Zooplankton Abundance & Distribution in the Territory Has Never Been Studied, Until Now.

This image is a sampling of the zooplankton found in Brewers Bay, St. Thomas.

Under the direction of Virgin Islands’ native Dr. Sennai Habtes, professor of biological oceanography at The University of the Virgin Islands Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, Master of Science in Marine and Environmental Science candidate Mara Duke is studying zooplankton abundance and distribution surrounding Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, USVI.  This research is part of an ecosystem analysis study of Brewers Bay funded by VI EPSCoR’s Mare Nostrum program. The purpose of this overall study is to gain unique insight into how environmental conditions impact all levels of the ecosystem within a small coastal bay with highly diverse habitat types.


Mara takes monthly samples of zooplankton using a 500 micrometer net which is towed across the water column. The collected samples are sorted and stored for analysis in the lab.

Mara’s research includes monthly measurements of oceanographic conditions and samples of water quality at 33 stations in Brewers and Perseverance Bays, and at Flat Cay (the small island located to the Southwest of the Cyril E. King airport), as well as  identifying and quantifying the zooplankton from four plankton tows spread out among the study area.

The data on oceanographic conditions will be collected using a CTD, a common piece of oceanographic instrumentation that is a package of electronic instruments that measures salinity, temperature, depth, chlorophyll and turbidity. In addition water quality measurements of enterococci and fecal coliform bacteria, nutrient concentrations, and total suspended solids are taken on a quarterly basis by collecting water samples and analyzing them at the Environmental Analysis Laboratory (EAL).

Mara prepares to deploy a Niskin which tests for nutrients, bacteria and total suspended solids in the water.

The findings of this research will lead to a better understanding of seasonal and environmental influences regulating zooplankton abundance and distributions. As an important level towards the base of most marine food webs, and understanding changes in this group of organisms, can have important implications for how things like climate change, episodic events like hurricanes, and natural seasonal variation affect coastal ecosystems, and how those will in turn affect higher levels in marine food webs. Time-series data on zooplankton abundance surrounding the USVI has never before been undertaken and will provide critical information. Potentially, this information can help guide fisheries and environmental management and policy within the territory.

In addition to Mara’s work in the Oceanographic Research Laboratory at UVI (“The Ocean Lab” for short), she was one of four graduate students invited to take part in the Coral Reef Ecosystem Research (CRER) research cruise onboard the NOAA research vessel Nancy Foster. This annual research cruise in USVI waters provided the opportunity to collects data on physical oceanography and larval reef fish abundance in an effort to understand the physical and biological processes that drive spawning and circulation of important commercial reef fish species in the territory.
From northern Wisconsin, Mara earned her undergraduate degree in Aquatic Biology, specializing in aquatic biology at the University of Wisconsin, Superior. A semester abroad in Fiji cemented her desire to pursue a masters in Marine Science. While at UVI she has worked with fellow candidate Danie to take a closer look at microplastics in the environment, specifically what microplastics are found in the water column.  Sadly, she finds approximately 30 – 40 pieces of poly rope in every sample. These ropes are commonly used for moorings, anchor lines and bouys, all directly related to the high boating activity seen in this area.
Mara at work on the Nancy Foster

The entire team at VI-EPSCoR is excited to learn of all Mara’s discoveries as she continues to forge ahead with this necessary and challenging project.

VI-EPSCoR is a territorial program of the National Science Foundation hosted by the University of the Virgin Islands. Mare Nostrum Caribbean was awarded funding by the NSF in August 2014. It presents a unique opportunity to address the implications of climate change in our Territory. This goal is achieved through support for coral reef research and emerging research areas including oceanography, watershed dynamics and human dimensions.  In addition, STEM programs are supported to help encourage a scientifically literate public. A critical priority is the development of an educated and skilled workforce.

Pride In Our Seas, Pride In Ourselves


Marine debris in the U.S. Virgin Islands is an ongoing (and gross) problem. We produce far too much trash at home, and lets face it, our trash collection system is dismal. Unfortunately, debris on beaches and coastal regions is common, particularly in our rainy season when runoff is high.

