For the first time ever, the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources is developing a territorywide action plan to address invasive species that regularly cause ecological and economic harm.
In late June, representatives from the U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States Virgin Islands met in Hawaii to develop and share strategies to manage invasive species.
Ruth Gomez, the director of the DPNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division, along with Colette Conroy Monroe, a policy advisor in the Office of the Governor, attended the meeting on behalf of the Virgin Islands after being invited by Assistant Secretary of Interior for Insular Affairs Esther Kia’aina.
With only around 15 people attending the three-day meeting, Gomez said there were plenty of chances to ask questions and share information.
“It was a tremendous and wonderful opportunity to exchange information and share it in a small setting,” Gomez said. “This is what Guam does to address this issue – what can the Virgin Islands learn form this?”
Gomez said the most immediate and beneficial result of the meeting was the $10,000 grant the territory received to develop its own invasive species action plan. Due in December, it will be a basic to mid-level detailed plan that the Interior for Insular Affairs will review. A more detailed plan will come in the future.
“The intention is to use this plan as a general roadmap for what the Virgin Islands needs to do to address invasives, especially since there isn’t direct funding to do so yet,” Gomez said, adding that the action plan could lead to more federal funding and will function as a standard operating procedure.
Currently Fish and Wildlife gets limited funding to help protect animals known as “trust species.” In example, it can spend resources on trapping rats and mongoose if they’re adversely affecting a habitat of an endangered migratory bird, but it can’t target the animals everywhere.
Throughout the Virgin Islands, there are a number of invasive species that are so common that it’s easy to mistake them as native. Tan-tan, wild pineapple and coral vine are widespread invasive plants, as are mongoose, rats, pigeons and cane toads. Lionfish and the seagrass species, Halophila sipulacea, are growing issues throughout the territory’s waters.
Lionfish are particularly troublesome throughout the Caribbean, since they threaten native fish species and decrease biodiversity, which makes fishing less fruitful.
The white tailed deer that was introduced during colonial times regularly eats farmers’ crops and destroys landscaping.
Animals like mongoose might not be causing such noticeable havoc, but they still have an adverse effect on native species in the ecosystem. If given the right environment, Gomez said invasives will take over. But she reminded that no one invasive species outweighs the other, as they’re all harmful by definition.
A professor from the University of the Virgin Islands will author the plan, but contributions will come from the National Park Service, DPNR’s Division of Fish and Wildlife and other government agencies.
“We can all can come to the table but one person needs to be the nucleus of the plan to pull everything together,” Gomez said.
Gomez explained that there are different organizations and research projects that are working to learn more about invasive species to combat them but that there isn’t much collaboration going on yet. Developing the action plan will change that.
“The plan will give the Virgin Islands direction on what we need to do as a whole,” Gomez explained. “Right now everyone has a piece of the lionfish fish pie to address the issue, but we need to sit down with everyone who has scientific, technological and policy advice to formulate a guideline.”
Developing the action plan will also help improve biosecurity in the territory, which Gomez says is one of the biggest regulation gaps the Virgin Islands currently faces.
There are many cargo shipments that come into the territory without being inspected, so DPNR wants to work more closely with the agencies that oversee imports, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to better secure local ports of entry where invasives can easily and unknowingly be introduced.
“We need to sing from the same sheet of music when it comes to this first line of defense,” Gomez said.