Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative – A Market-Driven Approach to a Sustainable Seafood Industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands


St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

The challenge

Together, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, are one of the top three stressors to coral reefs throughout the Caribbean, and have contributed to dramatic declines in coral abundance, distribution and health.  The overharvest of “pot fish” (a term that locally refers to a number of fish species – many of which are herbivorous coral reef inhabitants), and the die-off of the herbivorous long-spined sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) have caused coral reefs in the Caribbean to shift to algal-dominated reefs. The introduction of the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish, a fish without natural predators in the region, has also increased stress on reefs in the region. These fish may over-populate local reefs, removing important coral reef fish species, and further compromise the ability for coral reefs to remain resilient.

Actions taken

In an effort to reduce the stress on coral reefs from overfishing and harmful fishing practices, the Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative was developed with the goal to encourage alternatives for consumption to important coral reef fishes.

The Initiative is comprised of the following four main components:

  1. Development and maintenance of a list of sustainably harvested food fishes and invertebrates of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI).
  2. Education and engagement of commercial fishers on fisheries regulations and the importance of healthy reefs to fisheries.
  3. The Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification to empower restaurants to support local commercial fishers through purchasing and serving sustainably harvested seafood.
  4. The Reef Responsible Awareness Campaign to help consumers make informed decisions about the seafood purchase.

Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List for the U.S. Virgin Islands
The first step for the Initiative was to form an advisory group to guide and develop activities. Fisheries staff from territorial (USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Division of Fish and Wildlife—DPNR) and federal regulatory agencies (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—NOAA) in the region, were recruited as advisory group members. Representatives from local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the University of the Virgin Islands working on fisheries issues were also selected. The group then worked to compile and agree on a list of sustainably harvested food fishes and invertebrates for the US Virgin Islands. The resulting Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List for the US Virgin Islands was developed based on current USVI local and US federal fisheries regulations. The list provides information on commercially important fish and invertebrate species caught in local U.S. Virgin Islands and U.S. federal waters and uses the following three easy to understand categories to inform decisions about the seafood purchase:

After the list was developed work began to engage and educate fishers, restaurant owners and consumers on sustainable seafood options.

Education and Engagement of Commercial Fishers
In partnership with local and federal fisheries management agencies DPNR and NOAA fisheries, reef responsible training information has been integrated in to the annual process for fishing and vessel registration. Trainings are given as part of the registration process each year and are designed to increase participants’ understanding of fisheries regulations including seasonal closures, gear restrictions, and size limits. Trainings also deliver information on how catching seafood according to regulations can support the future of the USVI commercial fishery. Fishers are also connected to local restaurants that express interest in purchasing locally harvested sustainable seafood. As a result of this partnership a new program activity is underway to work with the Fisheries Advisory Council and the local and federal fisheries agencies to develop criteria for certification of sustainable seafood fishers.

Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification
The Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification was developed to empower restaurants to support local commercial fishers through purchasing and serving sustainably harvested seafood. To become a certified Reef Responsible Certified Restaurant, owners, chefs and wait staff undergo comprehensive training. The trainings are designed to increase participant understanding of how purchasing, serving and consuming locally harvested seafood can positively influence the future of the USVI commercial fishery and coral reefs. Participants are provided with outreach materials with information based on the best available science and are briefed on the negative impacts from the overharvest of herbivorous fishes, which play an important role to remove algae from reefs and provide space for corals to thrive. They also learn about seasonal closures and receive calendars with closure and catch size information. Participants are also introduced to the Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat seafood list. Additionally, cooking demonstrations are provided on how to prepare “good choice” fish like invasive lionfish.

Sustainable Seafood 11 Restaurant Owners and Caterers Attend Workshop

Restaurant, owners, chefs and wait staff undergo comprehensive training to become Reef Responsible Certified. © TNC

The Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification program is voluntary and after the training participating restaurants must commit: 1) to support local fishers, 2) to purchase and serve fish that adhere to size limits and seasonal closure rules, 3) not to purchase or serve fish on the “Don’t Eat” portion of the Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List for the USVI and 4) to spread awareness of Reef Responsible information through restaurant staff and patrons. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) staff and partners visit the restaurants throughout the year to check menus and specials making sure that the fish being served meets the Reef Responsible guidance listed above.

The Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative’s mission is to establish and support a sustainable seafood industry in the US Virgin Islands. © TNC

Restaurants are required to have participation at the training of staff members responsible for purchasing seafood. They are also encouraged to have wait staff attend trainings so they better understand and communicate Reef Responsible seafood options with restaurant patrons. If wait staff of an interested restaurant cannot attend the training it is requested that certified restaurant owners provide training information to staff.

