Children fill in a coral mural at an art and film festival held Saturday to raise awareness about the important role reefs play in Virgin Islands ecosystems. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

As darkness fell over Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park on Aug. 26, children crowded around a white canvas, picking bright pinks, oranges and greens to fill in the outline of a coral reef scene. They stayed until after dark, working under lamplight to complete the seascape.

Local leaders are hoping moments like this will motivate young people to help preserve the territory’s real reefs, though some fear that many corals won’t be around long enough for a new generation to appreciate them.

The immediate future is especially dire. In the coming weeks, large swathes of the territory’s coral reefs are likely to turn bright white and then die, according to marine biologist Dr. Shannon Gore.

Threats to the territory’s coral include the golden-coloured peyssonnelid algal crust pictured above. A major bleaching event is also expected here and across much of the rest of the region in the coming weeks as waters grow warmer. (Photo: SHANNON GORE)

This summer’s high temperatures have created conditions for a Caribbean-wide bleaching event that Dr. Gore said could be the most devastating the Virgin Islands has seen in nearly two decades.

“I hate to say it, but it’s very pretty when it first starts happening, because everything turns white,” she told the Beacon. “But it’s completely horrifying knowing that these corals are probably gonna die.”

Art and film festival

To raise awareness about the territory’s reefs, Unite for the Sea, an offshoot of Unite BVI, hosted an art and film festival on Aug. 26. The programme focuses on providing free educational water-based activities for youths in hopes of inspiring interest in conservation.

Unite for the Sea hosts the event annually but decided this year to incorporate art to encourage community involvement, according to Unite BVI Foundation Manager Kim Takeuchi.

“This year’s theme was the coral crisis,” she said. “We really believe art is an incredible way, especially for young people, to use their voice on what they care about.”

The festival featured a mural where youths could help paint a coral reef scene, virtual reality headsets to experience the waters below, a youth art gallery centred around reefs “then and now,” a bake sale to support VI swimming programmes, and a series of short films. The features included segments on efforts by local groups such as Beyond the Reef to protect VI waters, especially in removing “ghost” fishing gear that gets caught on the reefs.

Also shown was an animation previously published by the government explaining the outbreak of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which was first reported off Florida coasts in 2014 but has invaded VI waters in recent years.

The art competition drew plenty of spectators. Most of the drawings were split in two, with one half depicting vibrant reefs “before” modern-day changes and the other half showing pale “now” reefs with smaller corals, fewer fish, and cloying trash.

A few poems were on display among the art, including one by Twinkle Joseph that proclaimed, “Half our planet’s reefs have already disappeared. As we watch from the land, the sea is being cleared.”

Local leaders are hoping moments like this will motivate young people to help preserve the territory’s real reefs, though some fear that many corals won’t be around long enough for a new generation to appreciate them. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)
Too little too late?

Experts have shared their concern that VI reefs face some near-insurmountable challenges in the very near future.

The Association of Reef Keepers BVI has been speaking out about its concerns and inviting renowned experts to speak about the challenges.

Dr. Bryan Wilson — a researcher with the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology — recently drew attention to a relatively new threat to Caribbean corals: peyssonnelid algal crust. He believes that this golden-coloured algae could be one of the next great killers of Caribbean reefs. (See link for full story.)

Dr. Gore, ARK’s managing director, told the Beacon that it originally was identified around Florida and Belize around 2010, and later crept into Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the USVI and this territory, among other areas in the region.

Climate change

Climate change has only helped the algae thrive: It survives best in acidic, warmer waters, Dr. Gore said. The algae settles on the reefs, choking out living coral.

“It survives hurricanes, and it’s just something that’s not going to go away,” she said. “It really inhibits coral larvae from settling on the substrate. It kills the bacteria that’s in the water that tells the larvae, ‘Hey, come land here.’ So the corals keep on going and don’t have the opportunity to land and start growing, which is a huge problem. Because if the corals are reproducing but they’re not landing anywhere, there’s not going to be any coral anymore.”

There is a sliver of hope to be found in the long-spined sea urchin, which happily feasts on the algae, and Dr. Wilson said he has seen how the creatures successfully clear patches for the larval corals to land again.

Dr. Gore added that some related research is in the works, particularly in Puerto Rico.

However, the spread of the algae nevertheless remains pervasive in Caribbean reefs.


Another threat may be more immediate.

As VI residents can attest, the summer of 2023 has been particularly hot, and warm oceans can spell disaster for delicate and sensitive reef systems.

Data from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coral reef watch shows Florida waters have reached temperatures at “Alert Level Two,” at which corals have a high mortality rate. Virgin Islands waters are likely to reach that level in September and October, according to VI biologist Dr. Shannon Gore. (SCREENSHOT: NOAA)

Bleaching is the result of the organisms inside coral structures dying off in prolonged periods of high temperatures, turning rainbows of reefs into white skeletons.

Dr. Gore said that based on trends already observed in Florida, where waters have reached the 93- degree threshold that is deadly to corals, VI corals could be facing their most significant bleaching event since 2005.

She pointed to data from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coral reef watch.

“You can see that by September, October, we’re going to be in a Level Two scenario, where it’s like 100 percent chance that we’re going to have mass mortality,” she said. “The last time this happened was in 2005, and it was so devastating.”

What next?

One major challenge in tackling coral bleaching is the sheer scale of the phenomenon, Dr. Gore explained.

Global carbon emissions contribute to climate change, and dramatic, long-term change is needed to stem the warming of waters.

But what is a small island nation to do?

With corals facing bleaching, algae, SCTLD, pollution, anchoring damage and more, Dr. Gore advised that the VI focus attention on how to best support the restoration of its reefs.

To that end, she said, there are some immediate measures that can be taken, like managing pollution runoff from VI shores.

She also highlighted the need for boaters to be careful about where they anchor to avoid damaging reefs.

Additionally, she said that VI coral would benefit from more protections in the law.

Though plans were made in the 2000s to designate additional marine protected areas, most never came to fruition.

Dr. Gore shared her hope that groups like the Climate Change Trust Fund Board — of which she is a member — will be able to give more attention to reef threats.

ARK plans to continue holding public events to bring awareness to ongoing threats and encourage change, she said.

“We need more awareness that we need to better protect the ocean — and of what we’re doing,” she added.