Caribbean Corals and Sharks
Kinga Philipps visits the Virgin Islands Nature Conservancy to dive with Kemit-Amon Lewis, Coral Conservation Manager. They chat about TNC's important work for coral reefs, their struggle with the exploding lion fish population and how this has affected sharks in the area.
KINGA: Tell me about the work you do with the Virgin Islands Nature Conservancy. In particular some of the work you introduced me to while I was there.
Lol. Where do I start?
KEMIT: So, I’m the Coral Conservation Manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean Program. In this role, I lead the Conservancy’s coral restoration strategy and assist with the development and implementation of country-specific restoration programs. Across the Caribbean region, we are currently focused on taking our work to scale towards an increase in live coral coverage, enhancement of coral reef habitat and diversity, and re-creation of fish habitat, while helping the two threatened spices of elkhorn and staghorn corals to recover. While working towards that goal, we are also focused on improving the science and innovation of coral restoration, have assisted with the development of coral restoration policy, and encourage engagement through volunteer opportunities with TNC and with our PADI dive shop partners. We are also mindful that there are a number of threats that have caused the recent decline of Caribbean coral reefs. As such, and although coral restoration is key for the recovery of Caribbean reefs, programs to identify and eliminate or reduce manmade threats to reefs are critically important.
In addition to my role as strategy lead for the coral restoration program, I also manage the Jack and Isaac Bay sea turtle conservation program. We recruit volunteer associates yearly to monitor the recovering nesting population of green and hawksbill sea turtles on St. Croix east end beaches. This year we have teamed up with Savannah State University to deploy satellite tags on a few of our nesting female green sea turtles. We are now studying where they go between nesting on the Jack and Isaac Bay beaches and we will know where they migrate to once the nesting season has ended. (we are very excited about this)
I also manage the Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood Initiative on St. Croix. Created with a number of local partners, Reef Responsible is a market-driven approach to a sustainable seafood industry. Through the initiative, we provide training to local restaurants, which then make a commitment to adhere to local fishing regulations including seasonal closures and size restrictions. Over 15 restaurants have been certified as reef responsible so far and we plan to expand to St. Thomas/St. John in the near future.
KINGA: Explain the Reef Responsible initiative and why it is important for sustainability.
KEMIT: The Caribbean has historically harvested reef fishes and in recent years the modification of gear and advancement in other technologies has cause reef fishes to be overfished. Reef fishes are important to coral reefs, especially the herbivorous parrotfishes, ocean surgeon, blue tangs, and doctorfish that remove algae from reefs providing space for corals to settle and grow. The removal of these critical species, along with other threats, have lead to a change in Caribbean coral reefs from coral-dominated to now algae-dominated. Through the Reef Responsible Initiative, we provide training to local restaurant owners and chefs toward improved practices regarding the purchase of seafood to be used in their restaurants. The suggested “good choice” fishes, for example, are open-water or pelagic species such as dolphinfish, wahoo, and tuna as well as the invasive, non-native lionfish. We also share information on seasonal closures and size restrictions for reef fishes, lobster, whelk, and conch so at to improve compliance with local and federal fisheries regulation. In the near future, we hope to expand the program to include supermarkets and fishers. Through the initiative we continue to highlight those restaurants and eventually will highlight those supermarkets and fishers that make commitments to sustainable seafood practices.
KINGA: How has the lionfish invasion affected the shark population?
KEMIT: The behavior of sharks in the US Virgin Islands has changed since the invasion of the lionfish. This is attributed to lionfish hunters who began feeding their catch to sharks. Sharks, at a number of popular dive sites, are now more approachable and aggressive. The local Division of Fish and Wildlife has developed an education/awareness campaign to dissuade lionfish hunters from feeding sharks and encourage them to eat more lionfish.
KINGA: Are sharks helping to control the lionfish problem and/or how is this new food source affecting the apex predators?
KEMIT: At this point it is still unknown if sharks are helping to control lionfish in the USVI. Although we know sharks feed on dead lionfish, there is still no documentation of sharks actively hunting for and feeding on lionfish. Lionfish will, however, continue to disrupt whatever balance is left on our local reefs as they eat everything smaller than themselves.
KINGA: What are some of the factors people don't understand when they hear "We suddenly have more sharks because of the lion fish."
KEMIT: I’m not convinced that we have more sharks. What I think is occurring is that the sharks are more willing to approach divers and are even observed shallower than normal in an effort the feed on pre-killed lionfish.
KINGA: What shark conservation measures are being taken in the Caribbean?
KEMIT: There are a number of shark conservation and research efforts on-going across the Caribbean in most countries. Conservation efforts typically involve the creation of policies, which may include management of the fisheries, the prohibition of harvest, and/or the creation of sanctuaries or no-take zones on national and international levels. There is also on-going research across the Caribbean to better understand the migratory patterns of sharks so as to better protect them throughout their entire range and life history. The struggle with all of this, of course, is the black market for shark fins.
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