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Baseline Environmental Assessment off St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands to Evaluate Effectiveness of Watershed Restoration Efforts

This project began in February 2010 and was completed in December 2013

 

Watershed restoration projects are being conducted on St. John, USVI, to improve the health of coral reef ecosystems, create jobs, improve island infrastructure, and obtain a better understanding of the links between terrestrial sediment inputs and habitat condition. To evaluate the effectiveness of these restoration efforts, we conducted an assessment of marine communities and pollution to establish a baseline against which future improvements could be measured.

Why We Care
Pollution from land-based sources of pollution (e.g., coastal development and agricultural runoff) is a major factor in the degradation of coral reefs worldwide. Although pollution is frequently cited as reducing coral reef health, the amount of pollutants present in coral reefs is not well known, and typically even less is known about the effects of the contaminants on coral health.

What We Did and Are Doing
In this project, we conducted an assessment of Fish and Coral Bays in St. John, USVI, to establish a chemical and biological baseline for these bays. The long term goal is to see if the watershed restoration efforts are working and less pollution is reaching the bays. The land surrounding these two bays is being developed and is affecting surrounding coral reef ecosystems through sedimentation and changes in water quality. Restoration projects for these bays include: stabilizing unpaved roads, restoring natural drainage, replanting riparian areas, and installing drainage improvements.

To assess the efficacy of watershed improvements as part of the restoration activities, project partners from the territory and academia conducted terrestrial and marine monitoring. To supplement this effort, NCCOS and NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center provided additional marine assessment data to determine the effects of restoration projects on marine communities and contaminants. The assessment efforts conducted by NOAA included collecting new data for sediment contaminants, water column nutrients, and coral recruitment, as well as synthesizing existing coral reef ecological data. NOAA chemical monitoring includes inorganic and organic pollutants (e.g., heavy metals, pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons-PAHs) and nutrient concentrations (nitrogen and phosphorus). NOAA biological monitoring includes coral recruitment, edge effects, benthic cover, and fish size and abundance.

This overall restoration and assessment effort involves a consortium of federal (NOAA), territorial (USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources), local (Virgin Islands Resource Conservation and Development Council, Coral Bay Community Council, and Estate Fish Bay Owners Association), and academic institutions (University of the Virgin Islands, University of San Diego, and University of Texas), as well as engineering and construction firms.

What We Found and Are Finding
Fish and Coral Bays have dynamic coral reef communities, exhibiting lots of spatial and temporal variability among fishes, corals, and habitats. Compiled biological data in both bays show characteristics of degraded coral reef communities, with generally low coral cover and high algae cover, yet there are pockets of coral refuges with very high coral cover in Coral Bay and sites in Fish Bay with healthy seagrass beds. The monitoring and protection of these special areas are crucial to sustain the health of the surrounding coral reefs.

Next Steps
The long term plan is to re-visit this assessment in five to ten years to determine how effective the watershed restoration activities have been.

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