Along with kicking off the third Coral Reef Task Force Conference on St. Croix Tuesday, federal officials announced several local efforts to enhance and preserve reef ecosystems.
On St. Croix, the most significant happening will be the establishment of the Joint Caribbean Marine Science Center at the site of the former West Indies Lab across from the St. Croix Yacht Club. The West Indies Lab was destroyed in Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and has sat derelict since.
The new lab will focus on education and research and be operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Rutgers, 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.
During signing ceremonies at the home of Contessa de Navarro Farber, which overlooks the lab site, Weicker said the ocean is a "tremendously important resource" that humans "don't know beans about."
"This laboratory will supply many of those answers," he said.
While the U.S. Department of Interior was involved in lease negotiations between the Contessa and the consortium of universities, it won't be directly involved in raising the $2 million needed to renovate the existing lab facilities. That task will fall to the universities and their "fabulous endowments," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
"We have a big job to do with renovations. There is no designated source for funding," Babbitt said. "There are a lot of possibilities out there, particularly from the businesses that profit from (the ocean and reefs)."
Also announced at the Coral Reef Task Force Conference, the third since President Clinton signed an executive order in 1998 to protect coral reefs throughout the U.S. and its territories, was the establishment of a no-fishing zone off St. Thomas.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in conjunction with the Caribbean Fishery Management Council, has established the Hind Bank Marine Conservation District southwest of St. Thomas. The 16-square-nautical-mile area will be off limits to fishing and the anchoring of fishing vessels.
Since 1991 the Hind Bank fishery has been closed to fishing between December and February to protect red-hind spawning, according to NOAA administrator Dr. James Baker. A 1997 report showed that the seasonal closure was having a positive effect on the amount of and size of red hind being caught. Now the closure will extend year-round and include tuna, billfish and shark.
"Recognizing that certain areas are so biologically diverse that they need full protection, the Caribbean Fishery Management Council has done the right thing in establishing the Hind Bank Conservation District," Baker said. "Protection of this important spawning area is an investment in the future of the region's fisheries and valuable coral reef ecosystems."


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