One by one, community members from St. Thomas and St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, along with visitors from as far away as New Jersey, stood to make a plea on one side or the other of an issue that has sparked controversy and polarized viewpoints. Jacksonville District’s Regulatory Division hosted the public meeting Thursday, Sept. 25 to receive public comments related to the application by Coral World Ocean Park to construct a nearshore dolphin enclosure.
More than 250 people – some carrying signs and posters; some wearing shirts expressing their opinions; all of them fervently in favor of or opposed to the project – packed the Charles Turnbull Regional Library well beyond its capacity. Nearly 50 attendees lined up to ask a question or submit a comment about the project.
“I have rarely seen an audience as passionate, or as divided, as this one,” said Osvaldo Collazo, chief of Regulatory’s North Permits Branch.
The proposed project at Coral World Ocean Park at Coki Point in St. Thomas includes constructing dolphin pens approximately 300 feet by 200 feet in Water Bay, a two-story “education center” structure adjacent to the shore, and a system of buoys, floats and lines to restrict vessel access. The project would impact 0.32 acres of coral habitat, 0.01 acre of seagrass in Porites rubble, 0.01 acre of hard bottom and 0.02 acres of scattered seagrass and coral.
The applicant has taken measures to avoid and minimize impacts to aquatic resources by reducing the size of the project footprint, avoiding the densest seagrass beds, reducing the number of pilings, adding dock grating and increasing the span of dock sections to reduce the number of pilings in hard bottom. Further, the applicant proposed compensatory mitigation for unavoidable impacts by relocating corals, boulders and seagrass and implementing an environmental and water quality monitoring plan.
“The Army Corps of Engineers is neither a proponent nor an opponent of any project,” Edgar Garcia, project manager, explained to the audience. “Public input is an important part of our process, and that is what brings us here tonight – we scheduled this meeting in response to your request, and we want to hear from you.”
Garcia outlined the Army Corps of Engineers’ regulatory mission, authorities and process before opening the floor. Under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the Corps regulates structures or work in, over or under navigable waters of the United States. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1977 regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material in waters of the United States, including wetlands. Finally, Section 103 of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act regulates the transportation of dredged material for the purpose of ocean dumping.
“The Army Corps of Engineers does not regulate dolphins in captivity or water quality,” said Garcia. “We review every application in accordance with the same criteria, as outlined in the Clean Water Act Section 404(b)(1) Guidelines and the 21 public interest factors covered by the National Environmental Policy Act. Additionally, we must comply with requirements of the Endangered Species Act, National Historic Preservation Act and Essential Fish Habitat as well as state and territorial certifications such as coastal zone management and water quality certification.”
Proponents for the project advocated economic benefits through increased and enhanced tourism as well as educational benefits through hands-on wildlife encounters. “We can learn so much more through parks like Coral World and activities like dolphin encounters than we can ever learn from a book or video,” said one speaker.
Project opponents stated that environmental impacts to coral, seagrass, marine life and water quality resulting from housing dolphins in the proposed enclosure will degrade Water Bay. “I have seen threatened Acropora coral in the area proposed for the dolphin enclosure,” said one attendee as his wife displayed photographs.
The meeting, which was originally scheduled for 6-8 p.m., adjourned at almost 10 p.m., with many attendees on both sides of the issue expressing gratitude for the Corps’ responsiveness in having the meeting.
“We wanted to stay as long as we needed to stay, and hear from as many people as possible,” said Sindulfo Castillo, chief of the Antilles Regulatory Section. “We all agreed that it was time well spent, and we were touched by how deeply everyone felt and how eloquently they presented their statements.”