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The turtles of Mona Island.


On the night of February 15, 1985, ata few minutes past midnight, all hell broke loose on Mona Island, the last sanctuary of one of the world's most endangered sea turtles. A 3,900-ton, 330-foot ferry, midway on its usual seven-hour journey from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic, slammed into the coral reef off the island. It was a calm night, but the ship had veered several hundred yards off course. Authorities mumble about Captain Ascensio Bessone's moderate case of bronchitis by way of explanation.

None of the ferry's 200 passengers and crewwas injured in the accident, and by the next morning, the A. Regina had been abandoned in the surf. Two years later, most of the ship is still breaking up on the reef, and its boards, beams, sofas, curtains, carpets, lamps, and cables continue to wash up on Mona Island's beach.

The A. Regina should have been moved immediatelyby its owners, but it wasn't. Because the island is the primary nesting ground of an endangered species protected under our Endangered Species Act, the federal government should then have moved it. But it didn't. It wasn't as if jobs or an important dam had to be sacrificed to help the turtles. The ferry just had to be moved.

But as the wreck has crumbled and becomemore difficult--and more expensive--to move, the owners, their insurance company, and the various federal agencies that are supposed to protect the turtles have become more adamant about refusing responsibility for the problem.

Saran Wrap for breakfast

Not that the turtles needed any more trouble. Theirchances under ordinary circumstances of making it to maturity are about one in a thousand. As embryonic reptillettes in ping pong balls of shells nestled under the hot sand, plenty of unhatched sea turtles are gobbled up by beach-combing pigs and raccoons. If the turtles hatch, they join other survivors in a frantic several-hundred-yard waddle to the water, along which many will be scarfed up by the dogs, birds, and crabs. Once at sea, they face larger, uglier predators. It will be several years before their shells harden enough to protect them and before their bulk won't fit through the widest jaws.

But they're never safe from human predators. Babyturtles wind up in curio shops encased in plastic, "Costa Rica" emblazoned on their bellies. Big turtles wind up in shrimp nets, as tortoise shell combs, or as soup.

If humans don't catch the turtles, humandetritus still plagues the creatures. A yummy-looking jellyfish, for instance, might actually be a hunk of floating Saran Wrap or a six-pack ring, either of which can clog a turtle's windpipe or permanently lodge in its stomach. Turtles can't see well enough and, anyway, aren't bright enough, to know the difference.

Overhunting, pollution, and the destruction oftheir habitat has led to the rapid decline of the turtles in the Caribbean. Until recently, Mona Island was their only sanctuary. No pina colada beach bars, no condos, not a single Holiday Inn. In fact, no people at all. Mona Island is rocks, sand, coral, giant iguanas, bats, birds--and sea turtles that come to nibble on the seaweed and sponge that cling to the island's coral reef and once every two or three years to climb up on the beach and bury their eggs.

The island is so essential to the turtles' survivalthat it has been designated a "critical habitat" for one of the four species that live there, the hawksbill. The Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources (DNR) considers Mona Island "virtually the only protected and undisturbed habitat in which Caribbean hawksbill turtle populations have a chance of recovering."

In theory, the turtles on the island should haveplenty of government protection. On land, they are protected by the Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service. At sea, they are the legal wards of the National Marine Fisheries. Since 1973, the Puerto Rican DNR has strictly maintained the 21-square-mile island as a natural reserve. Under such watchful eyes and with 50 miles of open sea between the island and the closest civilization, the turtles should be safe.

But the disintegrating A. Regina continues towash up on shore and has made a deadly obstacle course of the beach. Turtles cannot move backwards. If trapped on their sides and front by debris, they die of exhaustion trying to escape. Turtles have swallowed oil leaking from the wreck, which can interfere with their breathing and digestion. Rocking atop the reef, the wreck is also destroying nearby sponges, the turtles' favorite meal. Some fear the ship might eventually destroy the entire reef, which would allow ocean waves to break directly on the shore, sweeping away much of the beach.

Turtle suit soup

At first it appeared the government wouldcome to the rescue. After the A. Regina's owners, the Italian Armatur Company, left the ship creaking on the reef for a week, the U.S. Army corps of Engineers sent La Morte Burns & Company, Inc., the ship's insurer, a formal notice threatening to file suit unless the wreck was marked immediately with buoys and lanterns and then removed. The Corps was clear about its role in policing the removal of the ship. The A. Regina had run aground in navigable waters, it pointed out, and the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 gave the Corps the responsibility for keeping all such waters clear.

La Morte Burns marked the wreck and hireda salvage company to haul the wreck off the reef. By April, the salvagers had succeeded only in breaking up the wreck even more and in pulling it tighter onto the reef. That was the end of the company's efforts.

The DNR sent several letters to the Corps, urgingit to press the ship's owners or to move the wreck itself. Five months later, they got a reply. The Corps had changed its mind. It had decided, after all, that the A. Regina was not in navigable waters but stuck on a reef--and therefore not its responsibility. It would not remove the wreck.

With no funds of its own to remove the ship,the DNR tried to find another agency that would pick up the ball. The Justice Department promised legal action, but although its attorneys have now spent more than 300 hours researching the case against Armatur and La Morte, nothing has happened. The department says it is still hoping for an out-of-court settlement. "We have not wanted to be bulls in a china shop, merely tramping around, making noise and breaking things, without knowing what it is that will best serve the restoration of the turtle habitat," says Donald Carr, chief of the department's Wildlife and Marine Resources section.

