STATEMENT BY THE HONOURABLE VINCENT WHEATLEY
MINISTER FOR NATURAL RESOURCES, LABOUR & IMMIGRATION
NINETH SITTING OF THE SECOND SESSION OF THE FOURTH HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
THURSDAY, 11TH JUNE, 2020
Mister Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to address this Honourable House with a very important issue in our environment which is critical for the protection of our Territory in more ways than one; that of the protection of our coral reefs.
Our marine resources need our help.
An emerging disease scientists are calling Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD for short), is affecting stony corals in our regional waters. As the name suggests, this disease impacts stony coral, which are the key structures that gives the reef its complexity, provides protection from storms and is the home to many fish and invertebrate species. This disease affects the slowest growing and longest-lived reef building corals. As documented, the disease impacts twenty two (22) species such as the iconic brain corals, star corals, and pillar corals just to name a few. Once found within an area, it rapidly spreads amongst other stony corals. It first appears as white patches over the coral, attacking their living tissue, leaving behind, its white remains. These patches represents that the coral polyp has died. Unlike other coral disease such as coral bleaching, if the disease is left untreated, the coral cannot recover.
How did this disease find its way to The Virgin Islands?
The outbreak was first observed along the Florida Reef Tract in 2014 and using the prevailing currents, the extent of the outbreak has rapidly spread across reef to reef along the Florida Keys, Mexico, Belize and within the Caribbean in places such as Jamaica, Saint Maarten, the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos Islands, the neighbouring US Virgin Islands and as of May 17th 2020, the British Virgin Islands. Reports revealed that the disease spread faster within the US Virgin Islands than it did in the Florida region, wiping out over 19 sq. miles of reef after it was first discovered on Flat Cay St. Thomas, September 2019 and the density of the damage has grown significantly. After learning that the disease spread to several locations North of St. John, field investigations revealed that it has spread to our popular dive sites such as, Angel Reef, Ring Dove, the Indians and at the Wreck of the Rhone, the only marine park in the Territory.
Mister Speaker, our Coral reefs are already stressed due to pressures of climate change, sedimentation loads from land reclamation and ocean acidification, which weakens their defense and makes coral reefs more susceptible to disease. SCTLD is a threat to the marine lives that depend heavily on reefs. The marine environment not only depends on healthy reefs but we as a people also depend on it. Our reefs are vital to our livelihood as it relates to tourism directly and indirectly, fisheries, coastal protection, and species diversity across the Territory as a whole. As such, we need to control and mitigate the spread of this unpredictable disease before our vibrant picturesque reefs turn into a desert wasteland of white rubble.
Mister Speaker, SCTLD is bacterial but it is not harmful to humans. However, human activities such as scuba diving and the exchange of ballast waters from infected areas to unaffected areas can contribute to its spread if proper caution isn’t adhered to. After discovering the outbreak was bacterial, treatments were developed to help corals recover. The treatment uses a small-scale ointment application of antibiotics, which is applied directly onto the lesion lines of the disease. Once treatments are applied, the antibiotics will begin to degrade of a rate of approximately 2% per day.
Mister Speaker, as the Ministry responsible for the Environment, we take this situation very seriously and although the Environment Unit has faced numerous challenges including not having their own vessel, as it was destroyed in 2017 by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and which has prohibited staff from conducting coral monitoring and the possibility of coral outbreaks on a regular basis, we hope to form a multi sectoral collaboration to address the situation. Our Officers have proposed the coordination of a Strike Team between the Ministry of Natural Resources Labour and Immigration, the National Parks Trust and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.
The Ministry has local trained personnel with experience in identifying the disease and can train others in doing so. We know it will be a costly ongoing venture but it is one we cannot allow to go untouched. Tourism is of vital importance to our country Mister Speaker but so is our dependence on the ocean for food and protection. We must work with great haste to recover our coral reefs.
Mister Speaker, this is an enormous task and I must emphasize that Government can not do this alone. However, we are the leading agent in this initiative. Therefore, we encourage dive operators and local NGO’s to assist by volunteering their time in helping document the disease when they are diving. We will be proposing the creation of a citizen science program so that when persons are diving and encounter an infected coral, persons will notice there’s on the ID tag, along with instructions and an ID number. This will inform them to take a photo of the coral, along with the ID tag and email it to a central point. By doing this, our local response team would be able to quickly identify if the coral is responded to the treatment, if retreatment is needed and if the disease has spread to other locations.
Mister Speaker, the BVI has over 84,000 sq kilometers of ocean space and approximately, 78,000 acres of reef. This area is critical to our existence but the government cannot do it alone. It needs to be a team effort where we all must work together in saving our reefs. Let us work together to save our Ocean, our Territory and ourselves! We ALL need to become more responsible about our natural environment as we have an obligation to do it for now and for generations to come.
Thank you Mister Speaker.