Overflowing trash bins are a common sight across the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, this debris can easily end up in our oceans, shorelines, and even our next meal.

We are pleased therefore that researchers at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) applied for and received more than $95,000 in funding for marine debris education and prevention from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The project is entitled Pride in Our Seas, Pride in Ourselves: Preventing Land-Based Sources of Marine Debris in the USVI through Educational Transformation and Community Engagement.


The Marine Debris Teachers Education Workshop brought together individuals from UVI and Oregon Sea Grant.

The project team, led by Dr. Kristin Wilson Grimes, Research Assistant Professor of Watershed Ecology at UVI, is dedicated to reducing land-based sources of marine debris through outreach and educational opportunities that engage schoolchildren and teachers in St. Thomas and St. Croix, and residents from across the three islands. Additionally, the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority (VIWMA) public relations and sanitation coordinators, and the Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service (VIMAS) have partnered with UVI in this effort.

At the Marine Debris Educator Workshop, Alicia Montgomery, VIMSIA, and Juelis Hodge, Lockhart Elementary School, examine a sample of microplastic beads that are found in many common household products, like face wash and liquid soaps. These microplastic beads can make their way into the oceans and may be consumed by the fish we eat, and even by corals.

The 18-month project was kicked off with a Marine Debris Educator Workshop at UVI on October 4, 2016. With the STEM Institute, twenty-seven teachers from St. Thomas and St. Croix were introduced to Oregon Sea Grant’s Marine Debris STEAMS curricula with the assistance of Oregon Sea Grant personnel. This curricula was adapted for the USVI by the project team, to include locally-relevant examples. Teachers will have the opportunity to provide feedback on the curricula and offer suggestions for its improvement over the project period.

MMES graduate students Vernita Smith and Kristen Ewan examine “beach boxes” which illustrate the quantity and variety of waste found on beaches Territory-wide.

The workshop helped enlighten educators to the prevalence and impact of marine debris and presented techniques and lessons they could then bring into the classroom. For example, “beach boxes” containing sand and debris collected from Brewers Bay Beach, St. Thomas, provided hands on examples of the variety and quantity of marine debris.

Moving forward, funding is made available to teachers who wish to partner with UVI MMES graduate students, VIMAS and VIWMA to explore creative ways to transfer information learned in the classroom to students and the island community. Some project ideas are student-created, upcycled art and installations, student-created public service announcements and informational displays at cultural events such as the St. Thomas/St. John Ag Fair, the St. Croix Ag Fair, Reef Fest and Carnival celebrations.

Currently, many students in the Virgin Islands know little about marine debris, its land-based sources, strategies for its prevention and how it matters to our ecosystems, communities and economy. Increased awareness of the direct impact of marine debris can help bring consciousness to behaviors that decrease land-based debris.


Join us on Thursday, December 8th for a Marine Debris Science Café event sponsored by VI-EPSCoR at the VI Children’s Museum. Led by Dr. Grimes, the informational talk will be followed by holiday activities.

UVI Graduate Student Explores Seagrasses’ Relationship With Carbon

Essential to life on Earth

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe. As we may remember from high school science, most carbon is stored in rocks, the rest can be found in the ocean, in plants, the atmosphere, and in fossil fuels. Under ideal situations, there is a natural, balanced exchange of carbon stored and carbon released into the environment: the “carbon cycle.” You may agree, however, that there is little in life that is ideal and balanced.

Human activity has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere considerably. The ocean is able to take in about half of that amount and retains much more carbon than it releases. Much of this carbon is filtered and deposited into the seabed where it can be stored for thousands of years.

Amelie Jensen, graduate student at the University of the Virgin Islands in the Master of Science Marine & Environmental Science program has undertaken the task of investigating carbon storage in seagrass habitats around the Virgin Islands. Originally from Maine, Amelie has chosen to do her graduate research at UVI specifically to work under the guidance of Dr. Kristin Grimes, Research Assistant Professor of Watershed Ecology, & Director of the Virgin Islands Water Resources Research Institute.

