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BVI Coral Reefs

A Rainforest of the Ocean

Story by Jane Bakewell

We've all seen the pictures and stunning views of colourful corals amidst myriads of tropical fish, a sea turtle gracefully fanning his ungainly carapace over his feeding grounds – a bed of seagrass, and juvenile fish hiding amongst the roots of mangroves. Coral reefs, and their sister habitats, seagrass meadows and mangroves, are home to over 25 percent of all marine life and yet are one of the most fragile and endangered ecosystems in the world.

The B.V.I. is rich in reef assets, having over 300,000 acres of reef spread out amongst the close to 50 islands and cays that make up the territory. There are also 10,000 acres of seagrass in the B.V.I., which in turn hosts 340 marine species that graze these meadows and depend upon them for their food source. There is a living, breathing, coral ecosystem in our midst, and if we imagined flipping our oceans and having the use of gills, we would be living in an underwater rainforest.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of what corals really are. If one were told corals are a classification of an animal, most people would scoff. However, corals are in fact invertebrate animals, a smaller substrate of a group called Cnidaria. They belong to the same group that includes jellyfish and sea anemones, sharing the same characteristics: a simple stomach with a mouth opening surrounded by stinging tentacles. Each of these coral animals is called a polyp and thousands form a group known as a colony.

Blue coral Photo by Shannon Gore

Above: Blue coral. Photo by Shannon Gore

Corals are further classified as either "hard" or "soft" coral. Hard corals are also known as reef building corals while soft corals, which do not have the rock-like skeleton, include sea fans, sea whips and sea feathers. Hard corals extract calcium from the seawater and use this to form a hard structure. Most people would be surprised to know that coral reefs are the largest living structure on the planet and remarkably, the only living structure visible from space! The Anegada Horseshoe Reef is the third largest in the Caribbean, stretching 63km long (39 miles) and includes both patch and barrier reef.

Most of a coral's food source is obtained from tiny single celled plants with a long and official sounding name of zooanthellae. However, they also use their tentacles with stinging cells to fish for food, waving them in the water with the hope of getting small fish or plankton to add to their diets. Most coral species reproduce by releasing eggs and sperm in the water, which meet and form a larva, which in turn looks for a hard surface to attach to. In even the best of conditions, reef-building corals are extremely slow growing. In general most corals grow an inch to two inches a year, with branching colonies tending to grow just a bit faster. This is why damage to mature coral colonies can take up to a generation to repair.

The B.V.I.'s attraction as a tourism destination is dependent largely on the sustainability of these coral reefs that bring sailors, divers, snorkellers, sports and pleasure fishing enthusiasts to our islands every year, not to mention the growing local commercial fishing industry that supplies many of our restaurants and markets with delicious local fish. Red snapper, grouper, parrot fish and mahi mahi, all come from B.V.I. waters.

Stag Horn Coral Photo by Shannon Gore

Above: Stag Horn Coral. Photo by Shannon Gore

BVIslanders have always been betrothed to the sea and the islands' earliest industries relied heavily on fishing these waters with hand lines, seine nets and fish pots, diving for conch and lobster and collecting edible mollusks from the craggy shores. Local artists, Joseph Hodge and Ruben Vanterpool, depict these early historical scenes in their oil paintings of island sloops, the fishing boats of the day and children with buckets collecting welks from along Tortola's shores.

It is a healthy coral reef ecosystem that sustains this marine life, and the B.V.I., through both its government programmes and volunteer organizations has made great strides over the years to monitor, watch and guard this fragile system, so that future generations will be able to enjoy this abundant natural marine resource.

Trish Bailey, a long time charter captain in the B.V.I. and a vocal conservationist, has been a vital part of two organizations that have brought awareness to the public about the marine environment. She is a founding member of ARK (Association of Reef Keepers), a volunteer organization that helps to disseminate colourful posters to visitors and residents with reef awareness tips. Trish is also a local Reef Check coordinator, and as part of the Reef Check International organization, works with dive operators in the B.V.I. to do an annual reef check and submit the findings to the organization that monitors reefs worldwide. "The B.V.I. was one of the first countries to embrace reef check and it has given a lot of exposure to the B.V.I. as a place willing to participate in global coral reef research," Trish reports.

A lone Parrot Fish swims amongst the coral Photo by Shannon Gore

Above: A lone Parrot Fish swims amongst the coral. Photo by Shannon Gore

This is definitely the year for reef awareness as 2008 has been designated the International Year of the Reef (IYOR). Ten years ago IYOR, an international grass roots organization was formed with the idea of increasing awareness about loss of coral reefs and associated ecosystems, like mangroves and seagrasses. IYOR 97 was a global effort that saw over 50 countries and territories participating and was the catalyst for many conservation initiatives. Recognizing there still needs to be more understanding about the conservation of coral reefs, the 2008 initiative has spawned many creative educational events worldwide.

There are marine awareness lectures scheduled this year in Germany and Great Britain, educational dives at the Red Sea in the Sinai, and even a "coral parade" in the Mariana Islands (between Guam and Japan). Here villagers, government organizations and private companies will "proudly demonstrate that coral reef protection is everyone's job" by donning underwater coral reef costumes in a carbon neutral non-motorized parade.

In the B.V.I. just this past year, the Conservation and Fisheries Department, realizing there was a need for a stronger voice on marine issues, spearheaded the Marine Resources Stakeholders Group. This group, which is scheduled to meet quarterly, is made up of local charter companies, dive operators, fishermen, marine associations and the BVI Tourist Board. "The idea," says Bertrand Lettsome, Chief Conservation and Fisheries Officer, "is to keep everyone informed and in the loop. As the environment goes, so goes the B.V.I."

Elk Horn Coral Photo by Shannon Gore

Above: Elk Horn Coral. Photo by Shannon Gore

Someone who has been passionate for years about thevision for marine awareness is Shannon Gore, a marine biologist with the Conservation and Fisheries Department. "What really got me thinking we needed to educate people more about coral reef conservation came out of an incident that happened about six years ago," Shannon recounts. "I overheard a captain of a charter yacht tell his guests that when dropping an anchor for a good hold, it's best to let it get firmly lodged in a coral reef."

Fortuitously, this year with a grant from the Moorings, one of the first and largest charter company's in the territory, Shannon with the endorsement of government and the Conservation and Fisheries Department was able to publish the first edition of Marine Awareness 2008, a BVI Guide. Although Shannon had the concept and was the principal author, many well- known local photographers donated their vibrant marine shots and many contributing editors overlooked the final content for accuracy.

The purpose of the Marine Awarness Guide, which is distributed free of charge to the local charter companies, is to inform and educate people about the marine ecosystem with a handy guide of do's and don'ts that will help everyone enjoy the beauty but be sensitive to leaving a light imprint wherever they interact with the marine ecosystem. This of course will be a win win for all, as the B.V.I. continues to be one of Nature's Little Secrets for generations to come.