As executive branch officials defended the Turnbull administration's actions to promote the marine industry, Andrew Rutnik, commissioner of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, on Tuesday acknowledged the elephant in the living room — the racial divide in the V.I. marine industry.
"In contrast to the British Virgin Islands, the marine industry on St. Thomas is a white industry," Rutnik said at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. "The black people of Tortola are intimately involved in the industry, but we have not nurtured it as a native industry."
As a consequence, he observed, "there is often a fear among local people about going to sea, and that has contributed to the disconnect, and to what was a real antagonistic attitude to the industry among black Virgin Islanders."
Rutnik, who is white and has lived in the territory for more than 30 years, echoed the comments of other testifiers by promoting marine education for children in the territory to bridge that racial divide.
"And I am glad," he said, "to see the Senate taking up this issue."
Rutnik was among a half-dozen people testifying before the committee, which initiated hearings last month on rejuvenating the marine industry. Acting Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards told Finance Committee Chairwoman Alicia "Chucky" Hansen that the department is doing what it can with limited funds to promote, in particular, the charter yacht industry. She detailed press releases, slides and brochures sent out by the department over the past two years and insisted that the executive branch "has not neglected the charter yacht industry."
Nadine Marchena, acting director of the Industrial Development Commission, said the commission offers comparable, if not better, benefits than the BVI, while Edward Thomas, president of the West Indian Co. Ltd., said the industry has "recovered" but with changes.
"There's a new paradigm: Back in the '80s you didn't have near as many dive boats, eco-tours, the Atlantis submarines and the like," he said.
Hansen took exception to the generally sunny pronouncements of Richards, Marchena and Thomas after her earlier hearings brought forth impassioned testimony about the decline of the territory's marine industry.
"I believe what those people in the industry told this committee," Hansen said. "Are we to assume that everything they said was simply not true?"
Richards admitted there was room for improvement, while Marchena noted that her agency's primary focus is on employment and there is little the IDC can do when it comes to offering benefits to operations that employ, for example, a captain and one crew member.
Hansen noted that in sufficient numbers, such businesses create a domino effect, particularly on shore-based businesses in marine manufacturing, provisioning and fueling.
Thomas also noted that WICO has signed an exclusive option to negotiate with the new owners of the former Yacht Haven property in Long Bay on the creation of new facilities geared toward mega-yachts and will likely begin applying for permits next month.
In his comments, Rutnik also pointed out other obstacles to marine activity here, such as liability insurance for charter yachts.
"When was the last time we built a marina?" he asked. "Benner Bay has been sitting there for 20 years, but the BVI doesn't waste any time building marinas it seems like every time I go over there there's a new one."
He cautioned that environmental regulations in the BVI are not as stringent as those here, but "we should be able to do better."
Hansen said she appreciated Rutnik's "blunt" comments, but Sen. Norma Samuel later seemed to take umbrage at his assessment of the racial split in the marine industry and launched a rambling attack on Rutnik.
After blaming "people like the commissioner" for a lack of water-related activities for the territory's youth, she said, "Now today he's back telling us why the industry has failed, because black people are no longer involved. But I beg to differ: There are a lot of black people involved in the industry."
Committee member Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg reminded the attendees of the idea of a maritime academy, which he said was first promoted in the 16th Legislature. But he worried aloud about whether the committee was considering the marine industry a zero-sum game, in which business gained by the British Virgin Islands means business lost for the USVI and vice versa.
Donastorg also took pains to ask Senate legal counsel Yvonne Tharpe whether he would be considered absent from the meeting of the Health Committee, which was taking place at the same time Wednesday off the legislative grounds.
Tharpe responded that it is up to committee chairmen to submit all Senate meetings to the body's calendar for approval in order to avoid such scheduling mix-ups. She said the Health Committee meeting was not on the calendar, and Donastorg could not be considered absent from a meeting not on the calendar.
Also in attendance were Finance Committee members Donald "Ducks" Cole and Carlton Dowe.