By Courtney Mattison
Mission Blue is proud to partner with Friends of Mandahl as they work tirelessly to protect Mandahl Bay from a proposed development project that could severely damage vital coastal habitat on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas.
“We are all very excited about this news,” stated Friends of Mandahl Steering Committee member Karl Callwood. “This partnership signifies that scientists, environmentalists and 30 million everyday people from around the world are recognizing the critical significance of the Mandahl Bay ecosystem.”[i]
Mandahl Bay is home to a lush mangrove wetland that provides nursery habitat, food and shelter to many commercially important fish species as well as sea turtles, seabirds and crustaceans. The mangrove forest also collects sediment that would otherwise smother sensitive near-shore coral species, including the critically threatened elkhorn coral Acropora palmata. “The science is very clear that Mandahl Bay is a nursery habitat for our ocean fisheries and that it is the last such habitat on the north side of St. Thomas,” stated Callwood.
That precious ecosystem is in jeopardy. Corporate entity Mandahl Bay Holdings, Inc. – a subsidiary of New-York based Transcontinental Realty Investors – is pressuring the Virgin Islands Government to issue it a 99-year, $12,000-a-year lease on the 23+ acres of vulnerable wetlands within Mandahl Bay Beach, Salt Pond and Lagoon. Mandahl Bay Holdings has proposed investing $209 million to create the “Port of Mandahl” – a 50-slip marina, a Hyatt Regency Hotel, a multi-story condominium complex, a shopping mall, a fueling depot and a sewage treatment plant – with promises of improving the local economy and providing 700 jobs to island residents.[ii] Former Governor John deJongh, Jr. and Mandahl Bay Holdings principals met on St. Thomas in November 2014 and formally agreed to facilitate the development, which is now pending approval by the Senate and the Coastal Zone Management Committee’s permitting process.[iii]
On February 10, Friends of Mandahl – a coalition of St. Thomas residents against the port project – rallied a group of over 50 protestors to demonstrate at Mandahl Bay Beach while ten Senators led by Sen. Janette Millin-Young, the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Agriculture and Planning, met with the principals of Mandahl Bay Holdings to envision the project before holding formal public hearings on approving the lease agreement.
The outraged crowd – which included Taino Indians, local families and environmental leaders – chanted, “Save Mandahl Bay! This belongs to us!” and questioned the developers about potential environmental impacts. When asked about how dredging the marina basin would impact local fisheries, the project’s architect Tracy Roberts replied, “The fish will die, during the dredging. However, once we’ve completed this, they will come back.” She added that the same will apply to birds and other species, which will flee from the site but supposedly return once construction is finished.[iv]
Karl Blaha, President of Mandahl Bay Holdings, said, “There is no threat to disturbing the environment. We wouldn’t get approval if there’s anything in our proposal that threatens the environment.” However, Karl Callwood rebutted that, “There’s no way you can put down a building without diverting water flow… have that large-scale boating activity and even swimming and recreation activity without disturbing the processes that create life within the Mandahl ecosystem.”[v]
Following the confrontation, some senators expressed support for the Friends of Mandahl. The entire approval process could take a year, with many more opportunities for public comment. On Tuesday, the St. Thomas Source reported that Hyatt might be pulling out of the deal amidst the controversy.[vi]
Visit savemandahlbay.com to learn more and support the Friends of Mandahl.
Join the Save Mandahl Bay Facebook group to stay up to date and help spread the word.
Featured image (top): Mandahl Bay © Richard Gillette