Dec. 6, 2007 — Preliminary indications show coral around St. Croix has degraded more than when a team of scientists from federal and local agencies first evaluated it in 2006, but some new corals are growing.
"There is some positive news," said Aaron Hutchins, the environmental program administrator at the Planning and Natural Resources Department, on Thursday.
Hutchins is part of a team of scientists on a mission to evaluate coral off St. Croix aboard the 224-foot EPA ship OSV Bold. Team members come from Planning, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Hutchins stressed that this is preliminary information based on anecdotal evidence. He expects more information on the amount of degradation to be available when the team concludes its work in mid December, with a full report due in a couple of months.
The team began working in mid November.
Rounding out the local team are Anita Nibbs and Kent Bernier Jr., both of Planning's Environmental Protection Division.
The team is working at about 60 spots around St. Croix to develop a three-dimensional model of the coral. A similar team evaluated coral around St. Croix in 2006, and Hutchins said another trip in the waters off St. Thomas and St. John will take place in about a year.
The scientists are gathering information to be used in setting up a monitoring and assessment strategy for coral reefs, said Jim Casey, EPA coordinator in the territory.
"The information will be the basis for developing bio criteria," he said. Under the federal Clean Water Act, states and territories must develop clean-water standards. This information will help with that task, Casey said.
"EPA recognizes that healthy coral reefs are the foundation for many marine species, and thus a crucial support for human life," said EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg, according to a news release issued Wednesday. "This coral-reef monitoring and assessment is an outstanding example of how EPA is investing in sound science and new technology to protect public health and our coastal waters. EPA is supporting the development of biological assessment methods and biological criteria for use in evaluating the health of coral reefs."
Coral reefs throughout the Caribbean have suffered degradation from a number of environmental stresses, including increased sea-surface temperature, contaminants from land-based sources and excess of nutrients from pollution, the release said.
In the summer of 2005, sea-surface temperatures throughout the Caribbean reached record high levels, and marine scientists in the Virgin Islands observed serious impacts to coral reefs. Bleaching affected 90 percent of corals, and subsequent spread of coral disease caused impacts to reefs throughout the entire territory.
Dive teams will identify, count, measure and make observations to capture the complexity of the three-dimensional structure of coral reefs. The sophisticated procedure will rely on going underwater to collect data from three perspectives. Divers will make methodical observations by swimming in carefully measured 360 degree "radial belt" pathways. The combination of observations will allow scientists to calculate a number of sensitive measurements to gauge the condition of the coral reefs.
Samples of coral tissue and sediment will be collected for analyses of the tissue, algae and sensitive marine shrubs. Photogrammetric Imaging will take place, in which scientists take underwater photographs of different coral species to help determine their geometric properties and refine future 3-D surface-area estimates. Divers will also conduct fish-population counts and habitat analysis associated with some of the EPA coral-monitoring points. This will support a more holistic understanding of the ecological life of the coral systems.
The OSV Bold is equipped with state-of-the-art sampling, mapping and analysis equipment, including side-scan sonar, underwater video, water-sampling instruments and sediment-sampling devices, which scientists use in a wide variety of ocean-monitoring activities.
The ship can house up to 18 scientists and 19 crew members, and remain at sea for weeks as they collect water-quality and sediment samples, fish, and other organisms.
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