Blue Carbon


The term “blue carbon” refers to the carbon that is captured and stored in coastal, “blue” habitats like, mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass meadows. These habitats are particularly effective at removing CO2 from the atmosphere and do so at a rate that is 5 to 9 times greater than tropical forests. Plants in these ecosystems, absorb the carbon into their leaves and roots, putting most of it belowground in their soils where it is not easily re-released into the atmosphere, especially when these soils are trapped underwater.

Questions arise when we inquire as to which species of seagrass capture and store carbon most efficiently. Does blade shape impact carbon capture? If so, how?  At what rate is that carbon deposited and stored underground? These are the questions Amelie Jensen is asking. When we consider that native seagrass species are being displaced by the invasive Halophila stipulacea, right now in the USVI, these questions become particularly poignant. We just don’t know if or how this invasive species will affect marine carbon deposits in our Territory. Amelie’s research is the first-of-its kind for the US Virgin Islands.

Seagrasses play a vital role in coastal ecosystems. They form dense underwater fields, providing a vibrant environment for a variety of marine life, including critical habitat for turtles, juvenile fish, crabs and invertebrates. Amelie’s interest in marine carbon was fired by her past research in the salt marshes of Maine. Her interest was then further shaped by her studies abroad in Bonaire. Amelie notes that the fact her research largely takes place underwater adds an interesting and challenging dimension to this project, requiring her to be open to a new way of exploring and learning.
Amelie has received the necessary permits from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) and is excited to move forward with her research.
Turtle at the sea


http://ocean.si.edu/seagrass-and-seagrass-beds  http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/

St. Croix Comes Alive With a Weekend of Outreach

Our Ciguatera Science Café event at Club Comanche On The Boardwalk Friday, October 14th launched a weekend of outreach, education, and citizen science for the St. Croix community. Festivities continued on Sunday at the University of the Virgin Islands St. Croix Campus with World Food Day and a lionfish tasting dubbed “Taming The Lion of the Sea”.

Ciguatera Facts

VI-EPSCoR’s Outreach, Education, and Citizen Science Team presented the first in this season’s series of free Science Café events.  That evening on the Christiansted Boardwalk curious minds gathered to take in Dr. Tyler Smith’s presentation of “Ciguatera Facts”.  Ciguatera is a type of fish poisoning identified by a range of gastrointestinal issues and potential long lasting neurological problems as well.


Beginning with historical and geographical elements of ciguatera, Dr. Smith then steered an engaged audience into a discussion on current research conducted by the University Of The Virgin Islands on the local fish species most at risk of containing ciguatera toxins. Dr. Smith focused on where in the Territory ciguatera is most prevalent, which local fish species may get the toxin, and how VI consumers of fish may be affected and contract ciguatera poisoning.

The presentation ended with a lively video trivia game that allowed participants to guess whether the seven fish displayed in the video were considered “hot” meaning having lots of cigua-toxins or “cold” having less or no cigua-toxins. Two winning participants took home coveted lionfish cookbooks.

For those unable to attend the event you can learn more about ciguatera on Dr. Smith’s website.

UVI World Food Day

Expanding on Friday’s Science Café, VI-EPSCoR continued with an outreach event at UVI World Food Day. In collaboration with Dr. Bernard Castillo, UVI Associate Professor of Chemistry, and UVI Cooperative Extension Services 4-H, VI-EPSCoR coordinated a live cooking demonstration of fresh lionfish while Dr. Castillo conducted a presentation on the invasive lionfish and the risks they pose to our reef systems.

Two local chefs, Chef Mark Davis of Ocean View Café (Old Golden Rail Restaurant), and Chef Byron Harrigan, showcased how World Food Day onlookers can help combat this invasive species through consuming a fish that may be new to their diet and taste.

UVI World Food Day gives Chef Mark the opportunity to plate blackened lion fish for the crowds.

