USVI Coral Reef Research and Restoration Efforts

Uncategorized / May 8, 2024

Sadly, like so many places around the world, the coral reefs and marine ecosystems in the USVI have suffered significant losses! The causes, unfortunately, mostly lead back to human impact on climate, water quality and resource exploitation. Thankfully there are some incredibly dedicated people working to understand the sources of decline and a strategy for revitalizing these once-thriving marine biospheres.

We’d like to thank Dan Mele Photography for sharing his incredible award-winning images so that we might share them with you! All photos are © Dan Mele Photography. Follow Dan on Instagram at @dan_mele_photography

Coral Ailments and Revitalization

The scourge of coral disease has, in recent decades, emerged as a primary catalyst for the untimely demise of these vibrant marine ecosystems. The advent of stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) in the U.S. Virgin Islands stands as a poignant testament to the havoc wreaked by such afflictions. Swift and contagious, SCTLD inflicts rapid devastation upon coral colonies, impacting over twenty distinct coral species. Delving into the intricacies of why certain species succumb to SCTLD allows us to forecast the disease’s trajectory and its profound consequences. Concurrently, our efforts are geared towards combating coral losses through proactive coral restoration, with a focus on leveraging scientific insights to kickstart the healing process for these pivotal habitats.

Coral Disease in the USVI: Navigating Challenges

While climate change looms as the overarching threat to coral reef sustainability, local influences also shape the resilience of these ecosystems to global shifts. Rising ocean temperatures amplify disease severity, but the maintenance of clean water conditions provides corals with a fighting chance against infections. The Coral Disease and Restoration Lab serves as a bridge from student aspirations to professional scientific endeavors. Natasha Bestrom’s journey, from an MMES graduate student to a full-time UVI staff member, exemplifies the lab’s role in fostering successful careers. Additionally, our collaboration with the Lovango Beach Club & Resort seamlessly blends active coral restoration with science communication and outreach, inviting both visitors and locals to engage in a coral restoration initiative while contributing invaluable data to the scientific community.

Restoring Coral Vitality Amid Climate Flux

Our research involves extensive coral sampling and disease transmission experiments, unraveling the intricate dynamics of susceptibility across species and the influence of water quality parameters, including thermal stress. Unlike conventional water quality monitoring programs focused solely on surface samples, we delve into the depths to quantify water quality dynamics at the coral level. This comprehensive approach, integrating coral population dynamics and microbial patterns, elucidates how water quality shapes coral health. Diverse species exhibit varying tolerances to environmental changes, impacting their resistance to diseases. Our ongoing investigations assess how disease propagation in a region is contingent upon the species composition of its constituent reefs.

Adapting Restoration Strategies in the Face of Challenges

The aftermath of disease and other stressors has spurred Caribbean islands to embrace coral restoration, traditionally emphasizing fast-growing branching corals. However, the severe impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 necessitates a reevaluation of restoration strategies. As such, our research advocates for the diversification of approaches to coral reef restoration. A coral’s disease resistance and a restored coral’s chances of survival are intricately linked to the surrounding environment. Local stressors, such as pollution and climate-induced temperature extremes, compromise coral resilience, diminishing their ability to resist infections or thrive post-restoration. Identifying crucial environmental factors affecting disease susceptibility and restoration success guides targeted management and restoration efforts, steering these invaluable marine ecosystems toward a resilient future.

© Dan Mele Photography


VI EPSCoR has been an NSF EPSCoR jurisdiction since 2003.
Pioneering Scientific Advancements for Sustainable Growth in the U.S. Virgin Islands

At the core of the Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VI-EPSCoR) lies a steadfast vision: the fortification of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ scientific prowess and its integral role in fostering economic prosperity. Our mission is twofold — to elevate the caliber and quantity of nationally competitive research and to cultivate a robust STEM-educated workforce adept at addressing the unique challenges our islands encounter.