The DNR also pleaded with the Coast Guard,which has responsibility for cleaning up oil spills. Shortly after the A. Regina crashed, the Coast Guard drained off all but 3,000 gallons of the ship's fuel, then sued Armatur to recover its costs. That case is still pending and may take years to resolve. The Coast Guard declared it had no responsibility to remove the wreck.

In September 1985, the DNR decided it wouldhave to sue Armatur to get the company to move the wreck. The case is also still in litigation, and will probably also take years to resolve.

The Puerto Rican Port Authority could havehelped the DNR's case by withholding permission for Armatur to run a new ferry until it had moved the old one. Instead, it promptly gave the company a new license. Twice a day the Dominica Viva now chugs past the A. Regina. Asked how it is that the ship owners got the permit, the DNR's Gilberto Cintron, director of marine resources, says: "I don't know. We just didn't act quickly enough.... Things got lost in the bureaucracy."

By the end of 1985, the DNR had received sympatheticletters from the White House Council on Environmental Quality ("This is indeed a most unfortunate situation"), and the Environmental Protection Agency ("The vessel is posing an imminent threat to endangered sea turtles"). This supported the DNR's claim that the turtles were indeed endangered. But no help followed. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries (NMF), which supposedly protect the turtles' every flipper stroke, also alleged they had no jurisdiction over shipwrecks.

Congress wasn't much help either. InDecember, an amendment was attached to a Senate appropriations bill that would have forced the Corps to remove the ship. It was dropped by the House, which has a rule that won't let it attach authorizations to appropriations bills.

Ferrying responsibility

"If I were the governor of Puerto Rico, I'dwant the vessel off the reef--as long as someone else pays for it," says NMF's Charles Karnella. A general unwillingness to pay for the removal seems to be the unspoken cause of all the squabbling about who is responsible for moving the wreck. But the rationale is provided by the vagueness of the Endangered Species Act: "All other Federal Agencies [aside from the one with primary responsibility] shall utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of this Act by carrying out programs for the conservation of endangered species."

The DNR and environmentalists say that thewording of the act gives discretionary authority to the Corps to move the wreck whether it is in navigable waters or not. They also contend that under the act the Coast Guard has a responsibility to help. Neither agency agrees.

Last October, Colonel Charles Meyers of theCorps' Jacksonville, Florida office write: "It is the opinion of my legal staff that the Endangered Species Act provides no direct authority to the Corps of Engineers to remove the vessel."

Commander Mark Lavache, chief of the CoastGuard's pollution control branch, says the interagency cooperation section of the act can't be used to claim that the Coast Guard has any authority or responsibility beyond cleaning up possible fuel or oil spills. The act, he says, gives the Coast Guard no more discretion over removing the A. Regina than it does "to build a daycare center in North Dakota."

Who is responsible then? "I can't say," says theCorps' Phil Hall. "You'll have to talk to National Marine Fisheries or Interior people...or the Justice Department."

"It's an extremely gray area," says Paul Gertler,field supervisor of the Caribbean branch of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service.

Meanwhile, the hurrican season in the Caribbeanhad come and gone. Wind and surf had broken the back of the A. Regina, which would make it even harder to remove, and the damage sent new waves of debris onto the beach.

Collective chin-scratching

If no one was claiming responsibility forremoving the wreck, everyone was perfectly happy to study the problem.

In January 1986, the National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration (NOAA) commissioned its first study. For $17,000, the agency hired a contractor to do a biological assessment of the coral reef under the A. Regina. The Research Planning Institute's report concluded with this revelation: "The continued presence of the A. Regina constitutes a real threat to sensitive and valuable habitats and wildlife. Given the significance of this area and the potential for chronic and long-lasting impacts, the prompt removal of the A. Regina is recommended."

What's a study without a follow-up junket--particularlya January junket to the Caribbean? The Justice Department decided that investigators simply had to go to Mona Island to see the wreck for themselves. Lots of investigators. Representatives of the Army, Coast Guard, Navy, Justice, Interior, Commerce, and DNR all jetted off to the Caribbean.

The Coast Guard reported back that the degreeof seepage of the 3,000 gallons of fuel still on board was not--by itself--a hazard to the turtles.

The Navy reported the price tag of everyone'sinaction. By a number of early estimates, removing the wreck would have cost less than $1 million. The Navy surveyor now reckoned it would cost between $5 and $10 million.

NOAA then spent $2,000 for another study,scratched its collective chin, and decided that "further evaluation" was needed.

Then in March of last year, it looked as if thetide was turning. NOAA told the DNR that "the situation was elevated to Washington and there had been several policy-level meetings among high officials of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Justice Department, and NOAA.... It seems as though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has evolved into the responsible federal agency."

Joining the fingerpointing, Congress last Octoberdeclared the Corps responsible for cleaning up the wreck. The new Water Resources Development act specifically authorizes the Corps to "remove from waters off Mona Island, Puerto Rico, the abandoned vessel A. Regina."

But Congress didn't say how the removal wasto be financed, which still gives the Corps the option of deciding when, even whether, to move the wreck. And it hasn't. Says the Corps' Col. Peter Cahill, "We're still working through the bill determining what needs to be done, determining priority order."

It has been two years since the A. Reginacrashed. In spite of two lawsuits and numerous investigations and studies by seven federal agencies and Congress, in spite of general agreement that the crumbling ship threatens the reef and beaches of the island and therefore the survival of the endangered turtles, the wreck is still there, grinding the coral and strewing the beach with junk.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:A Regina's accident and salvage problems
Author:Wild, Russell
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1987
Previous Article:The U.S. Senate: paralysis or a search for consensus?
Next Article:The sinking of a supercarrier.

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