Once the training is completed, the restaurant is certified as a Reef Responsible Restaurant, receives a plaque to showcase in the restaurant and is celebrated for their commitment through free advertising supported by TNC program staff. Newspaper, radio, special event and social media coverage is used to promote certified restaurants. Connections have also been made with the department of tourism to list certified restaurants on their website. The program has formed a successful partnership with the Taste of St. Croix, a premier food and wine event on the island. Reef Responsible Certified Restaurants are acknowledged at the event to further encourage community patronage. At the event the program also has a booth to provide information for interested restaurants on the program and holds lionfish cooking demonstrations. Interested restaurants are then invited to participate in Reef Responsible training workshops. See an example of the workshop invitation here.

The following outreach materials were developed to support the Training and Certification:

  • Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List for the USVI
  • Seasonal Closures Calendar
  • USVI Fish Fact Cards
  • Reef Responsible Certified Restaurant Plaque

Reef Responsible Awareness Campaign
The Reef Responsible Awareness Campaign was designed to create community support for the Reef Responsible certified restaurants and the overall awareness objectives of the Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative. The campaign targets seafood consumers through newspaper articles, advertisements, radio talk shows, social media and events (such as A Taste of St. Croix and St. Croix ReefJam) to share information about the importance of healthy reefs and how purchasing locally, sustainably sourced seafood can help support reef recovery. Through the campaign, we also encourage people to ask questions and learn more about the seafood that they purchase and consume, whether it’s from a restaurant or directly from a commercial fisher.

Hostess Sarah with the Reef Responsible plaque at restaurant Savant, a certified Reef Responsible Restaurant on St. Croix. © TNC

How successful has it been?

By engaging multiple stakeholders, promoting reef responsible seafood alternatives (i.e. lionfish), and highlighting the benefits to people and reefs of sustainable seafood, this Initiative has the promise to reduce fishery-related stressors, helping to build the resiliency of USVI coral reefs. The Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification was launched in April 2014 at A Taste of St. Croix where nine initial certified restaurants were announced. Since then an additional 5 restaurants have been certified as Reef Responsible restaurants making the new total 14. One of the originally certified restaurants closed in 2015. To date all certified restaurants have successfully followed through on their Reef Responsible commitments. The 14 certified restaurants are celebrated for their commitment to a sustainable seafood industry for the U.S. Virgin Islands. They have also applauded TNC and the Sustainable Seafood Initiative partners for leading the development and implementation of this program, and are excited to be better connected to local fishers. Training participants have also been helping to encourage other restaurant owners and staff to become certified. The USVI Department of Tourism has expressed interest in the expansion of the Reef Responsible Restaurant Certification to St. Thomas and St. John as well as interests to replicate this program in the British Virgin Islands and in the Bahamas. Based on information gathered in follow up visits to certified restaurants, to date all have successfully followed through on their Reef Responsible commitments.

Current Certified Restaurants include: Savant, Dashi, Café Christine, Twin City Coffee House, The Mermaid, Empress Fresh Foods, eat @ cane bay, Rhythms at Rainbow, Above the Cliff, Ital In Paradise, Zion Modern Kitchen, Shoreline at Chenay, La Riene Chicken Shack, and Kendrick’s at Buccaneer.

Lessons learned and recommendations

The Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative has received support from a diverse group of stakeholders including, fishers, private sector restaurants, fisheries managers and NGOs. This is likely a result of the transparent and inclusive processes for development and implementation of Initiative activities.

Important lessons include:

  • When developing seafood lists, seasonal closure calendars, and other outreach materials it is critical to use the best available science and current local fisheries rules and regulations.
  • Develop professional outreach materials. Restaurants are profit- and consumer- driven and will appreciate polished materials. If possible solicit communications expertise for the development of materials and media products. This will help ensure they join the program.
  • Support a group of restaurants certifying at the same time. This creates a peer group of restaurants and helps increase excitement and support for certification.
  • The support and buy-in of local fishers to the Good Choice, Go Slow, and Don’t Eat Seafood List was very important. If the fishers and fisheries council had not supported the list we would not have proceeded with the certification effort. Their support for the list gave it and the Reef Responsible activities increased credibility.
  • Use a transparent process to develop sustainable seafood lists. Share information with all stakeholders on how the list was developed.
  • Use the best available science and regulations to develop the list and training materials.
  • Be flexible and make sure that the times of trainings or meetings are convenient for your target audience. For example the restaurant workers often cannot meet on evenings or weekends. Fishers as well cannot often attend meetings during normal business hours.
  • Plan for capacity to support communications for certified restaurants. Do not underestimate the time or expertise it takes to support this aspect of the activities.
  • The use of YouTube videos to share how to breakdown and prepare lionfish were very useful and expanded the reach and accessibility of trainings. These videos could be used and shared by participants outside of official trainings.

Funding summary

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Conservation Program

Lead organizations

The Nature Conservancy
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration USVI Fisheries Liaison


The Reef Responsible Program is a collaborative effort among:

The Nature Conservancy US Virgin Islands
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coral Reef Conservation Program
NOAA Fisheries
USVI Division of Fish and Wildlife
The Marine Education and Outreach USVI Style’s Initiative – Don’t Stop Talking Fish Project
Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service
St. Croix Reef Jam

Translate »