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Coral Reef Conservationists on St. Croix for National Meeting

With the 30th U.S. Coral Reef Task Force general business meeting set for Friday on St. Croix at the University of the Virgin Islands, on Thursday some leading scientists and watershed coordinators from some other territories shared tales of their work from their islands.

The USCRTF was created in 1998 by executive order to lead U.S. efforts to preserve and protect coral reef ecosystems. Composed of 12 federal agencies, seven states, territories, commonwealths and three freely associated states, the task force helps build partnerships, strategies and support for on-the-ground action to conserve coral reefs.

With watersheds being defined as an area of land where all the water drains to one spot, what’s happened in these troubled areas is storm water runoff, sediment, sewage, trash and other pollutants drain into a watershed and aid in destroying the coral reef and marine ecosystem. And that’s just the tip of the first domino, with all the industries affected by a damaged watershed, like fisheries and tourism, coming down afterward.

If a watershed management plan can mitigate problems, like reducing pollution from land, the task force and many scientists believe it’s a means of restoring coral health.

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The speakers Thursday during the one-hour session included Bob Richmond, renowned scientist from the University of Hawaii, who started his marine biology career on St. Croix, and watershed coordinators from the areas identified as priority watersheds – Puerto Rico, the west side of Maui in Hawaii and American Samoa.

In the Virgin Islands, Coral Bay has been recommended to the USCRTF to be one of the next priority watersheds.

All the speakers shared their success stories and challenges from their respective sites with the hope being that others might learn from these places where the plans have already successfully been put into action.

The message from all the speakers was clear, though, in that no watershed can be protected by any one organization or government agency. Partnerships are necessary.

Kristine Bucchianeri, a coral reef advisory group coordinator on American Samoa, recalled what’s been happening with the Faga’alu watershed in that territory’s main island.

She said the problem started with fishermen complaining to local government that a once abundant fish supply was no longer and that the water in the bay appeared to have a lot of sedimentation in it.

“Fishing is in their culture. They’ve always fished. It’s becoming a major problem that there aren’t nearly as many fish left,” Bucchianeri said.

With much community participation, those two issues, along with too much trash in the water, were eventually identified as continuing threats to the watershed’s already declining health. After data was compiled on two years of research in the bay, a nearby quarry that sat up a steep hill from the bay was identified as the culprit of the sedimentation problem in the local watershed.

This led to the quarry hiring an engineering firm, in part so they could continue to operate, and plans are now under way to implement a best management practices plan for managing the sedimentation and runoff. A long-term goal also includes building a coral nursery in the bay once the sedimentation problem is fixed.

Bucchianeri said it’s been a true community effort, with people contributing at every level – “from the mayor to tribal chiefs.”

“The community has really been active in this process,” she said. “They’ve been a fantastic part of this process and they’re driving the whole thing.”

She continued, “They have three trash groups that go out every single Saturday making sure there is no trash around.”

Bucchianeri said people have even stood up at meetings and said, “It’s our watershed. We don’t care where the trash is coming from. We just don’t want it in the ocean.”

Richmond, who started his “coral career,” at a West Indies Lab in Teague Bay in 1974, said his and his colleague’s research showed that that by the year 2100, in the 262 reefs in the Pacific they studied, there were really two ways the models could go. All the reefs and their coral cover could continue their downward spiral and reach the point of no return, or through the implementation of various best management practices and “meaningful changes and improvements in climate change,” they could possibly return to a healthy level of 70 percent coral coverage.

“That’s a choice we can all make. I say that as a marine biologist and a dad who cares about the future,” Richmond said. “The science is helping to inform decision making, but in the end it’s up to us as a community to decide which of those scenarios is acceptable to us, and I only see one option.”

Jenn Travis, the project coordinator for the Friends of the St. Croix East End Marine Park, said St. Croix’s watersheds and bays have similar issues, although not quite as bad, and that in the last several years through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, funds have been used to develop local watershed plans.

“We have plans for certain watersheds throughout St. Croix and on St. Thomas and they’re working on them on St. John,” Travis said. “We just need to figure out how to engage the community. They need to want to be a part of it. They have to know that every person is a part of it … It’s every individual that lives on or visits or works on St. Croix that has an impact on its watershed.”

Travis said the amount of undeveloped land on St. Croix is to its watersheds’ benefit, but said one area that does need help is Solitude Bay on the island’s eastern end. She said funding was currently being sought so to address the problem there of storm water runoff, especially as it comes off dirt roads.

“When we have sewage issues, it’s because of storm water. It has to go somewhere,” Travis said.

She was optimistic about the future but reiterated community involvement to solving the problems was imperative.

“Our problems aren’t so great that they can’t be fixed,” she said. “Good things happen when the community is involved. Good things can come just from people saying it’s an issue and wanting to fix it and then coming to the right people and getting it fixed.”

In citing a recent study done that said V.I. coral reefs held a value of $200 billion to the territory, Travis said the reason for wanting to save the reefs was also more than about money.

“It’s not only economically important, but it’s also culturally important that our reefs are healthy,” she said. “We want to save our reefs because they’re ours.”

The 30th U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting begins at 8:15 a.m. with registration at UVI’s Great Hall and is open to the general public. Gov. John deJongh Jr. is scheduled to begin his welcome remarks around 9:15 a.m. and a public comment session is scheduled for 2 p.m.