Chef Mark prepared a dry seasoning which he used to “blacken the lion” and seared it in a hot skillet. He paired the blackened lionfish with Italian style pasta, and the crowd loved it! Onlookers peppered the Chefs with questions and praise as Chef Mark stylishly explained in detail how the blackened lionfish was prepared.

“My best description”, said Migdalia, VI-EPSCoR Community Engagement Specialist, “is that it is light and flakey. It’s not a fishy tasting fish”.

Chef Byron serves lion fish and dumplings to some hungry customers at UVI World Food Day.

Chef Byron prepared a second lionfish dish which played on a local cultural favorite, Salt Fish & Dumpling. He prepared a mixture of sugar, salt, and lime juice in which he marinated lionfish fillets. He then lightly hand-torched the “cured” lionfish to give it a crispy exterior. The fish was paired with home-made sweet dumplings and covered in spicy creole sauce.

Folks were coming back for “thirds” and “fourths” and telling family and friends to come in the Great Hall to taste the lionfish specialty. World Food Day proved to be a wildly successful event and tasty way to round out the weekend.

The invasive lionfish is native to the Pacific Ocean and is wrecking havoc on our reef’s marine live. While the spines are poisonous, the flesh is not! To learn more about this voracious species and how you can help, visit The Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation.

Microplastics impact our environment and our lives.

Plastic Never Disappears

Since the early 1900’s, plastic has become a part of our everyday lives; some are useful and beneficial to us such as reusable water bottles and tupperware. However, many items are used only once and sometimes carelessly discarded into the environment by accident or intentionally. Once exposed to high temperatures and sunlight, the plastic material becomes brittle and can easily breakdown into smaller pieces. Through this process, the plastic continues to break down into smaller and smaller pieces – even into microscopic pieces called microplastics, but they never disappear.

Researchers have found that microplastics can be consumed by marine animals such as plankton, commercial fish, and even corals. In order to understand the impacts microplastics may have on the local marine life here in St. Thomas, UVI Marine Biology graduate student Danielle Lasseigne has focused her thesis on identifying and measuring the abundance of these microplastics on local beaches, coastal waters, and sand associated with coral reefs.

Originally from Southern California, Danie is in her second year of graduate research with the Center for Marine & Environmental Studies at The University of the Virgin Islands. Her thesis focus, Microplastic Abundance in St. Thomas, was inspired by the article Microplastic Ingestion By Scleractinian Corals describing a study showing corals have been found to ingest micro plastics. This type of research has never been undertaken here in the Territory  and Danie’s work has made an impression on some local agencies including the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and Coastal Zone Management. Jean-Pierre Oriol, Director of the Coastal Zone Management Program, has  subsequently provided a research assistantship using funds from the Department of the Interior’s Coral Reef Initiative, for Danie to Continue her work.


Seven beaches across St. Thomas, and one on Water Island are being examined to determine the degree of microplastic contamination at each location.  400 grams of sand from each sampled quadrant is collected and taken to the lab for processing. Additionally, Danie searches for microplastics in coastal waters and sand near coral reefs at each of the selected locations.

Danie (far right) and members of her team are prepping and organizing for sampling. The buckets are labeled with quadrant and transect number. At center is Allie Durdall, a UVI graduate student on St. Croix with a focus on the Salt Pond ecosystem and left, Mara Duke, who is quantifying zooplankton in Brewers Bay and the microplastics found in the zooplankton samples.

D’Kai Joseph, UVI undergraduate volunteer, collects the top layer of sand 1 cm deep. The white quadrant frame seen here provides a guide to the sample area. The sand is collected into the labeled bucket and taken to the lab for processing. It will undergo a series of density separation processes to separate plastic from natural materials.

It is interesting to note that plastics act somewhat as a magnet to certain toxins, and provide a breeding ground to bacteria. Plastic is more dense than other types of debris and more readily sinks to the ocean floor and onto coral reefs.  Here, they can be consumed by bottom dwelling creatures such as sea cucumbers, flounder, clams, and sea urchins, and absorbed into the sea grasses that turtles eat, as well as reef dwelling animals.  Ultimately, the fish we consume are part of this food chain, and therefore, so are we.

