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Raid on an underwater treasure

On Jan. 16, Jimmy Carter signed an executive order designating three offshore tracts as marine sanctuaries to be administered by the Department of Commerce. That day my husband and I were snorkeling off Buck Island, five miles east of St. Croix (US Virgin Islands). Its offshore reef -- administered by the Department of the Interior -- is the only US underwater national park. The Commerce Department would do well to examine the operation of Buck Island in order not to repeat the Interior Department's mistakes.

Buck Island is a tiny bulge of land with an idyllic white sand beach. But what tourists pay $20 each to see is 100 yards offshore: a much touted barrier reef of coral, alive with brilliantly colored tropical fish. About 15 commercial boats make the trip twice daily from St. Croix's Christensted harbor. Tourists don masks, snorkels, and flippers for half an hour's swimming time in the protected reef before the next group demands its turn. For landlubbers, a glass-bottom boat makes the underwater world peripherally accessible.

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It was our second trip to Buck Island in as many years. We are rather mad for this type of naturalist excursion. Three years ago we spent 10 months in South America. The height of our travels was a week's trip to the Galapagos Islands, 400 miles off the coast of Ecuador. There we saw animals which exist nowhere else in the world -- Darwin finches, marine iguanas, enormous land turtles, and flightless cormorants. But most thrilling was howm we saw them -- nose to nose. Living in an area so isolated from humans, they have no knowledge of man and thus no fear of us. It is a Garden of Eden -- a world before man became hunter and tormentor.

The Ecuadorian government appreciates its unique national treasure and enforces strict rules to keep the islands the way they are. Tourists must be accompanied by trained guides. Ours enthusiastically prepped us on the rules and the reasons behind them: the vulnerability of the environment; the fragility of nature's balance.

We were not to leave behind a matchstick, nor a scrap of plastic, nor crumb of food. Likewise, we could not remove anything from the islands. The trail we would follow was painstakingly marked by shallow-driven, weathered wood stakes. These are moved every few weeks so that tourist footprints make no permanent tracks. "Do not touch or distrub the animals," we were warned. "To do so will forever destroy the unique, unfrightened attitude the animals here have toward man." Each of us was made to feel personally responsible for maintaining this primordial atmosphere, and not one of the people in our group of 20 deviated from our guide's instructions.

Compare this attitude with what we saw at Buck Island Reef, where the bottom of the sea trail is marked with large rectangular cement block billboards -- sign pollution at its worst. Painted swimmingpool blue and emblazoned with white lettering, they declare, "The grotto you are in is 12 meters deep," or "Objects under water are magnified three times," or "Stay on the trail," or -- most ironically -- "Protect your national underwater treasure." The signs are ugly and obtrusive, but the natural beauty of the reef and fish was enough to make us want to return after last year's trip.

This year, however, much of the coral on the sea floor was gray -- a sure sign of coral death -- and the fish, last year so abundant, were far fewer. An enormous brain coral had provided too easy a resting place for unthinking tourists. Its crenalated crown was worn bare.

There were still many multicolored parrot fish and other attractive specimens , but most plentiful were a dull blue-gray species which churned the water frantically when the captains of the boats and the tourists tossed scraps of bread overboard. This was a fascinating game for people waiting on their boats for their turn on the underwater trail.

Our captain told us, "Those fish are faster than all the others around here." Their constant feeding from the boats had caused them to grow and multiply out of proportion to the other fish. Thus, many of the species we had seen the year before were forced to go elsewhere. The very people whose livelihood depends on the tourists who pay to see marine life at Buck Island are destroying it by upsetting the fragile balance of life around the reef.

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I am not a marine biologist. I am simply a person who witnesses nature's beauty with awe and appreciation -- and disgust at how an idea as good as Buck Island Underwater National Park could run amok. Environmentalists applauded Jimmy Carter's establishment of the marine sanctuaries, but the executive order does not guarantee an effective management system. Therefore, the Department of Commerce should closely scrutinize what has happened to Buck Island -- a national underwat er treasure too quickly becoming a memory.

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