Our strategic approach involves the bolstering of the Territory’s physical and human assets through targeted investments in marine and environmental research, policy formulation, education, outreach, and the establishment of robust partnerships. We are acutely aware that the well-being of our marine and environmental ecosystems is synonymous with a flourishing and sustainable future for the Territory.

To bring our vision to fruition, we engage in research endeavors that serve as the bedrock for informed natural resource management decisions. Simultaneously, we enhance research infrastructure, creating a robust foundation for groundbreaking scientific inquiries. Recognizing the transformative power of education, we strive to increase student involvement in STEM activities, molding the next generation of scientific leaders.

Crucially, our success hinges on the creation of synergistic partnerships between researchers, policy makers, educators, and the broader community. By fostering collaboration, we harness collective expertise to amplify the impact of National Science Foundation (NSF) investments. These collaborative ventures not only enrich scientific inquiry but also cultivate a shared commitment to the preservation and sustainable utilization of our natural resources.

In essence, VI-EPSCoR is not merely an initiative; it is a catalyst for positive change. Through strategic research, educational empowerment, and community collaboration, we aspire to forge a resilient path towards a future where the U.S. Virgin Islands stands as a beacon of scientific excellence, economic vitality, and environmental stewardship.

VI Reef Response at Lovango Cay

Embarking on a Coral Conservation Journey at Lovango Cay

While Lovango Cay has long been a sought-after destination for its oceanfront dining and tranquil poolside retreats, a new dimension is unfolding—an opportunity for visitors to delve into the critical mission of safeguarding the U.S. Virgin Islands’ coral reefs through hands-on coral restoration initiatives.

A groundbreaking collaboration between the University of the Virgin Islands’ V.I. Reef Response program and the esteemed Lovango Resort & Beach Club has given rise to three distinct zones encircling the cay, where the intricate dance of coral restoration and scientific exploration takes center stage.

The nursery zone, strategically positioned in a serene, sandy enclave on the island’s southern expanse, west of the dock, serves as a haven for cultivating faster-growing coral species. Protected from predation and undue stress, this area is dedicated to nurturing corals that will eventually be harvested and transplanted onto degraded sections of the reef—an oasis of renewal in the heart of the ocean.

Venturing to the island’s southern side, east of the docks, where accessibility is challenged by tricky terrain and robust currents, restoration experiments are underway. Diverse coral species coexist in this dynamic environment, their interactions meticulously observed to unravel the intricacies of mutual influence. Concurrently, experiments featuring sponges and other water-filtering organisms seek innovative avenues to mitigate coral disease, marking a pioneering stride toward resilient reef ecosystems.

The northern waters surrounding Lovango Cay host the restored zone—a canvas where V.I. Reef Response endeavors to populate the seascape with a myriad of corals. This living laboratory not only measures the impact of the reef on the shoreline but also gauges the rapidity with which the reef and its associated organisms can rebound, echoing nature’s resilience.

On the island itself, a tapestry of educational signage unfolds, enlightening visitors about the formidable challenges confronting coral reefs and underscoring the paramount importance of coral restoration. This immersive experience aims to kindle awareness and foster a sense of responsibility, nurturing a collective commitment to the preservation of these underwater wonders. Lovango Cay beckons not just as a retreat but as a sanctuary where the beauty of nature intertwines with the tireless pursuit of coral conservation, inviting all to be stewards of the sea.


Follow Dan on Instagram @dan_mele_photography

Dan Mele Photography
Science Photographer/Filmmaker / Tech Diver / Drone / MSc Coral Restoration

VI-EPSCoR promotes the development of the U.S. Virgin Islands science and technology resources through multi-disciplinary research and education.

Reef Response
Nonprofit organization focusing on coral restoration and citizen science in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.


Legislation enacted in March 30, 2020: The US Virgin Islands full ban on sunscreens containing the Toxic 3 Os … Oxybenzone, Octinoxate and Octocrylene as well as sprays, powders and SPF 50+ goes into effect.

Not sure which products are Reef Safe? No worries. You’ll find local shelves, including Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park Store and Just Beach,  stocked with a wide range of reef safe products. For more information:

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