Danie hopes to inspire others to continue the research in St. Thomas and other communities around the Caribbean. Already we can see a discussion taking place nationally on the microbeads used in facial cleansing products which have recently been banned.

Thanks to an award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, Danie had the opportunity to discuss concerns about microplastics with participants at a Marine Debris Educators Workshop which took place at UVI this fall. She is accompanied by Mara Duke.

Danie is available to talk to schools or community members who are interested in learning more. And, you can help! Should you wish to volunteer to participate in this research Danie can be contacted at Danielle.Lasseigne@hotmail.com.

Further reading and additional source materials

The Complex Mixture, Fate and Toxicity of Chemicals Associated with Plastic Debris in the Marine Environment

Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans by Charles Moore and Cassandras Phillips

Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption

Quantitation of persistent organic pollutants adsorbed on plastic debris from the Northern Pacific Gyre’s ‘‘eastern garbage patch’’

Synthetic Sea: Plastic in the Open Ocean by Bill MacDonald

Corals face ‘slow starvation’ from ingesting plastics pollution, experts find

Microplastic particles threaten fish larvae

Single clothes wash may release 700,000 microplastic fibres, study finds





Coral nurseries are the key to Acropora survival in the USVI and worldwide

Throughout the Caribbean, two corals belonging to the Acropora family staghorn (A. cervicornis) and elkhorn (A. palmata) are species many people might not know much about, or the major role they play in the functionality and beauty in a coral reef ecosystem. The Staghorn coral gets its name from its complex yet rounded branches that look similar to deer antlers. Elkhorn has larger thicker branches that are flat similar to elk or moose antlers.
Occurring in shallow water around local bays and offshore islands in the US Virgin Islands, these two corals are easy to identify with light brown to orange color and sprawling branches. Within, these branches are teaming with life as they provide essential habitat and protection for countless fish and other marine species.

Elkhorn coral reef
Staghorn coral reef

These Corals are Under Threat

Despite the important ecological and economic benefits these corals provide, these and other species in the Caribbean are under threat. Compounding stressors include extreme temperature, pollution and disease. The cumulative effects of these stressors have resulted in a population decline of 80-98% in both Staghorn and Elkhorn corals since the 1980s.

Both species are now listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and listed as “critically endangered” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in 2008.

The continued loss of these coral ecosystems and the services they provide will weigh heavily on many Caribbean islands’ economies and the Virgin Islands is no exception. An economic report from Burke and Maidens 2004, estimated the total value of the ecosystem services coral reefs provide in the Caribbean between US$740 million to US$2.2 billion a year. Therefore, it just makes “cents” to do something to help these corals species come back from the brink of extinction. In light of this devastating decline, Acropora species now require active restoration to maintain and increase the populations until they can persist on their own.

Coral Nurseries Provide a Solution

UVI Marine Science graduate student Colin Howe monitors coral “trees”. These coral fragments will be transplanted to form new reef systems.

A relevantly new method of large scale coral restoration programs developed in the Red Sea in 1990’s known as “coral gardening” has increased in popularity within the Caribbean. Chelsey Young, a natural resource management specialist at NOAA and colleagues conducted a review of restoration efforts and research around the Caribbean. They showed that by 2012, 14 different Caribbean islands now contain over 60 coral nurseries. Coral nurseries, targeting mostly the Staghorn corals, contain underwater structures to attach corals to grow. Nursery methods take advantage of the natural process of asexual reproduction and the rapid growth rates of the Acropora to produce multiple colonies from a small sample taken from the wild.

St. Thomas is Home To Two Coral Nurseries

Coral fragments are outplanted in optimal locations. In about four years these fast growing corals will be old enough to reproduce on their own.

