March 12, 2005 — A group of ocean and coral reef experts gathered at Coral World Friday night had a clear message for the people of the Virgin Islands. One, the territory's fragile reef system is dying. Two, the territory's fish populations are threatened to the point where some species may be gone forever. Three, there is hope that problems one and two can be fixed, but if the current generation doesn't do it, it may be too late.
Bill Rohring, assistant director of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources Division of Coastal Zone Management, expressed what is at stake in blunt terms, saying, "The reefs are the cornerstone of our entire economy. Without them the Virgin Islands cannot survive."
Rohring was one of many who shared a similar view Friday at the official launch of a 54-page booklet published by The Ocean Conservancy called, "The State of the Coral Reefs of the U.S. Virgin Islands."
The book's primary authors, Nicolas Drayton, Caroline Rogers and Barry Devine partnered with more than a dozen local, national and international experts to produce what many at the event said is the most comprehensive guide to the state of the territory's reefs ever published.
In addition to an abundance of easy-to-understand information, charts, maps, and hundreds of color photographs, the book also contains interviews with a number of people who speak first hand about the changes in the territory's marine environment going back almost a century.
St. Johnian old-timers Guy Benjamin, Milton and Fred Samuel, and Edmond Roberts talk about the days when only two boats were kept in Coral Bay, and lobsters were so abundant that if you wanted one you just had to swim out and pick it out of the water. In fact lobsters were used for bait in those days, Benjamin said.
Others, including St. Croix environmentalist Olasee Davis and St. Thomas' Raymond Peters, speak of changes, of vanishing sea life, of the shortsightedness and greed that has contributed to the decimation of the Nassau grouper and Hawksbill turtle populations.
Friday's event also marked the opening of a brand new Coral World exhibit, Coral Reefs: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, which takes viewers on a dramatic journey through the history and into the future of this enormously complex and delicate eco-system.
World renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle has been in the territory most of the week lending her support to the book and exhibit launches. On Thursday she played guide to a group of school children who took a cruise aboard the Atlantis submarine. On Friday afternoon she dove Lameshur bay on St. John, returning to the site where in 1970 she led a team of scientists who lived for two-weeks in a specially built structure 50 feet below the surface.
"Ninety percent of the large fish that used to be numerous in these waters have disappeared in my lifetime," Earle said to the modest crowd gathered at Coral World. "Only maybe 20 percent of the corals in these waters remain alive," she added.
On Thursday's submarine trip, Earle did her best to explain to the children the importance of the ocean and its protection. "Every breath you take, the ocean makes possible. Every drop of water you drink comes from the sea."
Ultimately, however, Earle's message was one of hope. Time and again during Thursday's excursion and Friday's event, she stressed the importance of all that has been learned. "We didn't have enough understanding in the 30's. We didn't even have enough understanding in the 70's. But we do now."
Earle's message is mirrored in the new book and the Coral World exhibit: the answer is education, conservation, and proper wildlife management.
To that end, Drayton and others at The Ocean Conservancy and DPNR-CZM, are trying to capitalize on the opportunity presented by St. Croix's East End Marine Park. The park was established at the beginning of 2003 and, according to Drayton, it holds the promise of providing an example of marine conservation that could serve as a model to the rest of the world. "We have a long way to go with the park, but we're on our way," Drayton said. Though much work remains to be done, Drayton said the park is partially staffed and has received generous funding from The Ocean Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy.
Trudie Prior, Coral World's owner, says she's very excited about the new exhibit and the marine park's growing relationship with The Ocean Conservancy. "Even though we have to provide entertainment at the park, it's also our responsibility to educate people," she said. Prior says she hopes the new exhibit will serve as a spark to inspire locals and visitors to make a deeper commitment to the care of the territory's marine environment.
Prior also encourages area schools to take advantage of Coral World's standing offer of free admission. "About 3,000 students visit the park every year for free," she said, explaining that teacher's need only to contact the parks group coordinator.
Read and download the full text of "The State of the Coral Reefs of the U.S. Virgin Islands".
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