The Caribbean region contains nearly 120 million people who live within 100 km of coastal areas 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 good 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.
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.
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 surrounding 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? A new research focus on Integrated Caribbean Coastal Ecosystems (ICCE), beginning in the fall of 2008, aims to fill these gaps.