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Prioritizing Sites for Coral Reef Conservation in the U.S. Virgin Islands

This project began in October 2013 and was completed in October 2016

This project began in October 2013 and was completed in October 2016. We used existing and newly collected data, including local diver knowledge, to develop a map-based decision support tool to identify and prioritize the most important coral reefs for conservation consideration in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as to determine the distribution of threats and stressors to coral reefs.

Why We Care
Coral reef ecosystems in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) have deteriorated dramatically in the past few decades, reducing the value and sustainability of ecosystem services to society. The problem is geographically widespread, but not all coral reefs have declined equally. Local resource managers, operating with limited funds, require reliable, spatially explicit, and easily interpretable data to help prioritize coral reef sites for management action. However, USVI did not have an objective decision-support framework to prioritize management sites. To undertake strategic planning in the future, as well as to enable efficient investment of conservation dollars, a way to synthesize and evaluate information was needed so that managers can identify and rank priority management areas, assess threats to those areas, and determine associated resilience. This framework supports the USVI government in: ocean planning, coastal development risk assessment, education and outreach, evaluation and design of marine protected areas, climate change adaptation strategy, and conservation investment decisions.

What We Did
Our goal was to produce an objective, data driven, decision support framework to help resource managers prioritize coral reef ecosystems for conservation investment in the USVI. The framework integrates spatial information on coral reef distributions, associated biodiversity, and diver perceptions related to coral reefs in the territory. Using techniques from landscape ecology, we used ecological criteria to map coral reefs based on physical and biological complexity, ecological connectivity, and other important features, such as presence of endangered species, spawning sites, biodiversity hotspots, and connected seascapes. To gather local diver knowledge on reef condition, local use, and perceived threats to coral reefs we developed a Google Maps tool and questionnaire to collect data from professional SCUBA divers across the USVI. Our project incorporated the local knowledge and ecological mapping data into a decision support tool with sufficient flexibility to allow managers to map coral reefs according to their user-defined criteria for prioritization.

Our primary partners on this project included the University of the Virgin Islands and the Virgin Islands Department of Planning & Natural Resources (DPNR), as well as various NOAA data providers.

What We Found
Our inclusion of local SCUBA diver perceptions was the first effort to harness local knowledge to support strategic coral reef conservation in the USVI. In addition, we provided spatial information on the ecosystem service value of coral reefs that include coastal defense, tourism, and fisheries value. Our modeling work resulted in a greater understanding of the link between coral reef structure and potential fisheries market value across the region. In addition, our mapping and modeling efforts resulted in new maps on the distribution of seafloor areas likely to support coral reef organisms, including previously unsurveyed areas. Finally, our tool allows the user to consider coral reefs connected closely to seagrasses and mangroves when running prioritization scenarios.

Benefits/Impact of our Work
With the U.S. Virgin Islands Coral Reef Prioritization Digital Atlas, this project provides, for the first time, a comprehensive and quantitative tool to visualize and identify priority coral reefs across the entire USVI insular shelf. Because of the projects comprehensive synoptic and region scope, the products are useful information tools that can support strategic actions for coral reef conservation. One such strategy that the tool is being considered useful for is a USVI version of the Coral Reef Conservation Act.

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