The marine habitats of the Virgin Islands are some of the most valuable assets in the Territory, not only because of their exhilarating beauty but also because of what they provide for residents and tourists. These habitats include the coral reefs, sea grass meadows, beaches, mangroves, salt ponds and of course, the millions of creatures that depend upon these habitats.
With over 350,000 acres of coral reef found in the VI, these complex ecosystems provide not only recreation for residents and tourists, but also food and shelter for over 130 species of fish, a number of which are caught commercially. Reefs provide coastal defense for valuable oceanfront properties by slowing incoming waves from swells or from passing storms.
Seagrass meadows receive little attention compared to other marine habitats, but with over 10,000 acres in the VI, they also deliver a number of ecological services. Seagrass meadows act as nursery grounds for juvenile fish, and they improve water quality by filtering out sediments from land run-off.
While beaches and mangroves line the coastline and are not so much considered “marine habitats”, they do play crucial roles as a transitional stage between land and sea. Both provide a barrier, protecting the sea from land-derived sediments and protecting the land from high wave activity.
Salt ponds, like beaches and mangroves, also have a crucial role to play within the entire marine ecosystem. While they are further from shore, they help trap the sediments coming down the ghuts which in turn, helps keep coastal waters clear.
Of course there are still the creatures that depend on these habitats. They include the marine mammals such as the humpback whales that migrate through the Territory during the winter months and three types of turtles that forage (green, hawksbill, occasionally loggerheads) in the BVI. Green, hawksbill and leatherbacks (locally known as “trunks”) nest in the VI. There are also 15 species of seabirds that depend on these marine habitats.
Unfortunately, as in the rest of the region, these marine resources and wildlife species are extremely threatened by over-development and all that comes with such activities (coastal erosion, loss of biodiversity). There is also the imminent threat of climate change. While many parts of the world are noticing dramatic effects, the VI has yet to experience the same, but we are making preparations. The VI may suffer from the effects from a rise in CO2 emissions caused by larger countries, but like everywhere else in the world, we have a responsibility to ensure the marine habitats in the VI are well managed, protected, and in some instances, rehabilitated to ensure their sustainability for future generations.
The Virgin Islands Conservation and Fisheries Department