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Charlotte Amalie
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Salt River to be Identified as Priority Watershed, U.S. Coral Reef Task Force Says

The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force annual meeting on St. Thomas included policy discussions, an underwater tour, and recognition for local research. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

Territorial leaders and environmental authorities from the public and non-profit sectors held a week-long meeting on St. Thomas with the coral reefs as their chief focus. The newly reopened Westin Resort & Spa at Frenchman’s Reef provided the backdrop for the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force annual meeting.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., along with Gov. Lemanu Peleti Magua of American Samoa, were joined by Insular Affairs Assistant Secretary Carmen Cantor and White House officials at the sessions. Those attending also saw a researcher from the University of the Virgin Islands honored for her life’s work in marine science.

Task Force members also approved a new priority site at Salt River, St. Croix, for inclusion in a federally funded watershed protection program.

The task force forms collaborations with state and territorial counterparts and fishery management councils to better assess threats to reef ecosystems and to help find better ways to mitigate harm. Secretary Cantor and Nicole LeBouef from NOAA led discussions about strategies to enhance, manage, and restore reef systems, according to a statement released by the Department of Interior on Friday.

LeBouef is the assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “The USCRTF meeting focused on strategies to reduce threats, including by addressing issues related to disease, land-based pollution, and climate change,” the Interior statement said.  “Additionally, the USCRTF discussed efforts to utilize improved restoration techniques and develop local plans to maintain sustainable fish populations for coral conservation goals.”

The annual meeting began Oct. 22. By Oct. 24, participants left the meeting space to view the research facilities and resources at UVI. Marine Biology Research Professor Tyler Smith and DPNR’s Matthew Warham spoke about the value of that first-hand experience, including a dive tour of St. Thomas coral reefs.

“I did tours with some of the participants on Tuesday. I showed them our area in the (13-D Research & Strategy) Innovation Center, where we have our ocean glider project and our robotics program,” Smith said. “And in the robotics program, we showed them our equipment that can be customized. We are currently using it to map deep water coral aggregations and to use Artificial Intelligence to identify groupers — to identify groupers by their facial markings and for coral disease treatments.”

Other task force participants had a chance to tour the new Marine Science facility rebuilt after damage caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. They also looked at the facility’s mangrove nursery, the UVI researcher said.

Warham, who serves as coordinator for DPNR’s Coral Reef Initiative, said he was especially glad to have Bryan, Magua and some task force members come along on the underwater reef tour. “It’s important we got some of these federal partners in the water to see some of our issues and where their resources are going to address these issues,” he said.

Warham added that the importance of reef preservation in the Virgin Islands was recently emphasized by an executive order signed by Bryan on Oct. 25. The order designates territorial reefs as part of the V.I. infrastructure system.

“The executive order mandates all V.I. government departments and agencies to take administrative, enforcement, conservation, and enhancement actions” to protect the reefs and develop policies and rules to ensure their preservation, said the statement issued by Communications Director Richard Motta.

Earlier this year, at the federal level, Interior announced funding from the Inflation Reduction Act would be directed to protect the Faga’alu Watershed in American Samoa, which was identified as a priority watershed. Last week, at the annual meeting, officials said they would soon confer a similar designation for the Salt River watershed on St. Croix.

The U.S. task force membership is made up of 14 federal agencies: seven states, territories, and commonwealths; three Freely Associated States; and four fishery management councils. Participating agency reps at the annual meeting included VI-DPNR, Territorial Coral Reef Monitoring Program, EPA, Department of Interior-Insular Affairs; U.S. Geological Survey, NOAA, Nature Conservancy and related non-profit conservation organizations from Puerto Rico and Florida; the National Park Service Biological Inventory and Monitoring Program, and Peter Edmunds from California State University at Northridge.

The Virgin Islands hosted the annual meeting this year; in 2024, it will be American Samoa’s turn to welcome delegates and provide a forum for the organization’s business meeting and to further its discussions.

Some of those discussions will resume shortly at the local level when UVI hosts an overview of the reef research projects conducted over the past three decades. “It’s an extension of all the coral reef work that many individuals have done over the last 20-30 years. We’re trying to look at these different reef trajectories. We can look at how reefs have recovered over those years (2005 — the first mass coral bleaching event — to 2017 with the passage of hurricanes Irma and Maria), ocean currents, biodiversity, water temperatures, and how they might impact how some reefs are recovering, and how some are not,” Smith said.

And before ending the St. Thomas session, task force officials bestowed a lifetime achievement award on UVI Research Professor Marilyn Brandt. Brandt is the director of the UVI coral restoration program Reef Response. She is also a founder and executive team member of the Virgin Islands Coral Disease Advisory Committee.

Warham said Brandt’s award was one of three presented to people in the Virgin Islands whose work has helped improve the ocean ecology or raised awareness of the need to do so. “We wanted to appreciate her work at the federal level,” Warham said.

Others honored included John Farchette III, a former interpretative ranger at the East End Marine Park on St. Croix, and Caroline McLaughlin, who helps local and federal agencies coordinate their efforts to fight coral disease.

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that John Farchette III was honored, not John Fischetti. Also, Marilyn Brandt is a UVI research professor, not an associate professor.

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