The Caribbean region contains nearly 120 million people who live within 100 km of the shoreline and rely on the region’s wealth of coastal natural resources for coastline protection, transportation, food, recreation, and to support livelihoods from fishing and tourism. This heavy dependence on Caribbean coastal resources has resulted in nearly 70% of the reefs of the Caribbean being threatened by human activities such as coastal development, sedimentation, pollution, and over-fishing. Rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and ineffective management further threaten to damage coral reefs across the Caribbean.

Healthy and resilient coral reef ecosystems are paramount to continued provision of goods and services to coastal communities. Fishery resource conservation, coastal protection, enhanced tourism and potential development of useful drugs from marine organisms provide a few examples of the benefits that coral reefs provide to developing nations around the world. The vitality of these goods and services, as well as maintaining the aesthetic attributes of coral reefs depends on prescient management, made possible by predicting the trajectory of reefs and the methods of management most likely to lead to preservation and restoration.

VI-EPSCoR’s original research focus on Biocomplexity of Caribbean Coral Reefs (BCCR) was designed to gain a more complete understanding of the complex coastal ecosystems that make up the Virgin Islands. The establishment of this interdisciplinary research program provided an opportunity to synthesize local research and to formulate an integrated ecosystems management approach based on scientific expertise to insure the wise stewardship of the Territory’s marine resources. As the BCCR program developed and matured over the four year grant period, two critical gaps in knowledge were identified: What are the influences of biotic, physical and human interactions in coastal ecosystems? and to what extent are oceanographic and climatic forces affecting coral reef ecosystems?It is unclear how patterns of biodiversity and co-occurring natural and anthropogenic (those originating with human activity) stressors are interacting to influence reef degradation, or how disease, the greatest driver of reef degradation in the Caribbean, is linked to stress. For decades, scientists have explored the highly complex relationships of organisms that live within coral reef and coastal ecosystems, but only recently has research begun to reveal the significant influence that terrestrial and oceanic environments and human activities have on coral reef function.

A new research focus on Integrated Caribbean Coastal Ecosystems (ICCE), began in the fall of 2008, and aims to fill these information gaps. ICCE is an integrated island ecosystem approach which facilitates and supports interdisciplinary studies of terrestrial, coastal and oceanic environments, as well as the related social, health and economic impacts on island communities. Relatively little is known about the complex interactions between terrestrial and coastal ecosystems and the interactions between coastal and oceanic ecosystems, though they are generally considered to be connected through a variety of ecological mechanisms at multiple scales in time and space. The ICCE approach harnesses best available technologies including remote sensing data and comprehensive field samples to fill some of the most urgent knowledge gaps in this newly emerging transdisciplinary field. New technologies are also utilized to explore the relatively unknown deep water regions of the US Virgin Islands.

Administration - ICCE Advisory Board

The ICCE Advisory Board assists in strategic planning and provides guidance for the research thrust on Integrated Caribbean Coastal Ecosystems. Board members include local and national researchers of international repute in tropical coastal ecosystems. The ICCE Advisory Board consists of persons with expertise in:

  1. coral reef conservation, oceanography, watershed management and fisheries management at national or international levels,
  2. graduate programs in marine science,
  3. implementing informal education and outreach programs linked to research activities,
  4. writing major grant proposals,
  5. local coral reef and fisheries research and
  6. setting up and/or directing a marine biological laboratory. Institutional affiliations include University of Georgia, University of Miami, University of South Florida, University of Hawaii, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Yale University and UVI.

As the VI-EPSCoR program matures our ICCE advisory board is able to provide different types of expertise. The Advisory Board is scheduled to meet quarterly. The first Board meeting (teleconference) was in Aug. 2009 and coincided with the visit of the CMES strategic planning consultants to UVI to present their findings. The ICCE Advisory board participated in a site visit to St. Thomas in December 2009 during the VI-EPSCoR annual conference and again met via teleconference in May 2010.

Infrastructural Improvements

In order the ensure the most effective research products VI-EPSCoR has invested heavily in improving UVI’s research capabilities as they relate to Integrated Caribbean Coastal Ecosystems. Improvements include:

  • the Oceanographic Lab and building entrance,In addition, architectural conceptual designs have been completed and CZM permits have been approved for revampingThe renovation of the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies’ Technical dive locker,
  • renovations to the Environmental Analysis Lab,
  • the outdoor sea table area,
  • and the indoor wet lab.
  • creating a new boat storage area and access road
  • and renovating and extending the facility’s boat ramp and dock.

Funding for Research

In addition to infrastructural improvements, VI-EPSCoR provides funding for conducting research through our Incubator Grants Program. Incubator Grants support researchers in exploring new investigative directions related to our focus on Integrated Caribbean Coastal Ecosystems (ICCE). VI-EPSCoR provides seed funding to researchers to support pilot research, proposal development, and other activities that advance a research project to the point at which it can attract competitive external funding.

This year, the focus is primarily, but not exclusively, on research related to aspects of the ecology of the star coral, Montastrea. The purpose of the Montastraea incubator is to focus our collective intellect and infrastructure on a common problem, for which we have an excellent base of background information, and leverage this focused energy into a successful application(s) for research support to the National Science Foundation, a primary objective of the VI-EPSCoR Research Infrastructe Investment program.

Education and Outreach

K-12 Education and Outreach activities and partnerships under ICCE include: the Adopt a School Program, the Mathematics and Environmental Science Academy (MESA) Summer Program –St. Croix. VI-EPSCoR’s Celebrity Scientists’ Tours, Travel to National Science Fairs and Symposia.

Other ICCE Activities and Benchmarks

  • CMES Strategic Plan 2012-2017
  • Year 3 final report
  • Reverse site visit
  • Science and Technology plan