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U.S. Department of the Interior - Office of Insular Affairs
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Office Of Insular Affairs Awarded Grant For Marine Lab Project in The United States Virgin Islands

December 8, 2009
For more information please contact:
Dr. Karen Koltes 202 208-5345
Tanya Harris Joshua (202) 208-6008

Washington, D.C. – On Monday, November 23, 2009, Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Tony Babauta awarded $1.25 million to support the proposed Salt River Bay Marine Research and Education Center (MREC) at the Salt River Bay National Heritage Park and Ecological Preserve (SARI), a unit of the National Park Service on St. Croix in the United States Virgin Islands.  Combined with earlier grants, the Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs has contributed more than $2 million toward this initiative.

"Around the world, coral reefs are under stress from a variety of sources, including climate change, overfishing, damage from boats, and pollution," Babauta said at a ceremony announcing the grant at Salt River Bay.  "This is especially true in the Caribbean, where many coral reef ecosystems have faced growing threats to their very survival in the past couple of decades," he said.

"As Interior's Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas and more importantly as a fellow islander, whose people, like you, have relied on the reefs for recreation, protection, a source of food, and a way to reach back to remind ourselves of our cultural heritage and history, I have a deep concern about the decline of coral reefs," Babauta said.  "I join you in this cause and will work our partners both in the United States and abroad to conserve these fragile ecosystems through improved monitoring, research, education and on-the-ground conservation."

The grant will support the proposed $54 million research and education facility, which is being developed as a partnership project among the Joint Institute for Caribbean Marine Sciences (JICMS), the National Park Service, the Office of Insular Affairs, the Government of the Virgin Islands and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The JICMS is a consortium of four universities (University of North Carolina Wilmington, University of Virgin Islands, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and University of South Carolina) that have worked together since 1999 to build a world class marine research and education center on St. Croix.

In addition to undergraduate and graduate courses, the MREC would provide the NPS Caribbean park units with invaluable support for research and monitoring, critical coastal and ocean resources within and surrounding the parks. The MREC would provide the Government of the Virgin Islands, the JICMS and NPS with a facility to provide and support marine education programs for local students (including a K-12 program) and enable NPS to lead public environmental education and outreach programs, from waysides to tours, and contribute to the training of resource specialists who could work for NPS or other federal agencies in the Virgin Islands.

In 1999, DOI entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with JICMS and NOAA to establish the MREC.  Through the MOU, the partners have agreed to cooperate (1) to aid in the understanding of the marine environment, including coral reef ecosystems; (2) to promote marine education and public awareness; and (3) to assist in the development of appropriate public policy within the Caribbean.

St. Croix has had a long relationship with marine research.  Marine research activities began in the late 1960s and early 1970s and provide some of the oldest available data on coral reefs.  Some of the world's leading investigators gathered these data at the former marine laboratories on St. Croix – Fairleigh Dickinson's West Indies Laboratory and the NOAA National Undersea Research Program (NURP) habitats "Hydrolab" and "Aquarius."  These scientific records are rare for their duration (approximately two decades), quality and record of reef conditions prior to the massive changes to the coral reef that began in the late 1980s.  Collectively they provide an extraordinary opportunity to compare current ecosystems trends to historic baselines.

Salt River Bay also has extensive cultural significance.  The Bay is an important archaeological site for the indigenous Tainos, with remains of two pre-historic villages and an ancient ball court.  More than 500 years ago, on November 14, 1493, Christopher Columbus' party came ashore at Salt River Bay.  It is the only site now in U.S. territory visited by Columbus' party.

In 2003, the St. Croix East End Marine Park was established as the USVI's first territorial park.  It encompasses 60 square miles, including five square miles of no-take areas, and abuts the south side of Buck Island Reef National Monument.  Together these marine park areas protect one of the largest coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean, as well as critical foraging area and nesting beaches for the four species of sea turtle, including one of the few recovering hawksbill sea turtle nesting populations.   

The JICMS is completing a Strategic Business Plan for the MREC and is working with NPS through the Partnership Construction Process to complete a fundraising plan, raise funds for design and construction, and operate the center when it is built.