Love it… or lose it.
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde. In St Maarten, the ‘thing’ in question is the Lesser Antilles’ third largest saltwater lagoon, but Rueben Thompson, coordinator of the Love the Lagoon project has no intention of killing a single organism.
“The lagoon is definitely in trouble,” says Thompson, a quietly-spoken St Maartener who has been spearheading Love the Lagoon since March 2007, with the help of the occasional intern, to save this sprawling expanse of mangrove, seagrass, and shoreline from the encroachments posed by an international airport, seven full marinas, four boatyards, and a rash of new apartment/marina developments, as well as the hundreds of cruising yachts that use this anchorage every season.
Our interview takes place in a café off Airport Road in Simpson Bay. At times, the noise of the nearby gridlocked traffic drowns out conversation, another reminder of the transformation this strip has undergone in the past decade. Thirty years ago, aerial images of the lagoon show little more than sand and mangrove. In 1995, 95% of the 1,000+ yachts in or around the lagoon were destroyed by Hurricane Luis. In 2003, the Simpson Bay Lagoon Authority organized the widening of the Bridge to allow the bigger megayachts to enter the lagoon. In 2008, Simpson Bay Lagoon’s shoreline is under relentless development, stacked with the hotels, restaurants, bars, marinas and marine services that bring the yachts here in the first place.
Should cruising sailors be scared of Love the Lagoon? Surprisingly, Thompson lays little blame at the foot of the marine community. “Much of the pollution problem is the result of land-based sources – landfill, illegal waste disposal, car batteries, sewage run-off,” he explains. The cruising community, on the other hand, has often been first to turn up at the coastal clean ups. “There are a lot of boaters who are environmentally conscious and want to be able to jump off the boat where they dock or anchor and swim,” says Thompson.
In November 2007, Love the Lagoon was officially appointed as the Blue Flag coordinator for St Maarten. The Blue Flag program, the same that rates beaches worldwide, rewards marinas and marine stakeholders that adopt good environmental practices. Already, Island Global Yachting, manager of the majority of marinas in the lagoon, has signed up. Blue Flag criteria are significantly more rigorous than existing environmental legislation in St Maarten, but the organization will have no power to impose fines. Instead, marinas or boatyards that fail to maintain Blue Flag standards will lose certification, which could have a greater impact in marketing terms than the fines the government can impose. And for those who assume that environmental issues in the Caribbean are settled behind closed doors, Love the Lagoon regularly publishes reports and photos.
“It’s not a lost case,” Thompson emphasizes. “We’re at a point now where we can do something about it. The lagoon serves many purposes: it’s a nursery ground for a lot of marine life. We’re at a point right now if we continue on this track, we’re going to lose all that.” Love the Lagoon is supported by EPIC (Environmental Protection in the Caribbean), based in Florida, and is funded by international grants, such as the National Fish and Wildlife Fund. The Blue Flag program has also been implemented in Puerto Rico.
Nick Marshall is an English journalist living on St. Maarten who was consultant editor of All At Sea from 2003 to 2005.