VI Reef Response

Personnel and graduate student interns from the University of the Virgin Islands’ V.I. Reef Response program collect data on outplanted corals that are part of a research project at Lovango Cay.

Visitors come to Lovango Cay for oceanfront dining or a relaxing day at the pool, but soon they’ll also be able to learn about the fight to save the territory’s coral reefs, and to see coral restoration in action.

A partnership between the University of the Virgin Islands’ V.I. Reef Response program and the Lovango Resort & Beach Club has resulted in three zones around the cay where corals are being restored and studied.

In the nursery zone, located in a shallow sandy area on the south side of the island to the west of the dock, nursery structures are being installed.

It’s an ideal location away from areas of predation and stress where faster growing species of coral will be grown and harvested to be outplanted, or put onto an area of reef that’s been degraded.

On the south side of the island to the east of the docks, where access is trickier and currents are rough, restoration experiments are taking place.

Different types of corals will be placed there together to study their influence on one another’s growth, and experiments using sponges and other organisms that help filter the water will be conducted with the aim of finding ways to reduce coral disease.

Off to the north of Lovango Cay is the restored zone, where V.I. Reef Response will plant as many corals as possible, measuring how the reef affects the shoreline and how quickly the reef and other associated organisms can rebound.

On the island itself, educational signage will inform visitors about the challenges coral reefs are facing and why coral restoration is so important.

“People know very little about the actual biology of the corals and why we need them,” said V.I. Reef Response Director Dr. Marilyn Brandt. “Education is the No. 1 most important part of this project. Coral restoration isn’t just about planting corals; it’s about increasing awareness of why we need to plant corals. They’re dying because of climate change and overdevelopment and in some cases, overfishing. Increasing people’s awareness of the fact they can affect change by making different choices in their daily lives is critically important.”

V.I. Reef Response is a grant-funded program at the University of the Virgin Islands, where Brandt is a research associate professor of marine and environmental science.

The Lovango-UVI partnership was initiated by a UVI undergrad student who was working at Lovango during the resort and beach club’s development.

“We presented to Lovango the types of activities that we’re doing for coral restoration on St. Thomas and they asked if we could propose to them a small program centered on Lovango that would benefit V.I. Reef Response,” said Brandt. “I hadn’t been to the island at that point but it was an ideal location to start trialing some new coral restoration operations and to put in a coral nursery, so I got really excited about the opportunity.”

Brandt noted the efforts construction crews were taking to prevent sediment from entering the water and smothering the corals, and she found ideal conditions for the nursery and research and restoration zones, which had clearly been impacted by major bleaching events and hurricanes but presented a suitable environment for her team’s projects.

“The water is very clear and there are a lot of long-spined sea urchins which are good for keeping seaweeds down on the reef,” said Brandt. “If those urchins are present you know you can plant coral and not have it be overgrown by seaweed right away.”

Educational signage will mainly be placed on the island, but Brandt said V.I. Reef Response will apply for a permit to install underwater signage similar to the snorkeling trail at Trunk Bay.

Beyond the opportunity to educate visitors about the need for coral restoration, Brandt said the Lovango sites could support field trips for high school students in UVI’s Youth Ocean Explorers Program, and volunteer “citizen scientists” could visit the nursery to help with cleaning and maintenance.

“It’s really a student-driven project,” Brandt said. “The primary work that’s done out there is by grad students in the Master of Science Marine and Environmental Science program, and we also employ students who’ve graduated from UVI.”

Lovango Resort & Beach Club owner Mark Snider said the partnership with V.I. Reef Response is a welcome one.

“Once you start understanding how coral reefs may cover just 2 percent of the oceans but supply up to 20 percent of our food, you start to feel responsible for it,” said Snider. “We’re a place the public comes to, which makes it easier to inform them on the importance of coral restoration.”

For more information on V.I. Reef Response, visit www.vireefresponse.org.