Coral Reef Photo Armando Jenik

Association of Reef Keepers

Guardians of the BVI's Underwater World

Story by Claudia Colli

The realm of the Association of Reef Keepers is the sea, its colorful reefs and unparalleled marine life. First established in 1993, the small but committed group circulated a colorful and ubiquitous flyer to urge coral reef conservation, established “Reef Check” which monitored several coral reef sites in the BVI and addressed island erosion, among other projects.

 

Spearheaded at the time by locally based charter captain Trish Baily, ARK as it is commonly known, was comprised of residents with a keen interest in protecting the underwater world they loved. Their primary purpose was to educate the public about our intricate and interconnected marine environment and how we can minimize our impact. The group’s simple mantra was “to touch nothing,” because it is often human interaction with the underwater world that is most damaging.

 

 

...everyone has a role to play when it comes to preserving and sustaining our natural resources.

ARK was relaunched with renewed vigor in 2015, and is led by Dr. Shannon Gore, a former marine biologist at the BVI Department of Conservation and Fisheries and now an environmental consultant. Rounding out the board are Clive Petrovic, Casey McNutt, Dylan Penn, Mervin Hastings and Chris Haycraft – a group of dedicated and environmentally tuned in residents with expertise in various aspects of the marine environment.

 

For Shannon, the purpose of ARK is straightforward. “When I worked for government, I realized a lot of people call on the government to “fix” environmental issues. However, everyone has a role to play when it comes to preserving and sustaining our natural resources. The point of ARK is to help educate people in how they can actively play a role to assist the government and work as a community to resolve issues related to the marine environment.”

 

Among the organization’s wide-ranging activities are a British Virgin Islands Sea Turtle Program and a Marine Restoration and Monitoring program. ARK is also working with NGOs and government organizations to establish coral nurseries near Little Thatch and Virgin Gorda, a step towards reversing the decline of coral reefs in the Virgin Islands.

 

To me, one of the most intriguing of these projects is Turtle Encounters, part of the VI Sea Turtle Program, which ARK is currently conducting in partnership with the Department of Conservation and Fisheries. The program is not unlike one that I participated in ten years ago when I spent a day out on a boat accompanied by Shannon and other Conservation and Fisheries staff who were tagging turtles to monitor their migratory patterns. Catching turtles isn’t as easy as it looks, it takes technique. The day I went, Shannon and other team members took turns being towed behind a slow moving boat; when a turtle was spotted the “catcher” dove down, grabbed a hold of the turtle, and with the help of those on board, hauled it inside the boat.

 

Dozens of turtles were tagged at the time and data on the captured turtles was recorded. They were then gently returned to the water and sent on their merry way. Tracking their movements has aided conservation efforts. When a turtle tagged here in the BVI is recaptured, scientists not only get a clearer idea of their far flung territory, but also gather information on the health of the species. These marathon swimmers have been recaptured throughout the region including Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bonaire, St. Barths and Guadaloupe.

 

To me, one of the most intriguing of these projects is Turtle Encounters, part of the VI Sea Turtle Program...

Although similar to the original program that I took part in ten years ago, Turtle Encounters goes even further. ARK charters reputable day boats to assist with the program, and participants pay for the unique experience of helping to capture turtles to further research on this threatened species. The day kicks off with a presentation explaining the day ahead: a little information on sea turtles mixed with a familiarization of the sea turtle’s underwater home. It is a win-win situation. Participants learn about turtle conservation and the local marine environment while the BVI Conservation and Fisheries Department and ARK receive vital data on the state of the turtle population both locally and regionally. And importantly, money is raised through the program to fund other ARK projects.

 

The protection and propagation of coral reefs is another of Ark’s priorities. When I don my mask and flippers and explore the BVI’s coral reefs, I never fail to be amazed at their beauty. They are like underwater cities, complex and stunningly beautiful. The majestic corals and colorful marine life that are contained within this unique underwater community are not only an important component of the Territory’s tourism product, they are vital to its fisheries and maintaining a balanced and healthy marine environment. Although at first glance they can seem inanimate, in reality, corals are living creatures and once one realizes this, it is easy to see how susceptible they are to human interventions. Our warming climate, coral bleaching, anchor damage and runoff from land development have been among the causes of a rapid decline in our coral reefs – in the Caribbean alone there has been an 80 percent reduction in coral reefs in only 50 years.

 

But all is not lost. In an innovative project, ARK is assisting in the development of the BVI’s first coral nurseries with the aim of reversing this trend. This cutting edge program is a collaborative effort with the BVI Department of Conservation and Fisheries, the National Parks Trust, the US based Nature Conservancy and the BVI business sector. Work has already begun on the establishment of two nurseries within the Territory.

 

To create a nursery, small coral fragments, already broken by an anchor or wave action, are “planted” in a nursery and carefully monitored to prevent algae and predators from harming or killing the coral. With their long branching arms, elkhorn and staghorn corals work well for this purpose. Once their branches develop they are clipped off to start a new colony within the nursery – a bit like taking a cutting from a plant to propagate a new one in your own garden. Impressively one coral fragment can be turned into thousands of corals in a relatively short period of time.

 

Once ready to leave the protection of their nursery, the corals are transplanted to a safe underwater area – and if all goes well, a new coral reef is born. In the neighboring USVI, 10,000 corals which were raised in similar nurseries were transplanted onto local reefs in 2015, and ARK is hoping for a similar success story here. With the financial and technical support of the worldwide conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy, Ark will be assisting the BVI Coral Reef Restoration Committee with the bi-monthly maintenance of these coral nurseries.

 

Education continues to be a key component to ARK’s Sustainable Cruising and Marine Industry Program. The charter boat industry in the Virgin Islands has grown exponentially over the last 30 years and ARK wants to work with those within the industry to ensure that they are aware of their impact on the environment and do what they can to lessen anchor and other damage.

 

ARK is also reaching out to land developers. In the Ridge to Reef project they are working with communities like Cane Garden Bay on Tortola to educate residents on reducing silt runoff – a major cause of reef damage – through safe building practices.

 

Dr. Gore believes that ARK’s commitment is long term and far-reaching. “I am hoping in five years to have local rising environmental stars taking on each of the four programs as directors as well as an administrative staff. British Virgin Islanders are graduating from college with environmental science degrees but there are a limited number of jobs in the BVI in this field. I can really see each of the programs growing into powerful forces towards preserving our marine resources for future generations.”

 

My interaction with turtles so many years ago, sparked a lifelong interest in the BVI’s marine world. ARK’s Turtle Encounters, along with its many other key projects, will undoubtedly inspire generations to come.

To learn more about this multifaceted organization and learn what you can do to help, please visit ARK’s website at www.bviark.org