February 8, 2022
LAJAS, PUERTO RICO — Richard Santiago, 37, recalls the way La Parguera Bay shimmered in the dark nights of his youth. The sky above southwest Puerto Rico was black, and the bioluminescent lights of the bay, produced by microorganisms called dinoflagellates, glowed neon. Beneath the sparkling surface, the waters teemed with marine life.
The bay’s bright displays, a frequent draw for tourists, are fading fast. Competition from artificial lighting in surrounding towns used to be a manageable challenge, but housing construction and a growing population threaten to dim the natural wonder. Business owners and residents now wonder whether they might lose the natural beauty of the bioluminescent bay forever.
Located in the town and municipality of Lajas, the bay is part of La Parguera Nature Reserve, an area protected since 1979 by the Natural Reserve Designation, established by Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. The designation legally protects areas highly valued for their ecosystems and biodiversity — but longtime residents say the designation hasn’t been enough to protect the bay from the effects of light pollution.
“Right now, light pollution and water pollution are a very big problem,” says Johnny Cordero Zapata. An area resident and owner of the business Johnny’s Boats, he spends his time on the bay fishing and leading marine excursions.
Many, like Santiago, have grown up around the bay and run businesses there. Santiago’s business, Papayo Divers, depends on the draw of the bioluminescent lights to offer tours.
Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico
Frank Torres, a captain and owner of an aquatic adventures company, has seen various approaches to ensure people can still see the lights of the bay. Some guides repurpose a catamaran, a large boat with an open center, as a sort of cave where people can see the lights while swimming. Others simply look for the darkest shadows cast by the boat and instruct visitors to move to those areas.
“I always shout with joy each time I see the water lighting up,” Torres says. “It’s special.”
But these are temporary solutions. Artificial light from nearby communities already obscures the bioluminescent lights, and the imminent electrification of a group of houses on Monte Papayo, a mountain that overlooks the bay, poses yet another threat, says Yasmín Detrés Cardona, a marine biologist with more than a decade of experience researching the issue.
Detrés is concerned that the homes — some of which are now connected to the electric grid, while others are powered by gasoline-run generators — are less than a mile from the bay. She and her colleagues drew up a series of recommendations for the municipal government to curb the light pollution, which she says will worsen after electricity is installed on all of the mountain.
The Lajas mayor’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Thais Reyes Serrano, director of the Office for Socioeconomic and Community Development of Puerto Rico, a government agency, says that even though most Monte Papayo residences don’t have property titles — which usually means they aren’t connected to the grid — the office is financing a project to do so as an essential community need.
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Wilmelis Márquez, press representative for the agency, says the process of extending the lines to connect 67 of about 75 houses to the electric grid is underway.
Once electricity is fully installed, it will be up to the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, which manages La Parguera Nature Reserve, and the Office of Permit Management to evaluate that the exterior lighting complies with regulations in place for all residences located within 5 miles of the bioluminescent bay.
Darien López, director of La Parguera Nature Reserve at the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, says she hasn’t received details about the Monte Papayo electrification. Over the last few months, López says, the department has implemented several steps to analyze the issue, including a public opinion poll that showed light pollution is a top concern among area residents. She says it’s “worrisome” if illumination in the area isn’t monitored.
“I share the concern about the effect illumination can have on the bay,” she says.
The Department of Natural and Environmental Resources has just one employee designated to attend to the reserve, which extends for 3 miles along the coast with over 20 cays. López plans to hire 10 employees in the coming months to better monitor and maintain the area.
While some fear the impact of electrical lights in the El Papayo area, others say that it’s necessary — and far from the greatest threat to the bay.
Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico
Celia Cruz Santiago, president of the Community Board of El Papayo, Inc., has represented the El Papayo community for more than 20 years. She has seen the increase in the number of houses on Monte Papayo and has lobbied for electricity in the area due to the high cost of powering homes with gasoline-powered generators.
For Cruz, the bay is more threatened by increased boat traffic than by additional lights.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” Cruz says. “If they would have wanted that the area not be developed, you stop it in that moment, but you don’t wait 35 or 40 years to say no.”
Detrés, the marine biologist, says other threats to the bay, apart from light pollution, include chemical runoffs from boats, and the resuspension of the area’s seabed due to the high volume of boat traffic, which can exceed 200 boats in one weekend.
Santiago, who grew up in view of the bay, just wants to ensure it remains a priority. “The day they turn off the bioluminescent bay,” he says, “there will be no turning back.”
Coraly Cruz Mejías is a Global Press Journal senior reporter based in Puerto Rico.
Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.