CZM approves dolphin exhibit
Published: February 14, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - After a lengthy round of questioning Wednesday about everything from water quality to treatment of animals, the St. Thomas Coastal Zone Management Committee voted to approve Coral World's dolphin exhibit in Water Bay.
The permit was not approved unanimously.
Committee member Karl Percell voted against the permit. Committee members Winston Adams, Richard Brown, Sarah Simmonds and Austin Monsanto voted in favor.
Percell said he believed the project could have been smaller in order to have less environmental impact and still fall well within the federal guidelines for space for the dolphins.
Simmonds said she was "reluctantly" making a motion to adopt the recommendation for approval from Department of Planning and Natural Resources staff.
Earlier in her questioning, Simmonds said she was very disappointed with the sea lion exhibit. She was very emotional when she recounted the tiny pools available to them.
"I couldn't stand to watch it; the tears started to come to my eyes," she said.
She said she voted in favor of the dolphin permit only because of a special condition she added that forces Coral World to apply for membership in the Alliance of Marine Parks and Aquariums within six months.
The alliance is an accrediting agency that Coral World officials said they had planned to seek accreditation from once the dolphin exhibit is complete. That was not good enough for Simmonds, who wanted something done immediately about the sea lions as well.
She indicated that if Coral World can meet the rigorous standards of the alliance for the sea lions, then she would be comfortable allowing them to invest in a dolphin exhibit as well.
Coral World plans to invest $5.2 million to build a 70,000-square-foot dolphin facility in the open water of the bay, and the project needed the approval of the CZM committee to move forward.
Some members of the community are against the project, citing concerns for the animals and the water quality of the bay and skepticism about the future success of the project. A few staunch opponents were in the crowd Wednesday to witness the vote, but the public was not permitted to speak.
CZM conducted a public hearing about the dolphinarium in December, and so many people got up to speak that the committee members themselves did not get a chance to ask questions before the meeting finished, Simmonds said.
Committee members took the time Wednesday to grill Coral World officials before making their final decision.
Brown wanted to make sure that the waste from the dolphins would not be offensive to tourists in the area.
Coral World General Curator Lee Kellar said dolphin excrement is powdery, and dissipates into the water immediately.
"So, it's not likely to wash up on the beach while I'm drinking my margarita?" Brown said.
"No," Kellar said.
Adams said he was concerned to hear about the sewage runoff into Water Bay and asked CZM Director Jean-Pierre Oriol whether he was aware of it.
Oriol said he was, and that the DPNR was in the process of addressing the matter with Pineapple Village and Wyndham, which owns the abandoned former Renaissance Grand Bay Resort property adjacent to Pineapple Village. Legal disputes between the two properties have revolved around who is responsible for maintaining the sewage treatment system the two properties have shared, Oriol said.
The water in the bay is frequently tested, and historical data shows that aside from an occasional spike, fecal coliform levels are at normal levels, Oriol said.
Turbidity levels - the clarity of the water - is a separate issue that is attributed to stormwater runoff, Oriol said.
Adams also asked about seating capacity and parking relating to the dolphin exhibit.
The project's architect, Brian Emerich, said the seating and standing capacity around the dolphin exhibit would be enough for about 200 people.
Coral World General Manager Trudie Prior said the project will add some parking but that most of Coral World's visitors come to the park by taxi, and additional parking is needed more for the staff than the guests.
Kellar said Coral World will start with six dolphins, a family group, that were bred in captivity.
After a few years of the program, Coral World might increase the size of the dolphin population to about 10, Kellar said. The permit does not allow any more than 15 animals to live in the enclosure at one time.
According to Coral World officials, the dolphin exhibit will draw an additional 25,000 to 35,000 visitors per year; add 20 to 25 new jobs at the park; and contribute more than $4 million to the territory's economy.
Prior said she is excited that Coral World has completed the first step toward building the dolphin exhibit, but she said much more still remains to be done.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries program must approve the importation of the dolphins, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture must approve a separate permit for the animals as well.
Now that the CZM permit is approved, the Army Corps of Engineers must approve the project, Prior said.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.