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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, May 17, 2024


Efforts to preserve coral reefs in the U.S. and its territories and establish a marine science laboratory on St. Croix received a boost last week when the House Resources Committee passed the Coral Reef Conservation and Restoration Act of 2000.
A proposal to build the Joint Caribbean Marine Science Center on St. Croix was a major part of the third Coral Reef Task Force Conference held on the island last November. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and scientist from across the country were on St. Croix to plan a strategy in the fight to save endangered coral reef ecosystems.
A critical part of the plan is the establishment of a marine lab devoted to supporting field research on diseases striking coral reefs. While funding has been an obstacle the Resources Committee’s approval of $64 million over four years for reef conservation means movement is being made. The legislation also contains language that would appropriate $1 million in fiscal years 2001 through 2004, for a coral disease center.
Because of the success of the former West Indies Lab, across from the St. Croix Yacht Club, and its proximity to coral reefs, experts pegged the derelict facility as an ideal site to use as a headquarters. Although the Resource Committee’s legislation identifies funds for the science center, Mike DeLuca of Rutgers University, said the money will go toward developing an electronic clearing house for coral reef information.
"We’re hoping that can be considered in the context of the West Indies Lab" until on-island progress is made, DeLuca said.
Rutgers and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington are spearheading the effort the effort to revitalize the old West Indies Lab. Bob Wicklund, director of federal programs at UNCW, said lease negotiations between Contessa de Navarro Farber, who owns the land the former West Indies Lab sits on, have been completed. Still, renovations to existing laboratory facilities have been estimated at $2 million.
"We’re talking millions of dollars," DeLuca said. "So it takes a little time to put that kind of package together. Ideally, we’d like to get renovations started as quickly as possible."
The West Indies Lab was a pioneer in much of the world’s reef research but was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and has since sat derelict.
The new lab will focus on education and research and be operated by the Rutgers, UNCW, the University of the Virgin Islands and the University of South Carolina. Lowell Weicker, former governor of Connecticut, U.S. senator, Congressman and part-time St. Croix resident, will be chairman of the science center.
While the Coral Reef Conservation and Restoration Act of 2000 provides $64 million over four years for reef preservation, the legislation still must past muster on the House floor and the Senate. And even if the bill is approved, Wicklund said that the money has to go a long way considering the sheer amount of diseased reefs in the V.I., American Samoa and the Florida Keys.
"Because of the really poor condition the reefs are in, that’s not a lot of money. We need to move quickly to find out what’s going on. It’s appalling," he said.
One problem in solving the mystery surrounding dying reefs is that there is no central place for researchers to confer. The proposed Joint Caribbean Marine Science Center on St. Croix may become that place; a type of Center for Disease Control for coral reefs.
Particularly hard hit is elkhorn coral, the results of which is especially noticeable at Buck Island Reef National Monument off St. Croix. Elkhorn coral is a primary reef-building coral in the Caribbean and helps reduce coastal erosion. But over the last 15 to 20 years the species has been hit hard by white band disease and hurricanes.
At Buck Island following Hurricane David in 1979, the combination of disease and storm had reduced the live coverage of elkhorn coral from 85 percent to 5 percent, according to research done by W.B. Gladfelter. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 decimated the coral further.
While scientists have not correlated white band disease with pollution or other human activity, it usually kills the elkhorn coral colonies it infects, according to Caroline Rogers of the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Despite the gloomy outlook and the plodding rate of legislation and funding, Wicklund said the Resource Committee’s approval of the reef legislation could be an end to years of rhetoric.
That sentiment was echoed by DeLuca.
"We’re very optimistic," he said. "There’s a lot of attention being paid to the decline in the health of coral reef."

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