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St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Conservation And Consternation: Mary Ann Lucking Is At The Forefront Of Attempting To Keep Developers From Polluting Culebra's Coral Reefs

A former St. Louisan is at the forefront of attempts to keep developers from polluting Culebra's coral reefs.

By Tom Uhlenbrock

August 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. All rights reserved.

Tall, blond and a native of Michigan, Mary Ann Lucking may seem like a fish out of water on the coral reefs of Culebra.

But she has made the tiny island her home and her workshop -- much to the chagrin of developers who view Culebra as ripe for resorts, marinas and casinos.

The path that took Lucking, 41, to the Caribbean included a stop in St. Louis. After graduating from Michigan State University with a zoology degree, she worked at St. Louis University Hospital in the forensic toxicology department, followed by a year as a research assistant at Monsanto.

While in St. Louis, she met Orlando Peraza at a blues festival. Peraza was in the mortgage banking business and volunteered as a disc jockey on the public radio station KDHX. The two shared a love of music and have been together since.

Peraza left his native Cuba at the age of 8 and returned to the Caribbean in 1994 when he took a job in San Juan, Puerto Rico . Lucking went, too, and they visited Culebra and soon rented a home on the island. Lucking attended first-grade classes to improve her Spanish.

Lucking was interested in coral reef ecosystems and sought advice from Reef Relief, a grass-roots organization out of Florida, on establishing a similar group on Culebra. The island, she found, was ideal for such work. First, the reefs were largely intact, and research indicated that Culebran reefs provided larval fish and coral for damaged and depleted reefs hundreds of miles away. Second, the local fishermen were active in protecting their livelihood.

"The people have self-esteem because they won the Navy issue," she said of the fight to end the use of Culebra as a U.S. bombing site. "They formed an ecotourism committee and proposed a no-take zone as early as 1980.

"The fishermen's needs and my objectives are very similar -- healthy coral reefs and more reef fish."

In 1995, Lucking and Peraza formed Coralations Inc., a nonprofit Caribbean coral reef conservation organization. The group works with agencies, universities, local fishermen and other private parties on common conservation goals.

Funded by donations and grants, the group has designed and distributes artificial reef systems, brought a Smithsonian reef exhibit to Culebra, erected signs along marine reserves, worked to bring the local community into sea turtle nesting studies and formed a youth corps with local kids doing marine research. In a visit to the White House, Lucking pressed for an end to pollution threatening the coral reefs of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The group currently has turned to the courts for help, filing suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect Caribbean reefs within U.S. boundaries. On Culebra, Coralations sued a developer who scraped the vegetation off a mountaintop as part of a plan to build 14 houses and 34 apartments on just five acres. The lawsuit cites two endangered species on the property, and it said lights from the project could interfere with the nesting of sea turtles on a nearby beach.

When I visited on a recent rainy day, a torrent of muddy red runoff flowed from the site down the hillside toward the sea.

Lucking conceded she has butted heads many times with local officials in efforts to speed up the conservation work. "When head- butting is called for, it's with agencies that don't do their job," she said.

But the latest development has united nearly everyone on the island in opposition.

Costa Bonita is being built across the harbor from the small town of Dewey. Consisting of some two dozen two-story buildings, the project would add 160 condos to an island that currently has just 250 hotel rooms. Because Culebra is a county of Puerto Rico , permits for the project were issued in San Juan, with little local input and no public hearings.

Ivan Romero, the young mayor of Culebra, said his island cannot support a project of Costa Bonita's size. Culebra gets its water and electricity from Vieques , and the flow is cut off when that island has supply problems. In addition, Culebra has no sewage system. Sewage from Costa Bonita would go into septic tanks built on the edge of the harbor and eventually find its way into the water.

Island officials teamed with U.S. regulators to halt plans for Costa Bonita to build a marina, which would add oil and sewage pollution to the shallow harbor. The setback meant the developers could not fulfill their pledge to give each condo owner a slip in a marina. In addition, plans were blocked to build a second set of condos nearby.

Romero said he was close to signing a contract with a major cruise line that would bring its smaller ships for half-day stops in Culebra. "Small cruise ships can increase the economy without destroying acres of land," he said. "We don't want the big hotels.

"Culebra has no planning, no zoning. We put a moratorium on development to study how it will impact the natural resources. People come to Culebra to see the turtles, the birds, the reefs. If we lose that, we lose everything."

Despite being a former outsider, Lucking is gaining forces in her fight to stop developers from polluting the coral reefs of Culebra.

"I'm fortunate because in Culebra the people don't judge you on how you look, but on what you do," she said. "The fishermen nickname people based on a fish, and I'm Collirubia -- yellow-tailed snapper. I'm very proud of that."

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