Territory’s Coral Reefs Have Taken Dive; Underwater Experts Warn Island Birders

One of the islands’ leading underwater experts, Dr. Caroline Rogers of the National Geological Survey (NGS) admitted her presentation on the state of the territory's reefs to the St. John Audubon Society November 29 was depressing.

In a truncated version of a presentation she delivered to the 2006 Coral Reef Conference, a symposium which attracted 250-320 people in November on St. Thomas, Dr. Rogers explained the findings of the NGS staff on St. John which conducts research with National Park Service.

Dr. Caroline Rogers of the National Geological Survey.

“It’s kind of hard to believe what has happened,” Dr. Rogers said at the start of her sometimes gloomy presentation. “Things are in tough shape.”

“Our coral reefs have taken a dive,” the marine biologist opined as she discussed “some of the factors that might be influencing our reefs” with the Audubon Society audience.

Extensive Coral Mortality
U.S.V.I. coral reefs are in crisis due to the “extensive mortality of reef-building coral” from natural and man-made causes, according to the scientist.

“Only three (of the coral) are ‘architects of the reef,”’ Dr. Rogers explained. Those three types of coral are the major “builders” of the reef structure, she added.

The degradation of the territory’s reefs will mean “smaller and fewer fishes and more and more bleaching,” she said. “Threats to the reef have become threats to tourism, the fishery, quality of life.”

“We’re actually already there,” Dr. Rogers said.

“People who like to dive and snorkel will go somewhere else,” the NGS marine biologist added.

“There will be fewer fish to watch and fewer fish to catch, sell and eat,” said Dr. Rogers ominously.

Direct, Indirect Damage
The reef structure is subject to both direct and indirect damage, from natural causes such as hurricanes, rising water temperatures and disease and human-related causes, according to Dr. Rogers.

“We are all to blame” for the human-related damage, she added.

The major human-related direct damage to the reefs, according to Dr. Rogers is from “boats running aground and fish traps on coral.”

Many area reefs “have damage from ships,” according to Dr. Rogers, and there have been “several groundings on elkhorn reef.”

“Sometimes the boaters hit islands,” Rogers added.

“We have way too many boats running aground in the Virgin Islands,” said Rogers, citing numerous groundings at Buck Island, St. Croix, and in VINP waters around St. John — “in spite of buoys and markers.”

“We still have people who don’t know where they are and run aground,”  Rogers added.

African Dust
Indirect, natural affects including high water temperatures also impact the coral reefs which “grow less than one-quarter inch a year,” according to Dr. Rogers, who was quick to discount the known impact of the Sahara or African dust on the decline of the region’s reefs.

“More research is needed,“ said Rogers. “There are no links to stony coral diseases, so far.”

“It is not true,” she added. “No link yet.”

In fact, Dr. Rogers added, the dust over the Atlantic Ocean “actually dampers hurricane activity — it can hinder development of hurricanes.”