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UVI Research Unearths Hope for Future of Coral Reefs


The discovery of some previously unknown areas of coral reef by University of the Virgin Islands researchers creates new hope that it may not be too late to protect against the process of coral bleaching.

UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies (CMES) recently discussed the first set of findings from an ongoing study of the Puerto Rican Shelf, an area that runs south from Culebra and Vieques to the British Virgin Islands and up toward St. Thomas and St. John.

According to CMES chief researcher Tyler Smith, the most extensive reefs are near the shelf edge facing St. Croix and can be found at depths ranging from 100 to 165 feet.

Researchers have been working to characterize the bottom structure of the Marine Conservation District, an area of approximately 50 square kilometers around the southwest of St. Thomas, on the southern part of the shelf, and recently made some "astounding" finds, Smith said.

"Seventy-five percent of it was coral reef — very nice coral reef, relative to some of the reefs around the Virgin Islands that has seen a lot of degradation over the past 25 years, and the past five years in particular because of some of the recent warm-water events," Smith said. "So we were very excited to see this coral."

Little research has been conducted at these depth ranges, which Smith said would have previously required a submersible. For the study, UVI researchers used closed-circuit rebreathers and mixed gases to probe the shelf, and found that 25 to 50 percent of the bottom was "completely covered" with living coral.

"We didn’t know it was down there," he said. "And the second aspect of the study was that when we did look, we found that these reefs are doing very well, and they’re very extensive."

Even in the summer, when water temperatures tend to be warmer, these sites are between 2 to 3 degrees cooler, which Smith said might be helping to protect them.

Smith said this could mean good news for the territory, but researchers are still harboring some concerns. Four of the reef sites are under the center’s territorial coral reef monitoring program, and while there has not yet been any bleaching in the area, Smith said that during the summer of 2005, the temperatures were still higher than normal.

"We did see them get high levels of disease, and they did lose a fair amount of coral color even though they didn’t fully bleach," he said. "Although right now they are doing better than shallow reefs, as the intensity of bleaching events increase, this potential refuge can also be in jeopardy long-term."

While there needs to be more of a global push to control greenhouse gas emissions — which are linked to higher sea surface temperatures — Smith said that in the territory, residents can help reduce other stressors, such as land-based pollution, and balancing the amount of herbivores and other fish that are pulled off the reef.

"When we interact with the reefs, it is also important for us not to touch the coral, which can be hundreds of years old and can take just as long to replace," he said.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Caribbean Fishery Management Council and National Ocean Sciences, as well as locally by the Lana Vento Charitable Trust.

Smith said NOAA has been using specially outfitted ships and airplanes to map the sea floor around the territory, which have helped to show just how extensive the reefs are, and how they are structured.

"Part of the effort for mapping and just understanding these systems are important, because some of these areas are open for anchoring … no one knows they’re down there," he said. "But we’re hoping in the next two years, when we start to publish these maps, that at least these areas could be designated as sanctuaries for no anchoring."

NOAA should be completing most of the map of the Puerto Rican Shelf this year, Smith said.

And at the very least, Smith said he was happy to discover that the territory has, for the Caribbean, one of the "most extensive mesophotic coral ecosystems in existence."

"It really is a brilliant treasure to have," he said.


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