In an effort to give our readers a sense of why coral research in the Caribbean is so important, NOAA Ocean Science Blogger sat down with NOAA’s John Christensen, Program Director of the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, to discuss his program’s efforts.
Thank you for speaking with our readers, Mr. Christensen.
The Coral Program has a strong presence in the U.S. Caribbean, particularly the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Why is coral reef ecosystem research so important to the area?
The Caribbean is often referred to as the ‘Third Border’ of the United States and is critically important to the nation’s environment, economy and national security. Caribbean coral reef resources provided between $3.1 and $4.6 billion per year from fisheries, shoreline protection and tourism services. The region receives over 20 million visitors each year.
The coral reef ecosystems in the region are particularly vulnerable to human impacts. In recent decades coral reef communities throughout the Caribbean have experienced major declines, suffering from a series of large scale impacts, including mass coral bleaching events, infectious disease outbreaks and substantial die-offs of important species. As a result, many reefs in the region have lost as much as 80% of their historical coral cover.
Where is the program focusing its efforts in the region?
As identified by a consensus of coral reef managers in each jurisdiction, the top priority sites in Puerto Rico are Culebra, North East Reserves, Cabo Rojo and Guánica. In U.S. Virgin Islands, the top priority sites are Fish Bay, St. John; Coral Bay, St. John; St. Thomas East End Reserve; and St. Croix East End Marine Park. The CRCP uses this information to direct its resources.
This is the second year that NCCOS and the Coral Program have mapped portions of the Northeast Grand Reserve. How are the mapping missions addressing data needs specific to the reserve?
Previously very little was known about the underwater habitats and fish populations in the Northeast Grand Reserve. At the close of the 2013 mapping mission, 100% of the commonwealth’s priority deep water areas of the reserve will be mapped. In addition to that, this year marks the beginning of a two-year effort to map priority shallow-water areas.
All this is significant because managers and stake holders will soon have the scientific tools to identify important habitats that may need further study and protection. The scientists are also gathering fishery acoustic data to shed light on fish populations, habitat utilization patterns and potential spawning sites. Together these data sets paint a clearer picture of the reserve’s coral reef ecosystems and related marine life. Our data will serve as the road map for future scientific endeavors in the area, including biological monitoring and fish assessments, and help inform management decisions.
What are some other efforts undertaken by the Coral Program and NCCOS to meet broader regional data needs?
The Coral Program has a long-standing partnership with NCCOS to leverage the center’s broad skill set to meet our scientific priorities for the U.S. Caribbean, as well meet evolving management needs. These include the National Coral Reef Monitoring Plan, which is a national effort to monitor and assess the status of, and changes to, coral reefs. We are also working with NCCOS to understand the human connections to coral reef ecosystems, the impacts of chemical contaminants, the efficacy of marine protected areas and many others.
What are the program’s future priorities for the region and Puerto Rico in particular?
Puerto Rico recently completed its local action strategy – the guideline that will be followed to address key issues and facilitate solutions for the conservation and protection of the coral reefs. It targets important and solvable issues with specific projects that are feasible and measurable. http://coralreef.noaa.gov/aboutcrcp/strategy/reprioritization/managementpriorities/#strategies
Where can readers learn more about the Coral Program and its efforts in the U.S. Caribbean?
You can learn more about the Coral Program, as well as our efforts in the U.S. Caribbean and beyond, by visiting our web site: http://coralreef.noaa.gov/aboutcrcp/workwithus/funding/grants/welcome.html.
NCCOS Blogger Biography: The Coral Reef Conservation Program supports effective and sound science to preserve, sustain and restore valuable coral reef ecosystems for future generations. As program director, John Christensen is responsible for all aspects of program management. John has been with NOAA’s National Ocean Service (NOS) for 18 years, and came to CRCP with a background in coastal research and monitoring. He managed NOAA’s National Status & Trends Program, the longest running annual coastal contamination monitoring program that is national in scope, and served as Deputy Director for NOS’ National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) from 2009 to 2011.