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With the 30th U.S. Coral Reef Task Force general business meeting set for Friday on St. Croix at the University of the Virgin Islands, on Thursday some leading scientists and watershed coordinators from some other territories shared tales of their work from their islands.

The USCRTF was created in 1998 by executive order to lead U.S. efforts to preserve and protect coral reef ecosystems. Composed of 12 federal agencies, seven states, territories, commonwealths and three freely associated states, the task force helps build partnerships, strategies and support for on-the-ground action to conserve coral reefs.

With watersheds being defined as an area of land where all the water drains to one spot, what’s happened in these troubled areas is storm water runoff, sediment, sewage, trash and other pollutants drain into a watershed and aid in destroying the coral reef and marine ecosystem. And that’s just the tip of the first domino, with all the industries affected by a damaged watershed, like fisheries and tourism, coming down afterward.

If a watershed management plan can mitigate problems, like reducing pollution from land, the task force and many scientists believe it’s a means of restoring coral health.

The speakers Thursday during the one-hour session included Bob Richmond, renowned scientist from the University of Hawaii, who started his marine biology career on St. Croix, and watershed coordinators from the areas identified as priority watersheds – Puerto Rico, the west side of Maui in Hawaii and American Samoa.

In the Virgin Islands, Coral Bay has been recommended to the USCRTF to be one of the next priority watersheds.

All the speakers shared their success stories and challenges from their respective sites with the hope being that others might learn from these places where the plans have already successfully been put into action.

The message from all the speakers was clear, though, in that no watershed can be protected by any one organization or government agency. Partnerships are necessary.

Kristine Bucchianeri, a coral reef advisory group coordinator on American Samoa, recalled what’s been happening with the Faga’alu watershed in that territory’s main island.

She said the problem started with fishermen complaining to local government that a once abundant fish supply was no longer and that the water in the bay appeared to have a lot of sedimentation in it.

“Fishing is in their culture. They’ve always fished. It’s becoming a major problem that there aren’t nearly as many fish left,” Bucchianeri said.

With much community participation, those two issues, along with too much trash in the water, were eventually identified as continuing threats to the watershed’s already declining health. After data was compiled on two years of research in the bay, a nearby quarry that sat up a steep hill from the bay was identified as the culprit of the sedimentation problem in the local watershed.

This led to the quarry hiring an engineering firm, in part so they could continue to operate, and plans are now under way to implement a best management practices plan for managing the sedimentation and runoff. A long-term goal also includes building a coral nursery in the bay once the sedimentation problem is fixed.

Bucchianeri said it’s been a true community effort, with people contributing at every level – “from the mayor to tribal chiefs.”

“The community has really been active in this process,” she said. “They’ve been a fantastic part of this process and they’re driving the whole thing.”

She continued, “They have three trash groups that go out every single Saturday making sure there is no trash around.”

Bucchianeri said people have even stood up at meetings and said, “It’s our watershed. We don’t care where the trash is coming from. We just don’t want it in the ocean.”

Richmond, who started his “coral career,” at a West Indies Lab in Teague Bay in 1974, said his and his colleague’s research showed that that by the year 2100, in the 262 reefs in the Pacific they studied, there were really two ways the models could go. All the reefs and their coral cover could continue their downward spiral and reach the point of no return, or through the implementation of various best management practices and “meaningful changes and improvements in climate change,” they could possibly return to a healthy level of 70 percent coral coverage.

“That’s a choice we can all make. I say that as a marine biologist and a dad who cares about the future,” Richmond said. “The science is helping to inform decision making, but in the end it’s up to us as a community to decide which of those scenarios is acceptable to us, and I only see one option.”

Jenn Travis, the project coordinator for the Friends of the St. Croix East End Marine Park, said St. Croix’s watersheds and bays have similar issues, although not quite as bad, and that in the last several years through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, funds have been used to develop local watershed plans.

“We have plans for certain watersheds throughout St. Croix and on St. Thomas and they’re working on them on St. John,” Travis said. “We just need to figure out how to engage the community. They need to want to be a part of it. They have to know that every person is a part of it … It’s every individual that lives on or visits or works on St. Croix that has an impact on its watershed.”

Travis said the amount of undeveloped land on St. Croix is to its watersheds’ benefit, but said one area that does need help is Solitude Bay on the island’s eastern end. She said funding was currently being sought so to address the problem there of storm water runoff, especially as it comes off dirt roads.

“When we have sewage issues, it’s because of storm water. It has to go somewhere,” Travis said.

She was optimistic about the future but reiterated community involvement to solving the problems was imperative.

“Our problems aren’t so great that they can’t be fixed,” she said. “Good things happen when the community is involved. Good things can come just from people saying it’s an issue and wanting to fix it and then coming to the right people and getting it fixed.”

In citing a recent study done that said V.I. coral reefs held a value of $200 billion to the territory, Travis said the reason for wanting to save the reefs was also more than about money.

“It’s not only economically important, but it’s also culturally important that our reefs are healthy,” she said. “We want to save our reefs because they’re ours.”

The 30th U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting begins at 8:15 a.m. with registration at UVI’s Great Hall and is open to the general public. Gov. John deJongh Jr. is scheduled to begin his welcome remarks around 9:15 a.m. and a public comment session is scheduled for 2 p.m.