The revival of a marine laboratory on St. Croix will help researchers in their quest to understand and possibly cure diseases that are striking reef ecosystems not only in territorial waters but around the world.
The aftermath of the third Coral Reef Task Force Conference held on St. Croix last week brought with it exciting news for the scientific community: the establishment of the Joint Caribbean Marine Science Center at the site of the former West Indies Laboratory on St. Croix’s northeast shore. 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.
The West Indies Lab, which was a pioneer in much of the world’s reef research, was destroyed in Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and has sat derelict since. Meanwhile, some half dozen diseases have and are ravaging a variety of corals at unprecedented rates.
"It’s a classic epidemic," says Roger Griffith, a researcher for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. "It is happening so quickly."
One problem in solving the mystery surrounding dying reefs is that there is no central place for researchers to send samples of what they are discovering. The new facility, Griffith hopes, will become a type of Center for Disease Control for coral reefs.
Particularly hard hit is elkhorn coral, Griffith says. It 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 10 years ago 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.
Still, Griffith says sedimentation from land runoff and increasing water temperatures are playing roles in the deterioration of reef throughout the world. On reefs off the north coast of Jamaica, such degradation has left less than 5 percent live coral cover.
"In Jamaica, it went from one end of the island to another," he says. "As water quality deteriorates, it puts more stress on the reef."
While Rogers says that total coverage of living coral on reefs in the territory is somewhat less than 40 percent, she warns that the percentage could drop quickly.
"Only time will determine if the amount of living coral on the reefs of the U.S. Virgin Islands will drop to (Jamaican) levels…," she says. "Future hurricanes, combined with human-related stresses, may tip the balance so that recovery becomes impossible."


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