Protecting the Light: Scientists Discuss Salt River Bay Findings

The future of St. Croix’s Salt River bioluminescent bay and what scientists learned there as the result of a yearlong study were the twin foci of Saturday’s symposium at the University of the Virgin Islands Great Hall.

In the background and on a lot of people’s minds in attendance, however, were how those results could impact a planned multimillion-dollar marine research center that’s been on the boards for the last 10 years by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, the V.I. government and four American universities.

Dubbed the Marine Research and Education Center – MREC – the original plans called for the center to occupy eight acres of Hemer’s Peninsula that would include 12 lab modules and housing for 48 college students and a dozen researchers at a cost of $60 million.

UVI Interim Provost Camile McKayle said Saturday the size of the project had now been reduced by 35 percent to reduce the cost to around $31 million.

She added, though, that a financing plan was still being developed by Gov. John DeJongh and his fundraising team, and that the governor was leading fundraising efforts. McKayle provided no indications as to how much money, if any, had been raised for the project so far.

When it came to fact-finding and the biggest takeaways gained from the research, the University of South Carolina’s Jay Pinckney said it was important to note that there was now in existence nearly a year’s worth of hard data on Mangrove Lagoon, which is where the bioluminescence occurs on the east side of the bay.

“It gives us a yardstick to compare to future changes that may happen,” Pinckney said. “It’s always good to know what things were like before something happened, and now we have that information for 2013 … Hopefully we can continue it.”

Single-celled bioluminescent organisms called dinoflagellates are found only in a few bays worldwide, some of which happen to be in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico’s Mosquito Bay on the island of Vieques is one of the more famous bioluminescent bays. These bays also hold economic importance as they serve the tourism industry, St. Croix included, for those who want to kayak and witness the phenomena as night falls.

“I would emphasize just how extremely rare are these bays. There’s only a handful in the world and Mangrove Lagoon is world class,” said Michael Latz of the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Latz added that despite Puerto Rico possessing three bioluminescent bays of its own, St. Croix’s was different enough that it deserved its own recognition, not to mention continued research and protections.

“It’s different and we don’t know if it’s more stable than these other bays,” Latz said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for marine research and it’s really unique. It would also be the only bay under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.”

Chad Lane from the University of North Carolina Wilmington said from his standpoint, the connection Mangrove Lagoon has to Salt River Bay and how the latter is managed overall is not something to discount.

“You can’t treat Mangrove Lagoon alone,” Lane said. “It’s important to protect Salt River Bay as a whole.”

Lane feels the biggest threat to the bay and the phenomena is continued silt buildup on the bay’s floor as it channels into the lagoon. He said the only real way to combat that in the future would be to do what helped create the phenomena in the bay in the first place – dredging.

Mangrove Lagoon was first dredged in the 1960’s for an Estate Judith’s Fancy hotel development that never materialized.

“Or you get really crazy and build hard structures that block the sediment transport from happening,” Lane said.

Like Lane, Pinckney also said the overall water quality in Salt River Bay was important for the continued appearance of the phenomena.

“Things that happen in Salt River Bay are going to happen in Mangrove Lagoon,” he said.

Pinckney added that as part of the study, his team’s report will include recommendations to the NPS for managing Mangrove Lagoon moving forward.

“It (the recommendations) will be public record as soon as it’s accepted by the National Park Service,” he said.

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