Plans for a marine research facility at St. Croix’s Salt River took a leap forward this week when the U.S. Interior Department awarded $2.6 million to the National Park Service to continue design and development of the center, according to a Government House release.
Funneled through the Office of Insular affairs, this new money joins more than $2 million the Interior Department has already awarded to help design, build and staff the planned Salt River Bay Marine Research and Education Center (MREC).
Planned for a portion of a 73-acre site at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, the center’s focus will be on the rapidly declining health of coral reef ecosystems throughout the Caribbean and other tropical regions of the world.
In addition to supporting science-based management for two marine parks in St. Croix (East End Marine Park and Buck Island National Park), the center will educate V.I. students and promote public awareness of the economic and cultural heritage of the tropical oceans.
The project is a partnership between the V.I. government, National Park Service, the federal Office of Insular Affairs and a consortium of universities—including the University of the Virgin Islands and three stateside schools, known collectively as the Joint Institute for Caribbean Marine Studies.
Plans for the center began in the Clinton administration with former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the several university presidents, said Christensen in a statement.
“The center is a collaboration of government and educational institutions which can only produce good results for our children, our scientists, our educators and our entire community,” she said.
The grant issued this week will help pay to complete architectural and engineering designs and allow the National Park Service to hire an education and research coordinator who will develop local educational and research programs, deJongh said in a statement Wednesday.
"The coordinator will work closely with the faculty at UVI to develop K-12 study plans and educate the public about threats to the islands’ ecology," deJongh said. The funds will also support the first major research project on bioluminescence, which is the study of the emission of light from living organisms.
The new funding will bring the territory "closer to the realization of a world-class research and education center in the Virgin Islands," said Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Anthony Babauta, in the statement from Government House.
"Once completed, the center will bring the marine classroom to all Virgin Islanders as well as to the community of experts who have dedicated their careers to understanding the importance of our oceans and coral reefs,” Babauta said.
The research center campus will occupy about eight acres of Hemer’s Peninsula by Salt River Bay which was heavily disturbed during the 1960s and 1970s when a hotel and marina were partially developed and then abandoned. The campus will house 48 undergraduate students and 12 researchers and graduate students. Plans also call for 12 lab modules to support marine science research projects.
While this new grant is a step forward, there is a long road to travel before the center is built and opened to the public. All told, the project is expected to cost about $60 million, and construction will not begin until the money is raised, according to Government House.