Coral reefs around the world are dying, and those in the Virgin Islands are no exception. Coral disease, pollution, and careless humans take a high toll on these delicate ecosystems. Global warming and the ensuing rise of sea temperatures is also a major threat since reefs are highly sensitive to even a minor change in temperature.
Discharge of raw sewage into the sea causes algae growth, which smothers the coral reef. Dirt and other sediment washed out to sea following rains causes the reefs to be smothered. Marine pollution, such as oil spills or industrial wastewater discharge (such as at the rum factory on St. Croix) can have a direct, deadly impact on reefs. Careless boaters, snorkelers, and divers can kill coral just by stepping, anchoring, or otherwise touching it.
Recently, disease has been the greatest killer of reefs in the Virgin Islands. Scientists at the Virgin Islands National Park in the USVI reported that between 2005 and 2006 some 60 percent of reefs in the Virgin Islands were killed, mostly because of a devastating disease they call white plague. The disease attacked reefs that had already been bleached—but not killed—by high temperatures experienced in 2005. Since the massive die-offs in the mid-2000s reef death has slowed but not stopped, making protection of the reefs that remain all that more important.
Some steps have been taken to address these threats, although more needs to be done if the islands are going to avoid even more destruction of their greatest resource. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, fairly stringent local and federal environmental regulations are applied to control pollution and check coastal development. However, there continue to be problems with marine pollution and development that occur despite loud and reasoned environmental-based argument. In both territories, moorings have been placed in some popular anchorages to prevent anchor damage. Little can be done about coral disease, except to provide support and training to the scientists who are studying it.
Other problems still exist. The British Virgin Islands still don’t have a public sewage treatment system, and raw sewage is pumped directly into the ocean. Likewise, in the sailing capital of the world, there is no rule requiring holding tanks, so yachts are free to discharge sewage directly into the sea. In both territories, no one seems able, or willing, to put a check on coastal or hillside development.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition