survey that was completed by about 300 people either online or on paper, Ms. Burnett-Penn said during the meeting, which drew about 20 in-person attendees and more than 1,400 views online.

Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn speaks about the need to balance beachgoers’ interest in using Long Bay Beach in East End with preserving its ecology for future generations. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Despite the beach’s importance, it faces big challenges.

The 2020 Virgin Islands Beach Policy established 17 main threats to the health of beaches, and Ms. Burnett-Penn said 11 of them have been identified at Long Bay.

She shared aerial images of today’s coastline compared to a decade ago, illustrating how the vegetation line has all but disappeared in some areas. Such vegetation, she explained, provides important protection against erosion and storms.

In particular, long-standing groves of sea grape trees have diminished to the point where Ms. Burnett-Penn said larger plants would likely have to be transplanted to the area to restart growth.

She added that this restoration would also help address one of the main complaints about the beach: its shortage of shade.

The beach is almost entirely Crown land following a recent purchase, Ms. Burnett-Penn said, adding that the government’s long-term plan is for it to become a national park. The planning team’s restoration proposals, she added, align with this goal.

Attendees took particular interest in seeing these groves restored, highlighting it as a priority among the restoration plans.

Much of the beach’s eastern sand dune, which acts as important sea turtle habitat, has also deteriorated, she said.

“The last time we presented to the community, we spent a lot of time trying to explain the science of why protecting the vegetation and protecting the dune is critical to make sure that we have a beach not just 10 to 15 years from now, but 50 to 100 years from now, especially as we see new threats like sea level rising come about,” she said.

To that end, planners also proposed adding new barriers around the dunes to keep traffic away from them.

New eating space

To address concerns about litter and noise pollution, planners proposed to construct a new area for eating and vending a bit further back from the waterline, Ms. Burnett-Penn said.

Initial plans include offering rentable spaces for small- and medium-sized vendors.

The area would also include a shaded eating area, two dedicated barbeque pits, restrooms, and facilities for beach management staff, she said. It would also help facilitate access for handicapped beachgoers, she noted.

Some meeting attendees shared their concerns about the limited floor plan for the rentals and whether the pair of pits would be enough to meet demand. However, Ms. Burnett-Penn said the planning team wanted to start small with any development of the beach, aiming to preserve its natural resources.

This approach was supported by the survey data, she said, noting that 52 percent of respondents wished for development that is “limited and carefully planned to preserve the environment, maintain a natural aesthetic and balances tourist and residential use of the beach.”

Only about five percent of survey respondents supported commercial development designed to make the beach a major tourist destination.

Leaning into nature preservation, planners also included nature paths and a lookout deck in the facilities plan.

Ms. Burnett-Penn said they hope to secure funding during this budget cycle so they can start implementing the final management plan in January with the hope of opening the new vending zone for the following peak tourism season.

Social change

Ms. Burnett-Penn said Long Bay Beach remains a popular beach among East End residents, but tourists also use the beach heavily as well.

She added that data from a previous lifeguarding programme indicated it was the third most popular beach in the territory, and she suggested that it may take the top spot when factoring in residential use.

“While this is a place that people vacation, this is where we live, and we have to make sure that in all that we too are preserving a quality of life for residents and preserving spaces where people can enjoy and seek to be well,” she said.

Citing World Tourism Organisation international standards for recommended carrying capacities, she said the beach is well within the recommended maximum of 900 tourist visits per day, landing closer to 650 on average based on impressions from tour operators and the VI Ports Authority.

“In particular since Hurricane Irma in 2017, we’ve seen much heavier visitation by cruise ship passengers; we’ve seen the establishment of permanent commercial activity for the first time, including chair rentals in addition to beach bars/restaurants and souvenir-type vending operations; we also have commercial water sport activity on the beach,” she said.

Beach use has changed among residents in recent years as well.

“We’ve seen a lot more prevalence of parties with loudspeakers to the point where it’s become a noise pollution issue, as you’ll see from the survey data,” she said. “Basically, now every Saturday and Sunday, there’s a presence of some kind of party.”

Rule changes

Ms. Burnett-Penn said the planning team is still considering several options to reduce crowding at the beach.

For instance, she said a limit could be imposed on adding any more beach chairs to the approximately 400 already in the area. Those chairs, she added, should only be put out on the beach when rented rather than sitting out unused.

Limits could also be implemented for how many taxis could bring tourists at a time, with up to 14 spaces allocated for them in the parking lot, she said. Under a “share the beach” policy, taxi buses could also be limited to visiting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, when demand by residents would be lowest, she added.

Planners also proposed scheduling a percentage of “no event” days, initially at 50 percent. Additionally, commercial events might not be allowed on cultural holidays, according to Ms. Burnett-Penn.

The government is also considering establishing specific operating hours for vendors. Attendees pushed for longer open hours so they could adequately prepare for customers.

Ms. Burnett-Penn said her team evaluated the potential effect on tourism dollars that such limits would impose and estimated it would be minimal.