Here in St. Thomas, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has two coral nurseries. These nurseries are comprised of floating coral trees where the coral are hung and allowed to grow in optimal conditions. These conditions reduce macroalgae competition and predation from coral-eating organisms, and also increase light and water flow which the corals love. Additionally, being suspended in coral trees allows these corals to grow in every direction which lets them grow more complex branches. Once the corals get large enough, branches are clipped and transported in large buckets of fresh seawater to a new location.

Stopher Slade a coral reef restoration scientist at TNC has been working for with TNC for 5 years. Over the past few years he has taken on many students from the University of the Virgin Islands as interns, to teach the best way to care for and out-plant corals in St. Croix and St. Thomas. With a bit of practice, a single diver can plant up to 50 fragments on the reef in a single day. After about 4 years these fast growing corals will be old enough to reproduce on their own and help increase the coral population on their own. Another consideration for out-plant sites are locations were the currents will carry any offspring to other nearby shallow water habitats thus making these corals do the rest of the work.

Collaboration at Work

Coral fragments are ready to outplant.

The Nature Conservancy and the University of the Virgin Islands have collaborated to learn more about coral nurseries and to repopulate the local coral reefs. The main goal of TNC and other coral gardening programs are to replace as much of the corals that have been lost in the Caribbean as they can. Hopefully with more hard work and Caribbean-wide collaboration, enough corals will survive and persist on their own. Through internships and collaborative field work with UVI and TNC, 200 corals were planted in July 2016 alone. 6,148 more were planted prior to that by TNC. Current research on the distribution, resilience and growth of acropora corals in new locations can increase not only our understanding of these species, but also increase the likelihood that most of the fragments planted will reach sexual maturity. Together with innovative research, community awareness, and active community involvement, our hope is to return the Virgin Islands shallow reefs, back to breath taking, vibrant and diverse coral reefs, healthy and abundant fish population, but most importantly and a functioning marine ecosystem for future generations to enjoy.

This guest post was submitted by UVI Marine Science graduate student Colin Howe. Colin, featured in this article, is in his second year of graduate research and has devoted his thesis to the Acropora Coral.

Stopher Slade a coral reef restoration scientist at The Nature Conservancy and student Colin Howe are enroute to outplant site.

Mare Nostrum Caribbean

VI-EPSCoR – The Virgin Islands Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

The National Science Foundation  has provided funding for only 29 EPSCoR jurisdictions in the United States . VI-EPSCoR, hosted by the University of the Virgin Islands, is one of them.

VI-EPSCoR was awarded $20,000,000 by the National Science Foundation to implement the project Mare Nostrum Caribbean: Stewardship through Strategic Research and Workforce Development. This 5-year grant commenced August 1, 2014. We are excited to share with you, through this blog some of the incredible work being done in the Territory by VI-EPSCoR- funded researchers under this grant.

University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas Campus

The Scope of Mare Nostrum Caribbean

Mare Nostrum supports coral reef research that studies the interactions between physical, biological, and human factors to understand coral reef composition and its ecosystems from shallow waters to deeper offshore reefs. In particular, the research is focused into three areas: Dynamics, Disease, and Demographics. Additional emerging research areas include oceanography, watershed dynamics, and human dimensions.

VI-EPSCoR and VI-ISERP in Collaboration

VI-EPSCoR’s workforce development area is dedicated to supporting The Virgin Islands Institute for STEM Education Research and Practice (VI-ISERP) and its mission. The Institute fosters a cohesive research-based strategy for continued improvement in STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) education in the Territory. The long-term goal of the workforce development area is to improve the quantitative and scientific skills in the USVI workforce to strengthen economic competitiveness in STEM fields. The short-term goal is to significantly improve STEM education in the Territory at the 6-12 and University levels. Improved STEM education leads to a workforce that is better prepared to train for and work in STEM-related careers. VI-ISERP provides a collaborative infrastructure for STEM research.

To learn more about NSA’s EPSCoR program view their epscor_brochure.

To learn more about the University of the Virgin Islands visit www.uvi.edu.