East End Marine Park, the first territorial park in the U.S. Virgin Islands, will protect the largest island barrier reef system in the Caribbean. Legislative approval recently made the area an official park. Extending from the high-water mark out three miles (4.8 kilometers), it encompasses 60 square miles (155.4 square kilometers) of offshore coral reef and other marine habitat and includes the last six miles (10 kilometers) of the eastern end of St. Croix with approximately about 12 miles (20 kilometers) of coastline. The park includes about five square miles (13 square kilometers) of “no-take areas,” which are off limits to any fishing and harvesting. A turtle refuge will extend about a mile (1.6 kilometers) into the Caribbean Ocean from the shoreline of the island’s primary hawksbill and green turtle nesting beaches on Jack Bay, Isaac Bay, and East End Bay.
St. Croix reefs, like those in most of the Caribbean, are dominated by elkhorn and staghorn corals, and various species of brain, lettuce, finger, star and starlet corals. Since the early 1980s, these hard corals have been in decline and are being replaced with macroalgae, fire corals, and species such as sea whips, sea rods, and sea plumes. Turtle grass is the dominant tropical sea grass off the shores of St. Croix. Manatee and shoal grasses are less abundant, but do thrive in sandy shoals.
An estimated 400 species of fish live in and around the East End. Predatory fish such as grouper, snapper, shark and barracuda, and algae-eating fish such as parrot fish, doctor fish and surgeon fish rely on the reefs and sea grass beds for food and shelter and as a breeding ground. The park is also home to endangered green, hawksbill, and leatherback turtles. Some 17 species of nesting seabirds, such as shearwaters, tropicbirds, boobies, pelicans, frigate birds, gulls and terns, rely on East End Park for food and shelter.
The Nature Conservancy has developed a management plan to guide the future of East End Marine Park to protect species endangered by poaching (such as turtle egg poaching); pollution and erosion caused by construction, which sends soils, pollutants, and excess nutrients into the Caribbean Sea destroying coral reefs; overfishing and damage caused by careless divers and boaters; and destruction of the wetlands.
For full article and photo by Nancy Sefton, see http://www.nature.org/wherewework/caribbean/easterncaribbean/wherewework/art8687.html