U.S. Virgin Islands

The Nature Conservancy, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and seven U.S. coral reef jurisdictions completed a $13.5 million, 10-year partnership to support the effective management and protection of coral reefs. Here’s a peek at how that partnership translated to work on-the-ground and in-the-sea – and what that means for U.S. Virgin Islands’s reefs.

Where We Work

The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) consists of three main islands — St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas. These islands are home to hundreds of species of plants, fish and birds. Millions of tourists visit the islands each year, supporting local livelihoods and communities. The tourism sector in the U.S. Virgin Islands constitutes almost 32 percent of Gross Domestic Product and supports 29 percent of employment. However, increased ocean temperatures and acidity, overfishing and pollution have damaged reefs in the Virgin Islands. In parts of the Virgin Islands, populations of elkhorn corals, a key reef-building species, have decreased by 90 percent since the 1980s.

Our Approach

In the USVI we bring together cutting-edge science and technical support to rebuild reefs, support effective management and produce long-term marine protections. Through partnership with some of the world’s leading coral science organizations, new coral restoration techniques are being developed and tested to grow large numbers of corals faster than ever and with greater survival rates. Based on needs identified by local partners, we provide support for policy development, management planning, strategy implementation, and the development and implementation of community engagement efforts.

Our Accomplishments

Our work has directly benefited approximately 60 square miles of coral reef habitat. Additionally, Partnership efforts have resulted in the training of nearly 200 individuals and the completion of eight new plans to directly support coral reef management and site-based coral reef restoration.

  • Mapped and quantified protection provided by coastal ecosystems in the USVI to help local resource managers and decision makers identify coastal habitats that reduce risks from coastal hazards to local communities by providing storm protection, as well as to explore potential impacts of management actions (such as the removal or restoration of nearshore habitat).
  • Created response plans for coral bleaching and vessel groundings resulting in the creation of a BleachWatch program and the training of more than 140 volunteers to assess and respond to coral bleaching.
  • Outplanted 13,073 elkhorn and staghorn corals, directly enhancing 6,536 square meters of coral reef within the St. Thomas East End Reserve and the St. Croix East End Marine Park.
  • Created a coral restoration plan for the East End Marine Park that included outplanting corals throughout the park, creating a demonstration site, and offering snorkeling tours as an opportunity for community engagement.
  • Completed and shared human-use maps for the St. Croix East End Marine Park; maps were created through a participatory mapping workshop and will be used to inform management efforts.
  • Supported management activities at the St. Thomas East End Reserves (STEER) to increase management effectiveness and build capacity at the site by: conducting a visitor willingness-to-pay study; fieldwork for watershed assessments, contaminants, and biological monitoring; and developing models to analyze the impacts of sea level rise in the territory.
  • Held a USVI Climate Change Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EBA) Workshop that facilitated stakeholders in developing strategies to incorporate climate adaptation into disaster response, site-level management, and coastal zone planning resulting in the first climate change policy document in the USVI.
  • Over 38 participating Reef Responsible Restaurants have been trained and have voluntarily made commitments to improve their best practices when purchasing locally harvested seafood. Additionally, more than 1,000 participants engaged through Reef Responsible community events.

Success Story: Empowering Citizen Scientists to Protect Reefs

Increasing sea surface temperatures, and prolonged occurrences of these increases, have caused several mass bleaching events around the world in the last two decades. Fortunately, the U.S. Virgin Islands have not seen a mass bleaching event since 2010; even still, they are taking steps to be prepared should another mass bleaching event occur.

In 2011, the USVI developed a bleaching response plan that outlines a two-tiered process for monitoring and responding to coral bleaching events. The first tier is the BleachWatch VI program, a citizen science-based program that trains recreational divers and snorkelers to recognize bleaching and other climate change-related impacts and to report their observations.

“As managers, we can’t always get in the water as much as we’d like. That’s where programs like BleachWatch VI come in—it helps put eyes on the reef to inform us of current conditions and alert us of any significant changes”, said Leslie Henderson, Coral Reef Initiative Coordinator for the USVI Dept. of Planning and Natural Resources.

To date, the BleachWatch VI program has successfully trained more than 104 volunteers to assess and report coral bleaching. “BleachWatch addresses a local coral reef management need while simultaneously providing a perfect avenue for coral reef education”, said Leslie.

“Getting the community involved and teaching them not only to enjoy the reef but look at it with a more scientific eye helps foster a deeper appreciation of coral reefs. BleachWatch gives the average USVI resident an opportunity to get to know, and love, their local reefs a little better.”

The second tier of the bleaching response plan includes advanced monitoring surveys carried out by marine professionals. Together, these volunteer-based and professional monitoring efforts can enhance reef resilience by informing conservation efforts. In 2017, reef managers from the USVI traveled to Florida, where there has been significant bleaching in recent years, to learn from reef managers. Coral managers in the USVI applied lessons learned in Florida to enhance and update the USVI bleaching response plan. The updated plan now includes a communications plan and clear designation of partner responsibilities. These updates help to further prepare the USVI management community to monitor and document the impacts of climate change on coral reefs and inform response and restoration efforts.

“Coral Patrol volunteers allow the Park to extend its impact much further than is possible with its small staff. More eyes and more hands truly multiply the impact of work we do and allow us to do much more.”  –Caroline Potts, Manager, East End Marine Park, St. Croix, USVI

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