Scientists study a section of coral during this month’s training programme for reef monitoring. While Virgin Islands scientists prepare for a months-long process of gathering data and sharing it in global databases, they worry that once the current United Kingdom funds run out, the effort will shutter without local government financing. (Photo: DAN BAYLEY)

As part of a United Kingdom-funded training programme, a group of Virgin Islands researchers dove underwater this month and learned how to analyse and share their data globally as they prepare to revive along dormant coral reef monitoring programme.

The skills they learned will be central to a planned effort to survey at least 20 sites this spring, and the researchers will use internationally recognised platforms to compare their findings with information from scientists around the world, said National Parks Trust Director Dr. Cassander Titley-O’Neal.

“It’s not that we didn’t have the skills,” said Dr. Titley-O’Neal, explaining that VI researchers can now use their existing knowledge to “bring the monitoring for the country up to international standards.”

But she and some of the five other participants from the Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Ministry, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and H. Lavity Stoutt Community College worry that the programme could be hamstrung if government does not provide consistent funding once the UK’s grant money runs out.

“Government … needs to put their money where their mouth is and invest in the environment,”Ms. Titley-O’Neal said.


The training was funded by the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee via the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and it was led by Simon Browning and Dr. Dan Bayley, researchers at the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute based in the Falkland Islands.

With the VI participants already knowledgeable about the territory’s underwater environments, the training centred around using the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, Mr. Browning told the Beacon.

A protocol used by scientists around the world, the GCRMN serves as a depository for information about reefs the world over, “and it is very powerful to have this amount of data to make real-life decisions on,” Mr. Browning said.

But such wide-ranging efforts are complicated, and they are only successful when scientists from different places are driven by a common goal, he aded.

“It was absolutely terrific to see the knowledge and enthusiasm” of the VI biologists, Mr. Browning said.

The rise of tools like the GCRM is part of a broader effort to standardise the protocols for reef monitoring globally, Association of Reef Keepers Managing Director Dr. Shannon Gore said on Monday.

Messrs. Browning and Bayley are conducting several training sessions throughout the Caribbean to help build capacity in the British overseas territories, and they travelled to a training session in Anguilla shortly after completing their work in the VI, they said.

Training programme

Though the researchers spent some time in the classroom, most of the training was spent in the ocean.

Over the course of the week, the scientists counted the number of fish in a specific part of a reef, analysed different types of seabeds, measured water quality, and inspected coral “recruitment,” or juvenile corals that will grow into new reefs.

Like many reefs across the world, the VI’s face multiple adversaries, the most prominent being stony coral tissue loss disease, an often fatal affliction that was confirmed in the VI in May 2020 and attacks the algae living inside coral’s tissue, causing white lesions.

After it was first reported off the coast of Florida in 2014, the disease has spread rapidly through the Caribbean and compounded the damage that the VI suffered during a global bleaching event caused by warm water in 2015 and 2016, Dr. Bayley said.

Despite the damage from SCTLD, Dr. Bayley said the territory’s reefs have not suffered as much from bleaching as other he’s dived in recent years.

Next steps

VI scientists are planning to put their training to action in about two months, as they are slated to embark on a territory-wide reef monitoring programme in April or May, Dr. Titley-O’Neal told the Beacon.

Collecting data from the roughly 20 sites the scientists plan to visit is only the beginning of a long process, she said, adding that it will take months to parse through their findings and enter them correctly into the GCRM portal.

Once completed, the reef monitoring, which Dr. Titley-O’Neal hopes will be conducted annually, should give “an overall picture of coral health in the territory,” she said.

Such a programme used to exist when marine biologist Argel Horton first joined the Conservation and Fisheries Department in 2007 as a secretary, Ms. Horton told the Beacon this month.

She started studying at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas in 2010, but by the time she returned to the CFD in 2013, the reef monitoring programme had disappeared, she said.

“Within that timeline … that skillset was lost because either individuals moved from one department to another or retired,” said Ms. Horton, who is also trained in the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment, another prominent monitoring tool.

Now, there is a new crop of trained reef monitors, and Ms. Horton, who now works in the NRLI Ministry, is also hoping to recruit prospective ocean scientists from HLSCC, she said.

But like Dr. Titley-O’Neal, she worries about the programme’s longevity in the absence of government funds.

“As much as I’m personally grateful for grants, … to build local capacity I think our government needs to seriously apply funds and resources to assist and maintain our local environment,” Ms. Horton said in a WhatsApp message.

“We are limited in numbers and more staff is needed.”

NGOs’ involvement

Dr. Gore, who did not participate in the recent training, said reef monitoring and other conservation efforts would benefit from including non-government stakeholders.

“Any country, if they want to be involved with the blue economy, they have to start … engaging more with the wider community instead of doing everything on their own,” Dr. Gore said.

NRLI Minister Vincent Wheatley and NRLI Permanent Secretary Joseph Smith-Abbott did not respond to questions about funding, but in a March 11 press release Mr. Wheatley pledged to support “a sustainable and robust coral reef monitoring programme.”

“I look forward to seeing others, including the NGO community and private sector, brought on board,” Mr. Wheatley said.