Scientists Taking Closer Look at Coral Disease, Water Currents

USGS Scientists Erinn Muller and Tony Spitzack recording coral disease in Newfound Bay. Photo Special to St. John Tradewinds by Caroline Rogers

As the impact of the devastating 2005 coral bleaching and disease event begins to set in, scientists from a variety of agencies are taking a closer look at local reef recovery.

High water temperatures and an uncontrolled disease in the fall of ‘05 sent a lethal blow to local reefs, wiping out about 50 percent of live coral throughout the territory. Now scientists are trying to  see how underwater preserves have the potential to reverse the damage.

The U.S. Geological Survey is funding a $300,000, three year study on the connectivity of coral and fish and the impacts of the V.I. National Park, V.I. Coral Reef National Monument and Buck Island Reef National Monument on other underwater resources.

USGS scientists from the Florida Integrated Science Center and Leetown Science Center in West Virginia, and scientists from the University of the Virgin Islands, the University of Miami and Nova Scotia University are all collaborating on the Physical and Biological Connectivity of the V.I. Coral Reefs study.

Still Worth Protecting
Although reefs have been steadily declining in local waters, it is not too late save what is left, explained USGS Marine Ecolo-gist Dr. Caroline Rogers.

“The major bleaching and disease started about two years ago and a lot of people are just now realizing how drastic that was,” Rogers said.

“It is really important for people to know that there is still a lot worth protecting and we shouldn’t give up.”

Scientists will map local water currents to see if coral reefs and fish in protected waters impact reefs outside underwater reserves, Rogers explained.  

“One of the things we are looking at is how different populations of fish and corals are connected to each other,” she said. “Part of this is also seeing the impact of the monuments. If the fish begin to come back in the monument, how might that affect resources outside the monument?”

“That is where the connectivity comes in and the currents — we’re trying to see how these areas are connected,” Rogers continued.

Impacts on reefs are especially dire because coral reefs regenerate so slowly, explained Rogers.

“When corals are impacted it’s so catastrophic because coral grow so slowly,” she said. “It’s not like forest regrowth. Corals grow less than a millimeter — the width of a dime — in a year.”

Surprisingly little is known about near shore water currents, which could give scientists a clue about how fish and coral larvae are carried and the impacts of sedimentation.

“We’re going to look at a variety of things like the way that sediments are transported from place to place,” said Rogers. “For example we don’t have much information about localized currents in Coral Bay. It’s the kind of thing that has a bearing on how corals and fish might replenish themselves.”

The project includes a number of objectives, including gaining valuable information about coral diseases and recovery rates of endangered fish and coral species. Scientists also hope to determine if expanding underwater protected areas will provide increased connectivity among fish and reefs outside reserves.

At the end of the project, marine ecologists are hoping to be able to identify critical habitats which require protection and understand the role of water currents in transporting disease and pollutants to coral reefs. The work will also hopefully increase support for underwater preserves and result in fewer fishing and anchoring violations, explained Rogers.

The project will include field work, lab work and research from highly trained professionals.

“Although this is a very challenging project, there is a really great team of people with a lot of experience involved,” Rogers said. “It’s exciting to have so many different people and so many agencies working together.”