By Reef Check Executive Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson
The Reef Check team in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) has been faithfully monitoring four reef sites per year since the inception of Reef Check in 1997. This year, Trish Baily, the energetic leader of RC BVI, invited RC International Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson to Tortola to hold meetings, give seminars, and facilitate a workshop on “Enhancing Monitoring and Management of Coral Reefs in BVI” during April 13 to 17. Trish, who captains the lovely charter yacht Serendipity and specializes in EcosailingTM adventures — had participated with Greg in one of the first RC Training workshops in Lembongan, Bali in 2000. The goal of the BVI Workshop was to review the current status of coral reef monitoring in the BVI with interested stakeholders (government departments, private businesses, academics and other non-governmental organizations) and to identify gaps and try to fill them.
The week began with an aerial fly-over of the islands courtesy of Island Birds Air Charter. This revealed the dispersed geographic layout of the islands and their close proximity to the US Virgin Islands. Each of the 50-odd islands is circled by fringing reef. The longest reef runs along the north coast of uninhabited Anegada Island and then continues for about 16 km extending like a tail. From the air, the beaches and azure waters were gorgeous, but the highlight of the flight was a mother and calf humpback whale.
Following the fly-over, Trish and several RC BVI ‘regulars’ enjoyed a scuba dive and snorkel at nearby reefs courtesy of Johann and Belinda of Dive BVI, a top local dive company. The good news is that the coral diversity is still very high at a number of sites and the Elkhorn coral Acropora palmata is making a comeback in at least one location assisted by the long-spined black sea urchin Diadema. In the 1970s, Elkhorn coral was the primary framework builder of the inner reef flats in the Caribbean. Now on the US Endangered Species List, Elkhorn is rare throughout the Caribbean, therefore seeing a few patches of healthy Elkhorn is a significant indication of recovery.
During an evening event hosted by his Excellency the Governor, David Pearey, he noted how much he had enjoyed a recent scuba dive and pointed out the need to educate more BVI children about the ocean. One of the issues on most Caribbean Islands is that few children learn how to swim, let alone snorkel. This is a cultural issue based on stories of the dangers of the sea passed on from generation to generation. So one of the goals of the week was to identify organizations involved in youth education which might be potential partners with Reef Check to train kids how to swim, snorkel and even become certified EcoDivers.
On another day, Mark and Carole Morrissey, owners of the Serendipity, hosted a visit to areas representing historic conservation successes achieved by ARK, the non-profit umbrella group that has run RC in the BVI. Major losses were prevented during airport construction and an entire mangrove forest and associated seagrass ecosystem were saved from destruction by ARK. Mangroves are essential habitat for young fish and invertebrates that live on coral reefs as adults. At a presentation to local architects and contractors organized by Steve Fox of architectural firm OBM International, Trish’s husband David Hildred, a civil engineer, made the key point that when considering environmental impacts from construction in the Caribbean, “Prevention is the key – and contractors can often save money by proper design and careful construction.”
The Monitoring and Management Workshop hosted by the Conservation and Fisheries Department, was attended by about two dozen staff from government, NGOs, dive companies and academia. Following presentations on the current monitoring program in the islands, everyone agreed that:
– More monitoring sites were needed.
– Additional Reef Check sites would be useful
– Integrating all monitoring data into an annual monitoring report was an important goal.
– Providing information to government decision-makers in an easily digestible format was critical.
With enthusiasm and a high level of cooperation among all parties, the group listed criteria, selected and prioritized new monitoring sites and made initial decisions about what boats would be used to support each survey. In a very important step forward, Mr. Bertrand Lettsome, Chief Conservation & Fisheries Officer and Joseph Abbot-Smith, Director of the National Parks Trust agreed to sign an MOU with Reef Check BVI to lay out the new formal cooperation between the BVI Conservation and Fisheries Department and Reef Check.
The BVI, like many Caribbean islands, is seeing an increasing level of development and tourism as offshore banking shifts. The unique feature of the BVI is that it is the number one rental yacht destination in the world with about 1000 sailboats for “bareboat” (no captain) and crewed charters and more megayachts stopping by. The BVI has been a leader in developing a system of mooring buoys to reduce anchor damage, however, the pace of growth has created issues. At a Rotary Club meeting, many concerns were voiced about this issue and potential for sewage impacts from both yachts and large cruise ships.
As global warming proceeds, and tourism grows, it is important for each small island government to have a solid coral reef monitoring and management plan in place. Reef Check is pleased to offer tailor-made workshops to achieve this goal. In the case of BVI, the environmental foundation laid by Trish and colleagues with ARK and RC BVI over the past 13 years is now paying off. The level of enthusiasm and commitment to marine conservation in the territory is very strong and deep thanks to their hard work. We look forward to seeing an expansion of the BVI monitoring and management program over the next several years and improved reef health.
Reef Check would like to thank the dozens of people and organizations who supported this week-long effort.