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NCCOS Research Project

Land and Sea Characterization of St. Croix East End Marine Park

This project began in March 2010 and was completed in August 2013

Established in 2003, St. Croix East End Marine Park was the first multi-use marine park in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The park’s ecosystem and the threats to that ecosystem are poorly understood. In this project, we collected data on the park’s marine species, different habitats, and land-based development threats to those natural resources to better understand the park’s ecosystem and how it should be managed to meet current and future protection goals.

Why We Care
In the absence of ecological data, the park’s marine management zones were defined by social and political criteria, which often are at odds with ecosystem-based management goals and objectives. Research is needed to increase the richness of baseline ecological data, to define realistic goals for marine management zones and inform evaluations of the park’s success as a protected area, and to identify threats that can be addressed through management interventions.

What We Are Doing
We compiled and analyzed marine and terrestrial data for East End Marine Park in support of the park’s need to identify upland development that is incompatible with the health of the park. Specifically, we examined watershed characteristics that can influence how much pollution and soil might runoff into nearshore waters with potential to negatively impact the coral reef ecosystem. We also mapped the distribution of fish and benthic habitats throughout the park and summarized the abundance of priority species observed within each marine management zone.

We focused our data gathering on the southern half of the park—where data were lacking—using survey techniques compatible with those used for the northern half of the park and neighboring Buck Island Coral Reef National Monument to facilitate comparative analyses. As part of this survey work, we collected data on federally protected coral (sp. Acropora), Nassau grouper, and other marine animals of special concern (e.g., conch, sea urchins, lobster, and the invasive lionfish). To help develop long-term, local capacity, we produced a comprehensive geospatial database of the project data for park managers, educational outreach staff, and interpretative rangers.

We also provided staff from the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources training in marine species identification, field surveying, and ecosystem monitoring. Staff from this department will be able to participate in our team’s future data collection efforts pending reciprocity with NOAA’s diving program.

The project team included partners from NOAA/NCCOS, USVI’s Department of Planning & Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and the University of the Virgin Islands.

What We Found and Benefits of our Work
Our surveys yielded new data, maps, and underwater photographs and video that will help park managers understand the biological communities in the management zones surveyed, including which zones are most diverse and which are most suitable for key species. These products can also be used to support the work of interpretative rangers and the development of education and outreach materials.

We presented our results and recommendations to the Virgin Islands Marine Protected Areas Steering Committee in May 2013. Also, these results and recommendations will be used in the East End Marine Park’s management plan review process. Additionally, we provided advice to the park’s advisory committee during its strategic review of research needs, and we are developing a geodatabase of the project data, which on completion will be delivered to the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

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