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Protecting Our Coral Reefs

Trusted news sources across the globe have recently reported that most Caribbean coral reefs will disappear within the next 20 years unless action is taken to protect them. While that news is shocking, I am happy to report that St. Croix is leading the charge to protect our Caribbean coral reefs and the ecosystems they support. The island community has teamed up with local and national governmental agencies, environmental groups, and non-profits organizations to basically create a multifaceted ‘task force’ to monitor and protect our reefs.

Why are coral reefs important?

The answers are many and varied. Obviously, the reefs provide the fresh seafood many of us love so much, but they also offer erosion protection to the shores and surrounding lands. Many natural products, like sponges, are harvest from reefs to produce pharmaceuticals. Here on St. Croix (and throughout the Caribbean) the reefs are one of our main tourist attractions, generating a large portion of our tourism income and creating jobs in the fields associated with the reef related recreational activities, like diving, snorkeling, kayaking and boat tours. Subsequently, many of the services that support those recreational businesses are dependent on the viability of our reefs including marinas, water sports companies, and beach related businesses.

The population of corals throughout the Caribbean have been rapidly declining over the past few decades. In fact, a comprehensive analysis of more than 35,000 surveys conducted at nearly 100 Caribbean locations since 1970 shows that the region’s corals have declined by more than 50%. Some of the biggest contributing factors to the decline of our coral reefs are: over fishing, lionfish predation, diseases, bleaching, climate change, hurricanes, and human impacts. To help combat some of these issues, the USVI has created several Marine Protected Areas to help monitor and protect St. Croix’s island barrier reef system, the largest in the Caribbean.

Conservation Efforts

Luckily for us, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is very involved here on St. Croix when it comes to the state of our coral reefs, and they have teamed up with local agencies to help protect them in several different ways. NOAA works with the National Park Service at Buck Island National Reef Monument to monitor and track the health of the coral reef ecosystems at Buck Island since becoming a national park and protected area. (Happily, we can report that there has been an incline in several areas since Buck Island National Reef Monument was founded!) Also, The Nature Conservancy here on St. Croix works with NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program to promote sustainable fishing practices, raise awareness about lionfish, and, most notably, to grow and plant thousands of new corals each year to help restore the reefs.

U.S. Virgin Islands Coral Innovation Hub

In 2022, The Nature Conservancy opened their U.S. Virgin Islands Coral Innovation Hub Located at Estate Little Princess here on St. Croix. According to Dr. Celeste Jarvis, Virgin Islands Program Director of The Nature Conservancy: “The Caribbean is home to some of the planet’s most magnificent coral reefs, which harbor abundant ocean life, protect coastal communities and support nearly half of the region’s economy. Today, these essential habitats are in grave decline due to climate change, overfishing and pollution. The launch of The Nature Conservancy’s U.S. Virgin Islands Coral Innovation Hub represents an important beacon of hope for coral reefs throughout the Caribbean.”

In St. Croix’s East End Marine Park, The Nature Conservancy, NOAA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation are spearheading one of the Caribbean’s largest coral-restoration initiatives, spanning more than 150 acres of reef area. Thanks to a partnership with the National Park Service, these efforts will expand broadly across vital U.S. Virgin Islands waters. These local efforts, along with work at The Nature Conservancy’s Coral Innovation Hubs in The Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, are mobilizing world-class science and a global network of partners to help imperiled reefs before it is too late.

At the new U.S. Virgin Islands lab facility, The Nature Conservancy and partners are advancing coral science and techniques to help reefs recover on a larger scale than ever before and with greater long-term impact. Using The Nature Conservancy’s land-based and underwater nurseries, scientists are innovating ways to breed significantly more corals for reef restoration, with greater survival rates. A combination of novel techniques allows these scientists to dramatically increase coral growth and preserve coral genetic diversity for improved reef resilience. Healthy new corals are then used to bring dying reefs back to life and restore the benefits they provide for the ocean, communities and economies that depend on them.

How YOU Can Help Conserve Coral

While our territorial and governmental agencies, along with environmental groups, work toward the common goal of protecting and restoring our coral reefs, here’s how YOU can help as an individual:

  • Use reef safe sunscreens that are non-toxic and biodegradable, such as “Reef Safe” suncare products.
  • Practice safe and responsible diving and snorkeling. Do not touch the reef or anchor your boat on the reef. Contact with the coral will damage the delicate coral animals, and anchoring on the reef can kill it, so look for sandy bottom or use moorings if available.
  • Never stand up on a coral reef! Snorkelers should wear inflatable vests to allow gear adjustment without standing on the coral.
  • Dispose of your trash properly! Don’t leave trash or unwanted fishing lines/nets in the water or on the beach. Any kind of litter pollutes the water and can harm the reef and the fish.
  • Support reef-friendly businesses. Ask the fishing, boating, hotel, dive or snorkeling operators how they protect the reef, and find out if the organization responsible is part of a coral reef ecosystem management effort. Look for restaurants and food purveyors that are part of the Reef Responsible program.
  • Volunteer for a coral reef or beach clean up, or pick up trash anywhere on the island.
  • Conserve water, the less water you use, the less runoff and wastewater will pollute our oceans.
  • Plant a tree to reduce runoff into the oceans. You will also contribute to reversing the warming of our planet and the rising temperatures of our oceans.
  • Get involved and spread the word! Join a non-profit organization that supports the environment or coral reef restoration/protection, or even an organization that picks up trash – and encourage others to get involved.

Consider becoming a member of one of the local non-profit organizations that helps to protect and restore our coral reefs, such as The Nature Conservancy, the Friends of the St. Croix East End Marine Park, or the St. Croix Environmental Association. You can also volunteer your services to one of these organizations, or to one of the organizations that promotes trash clean-ups such as Clean Sweep Frederiksted. You can also support the works being done by the governmental agencies and parks services who strive to protect our oceans and park lands. Check out our Community Organizations pages to learn more about some of the local organizations mentioned above, and how you can help them save our coral reefs.

– Jennie Ogden, Editor

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