The Tide is Turning on Marine Debris in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Posted Thu, 03/25/2021 - 11:00

Guest blog by: Howard Forbes Jr., Extension Specialist, Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service and Elisa Lacatena, Communications Specialist, Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research

An island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea is an idyllic place to live and visit, but islands can be particularly vulnerable to marine debris. The effects of marine debris can be seen in everyday life in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), from the visible debris on our beaches, to the economic toll that it can take on our tourism industry.

The prevalence of marine debris in the USVI is a persistent issue community, government, and private institutions have been addressing since the 1980’s. In the USVI, approximately 90% of marine debris comes from land-based sources, meaning prevention and education are key! Data from beach cleanups show the most common marine debris items are plastic bottles, glass bottles, and bottle caps. The territory is addressing this head-on through education and action. There have been a variety of efforts to reduce marine debris: from new territorial laws, to building awareness of the problem, to better planning and coordination of response to disaster-generated marine debris.

A current project led by the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is removing marine debris from sensitive mangrove habitats on St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. In 2018, the first Great Mangrove Cleanup was hosted in the St. Thomas East End Reserve (STEER). Compared to a 2016 territory-wide cleanup, volunteers removed seven times more plastic beverage bottles, 15 times more miscellaneous plastic bottles (i.e., cleaning bottles), and eight times more plastic cups per mile in the mangrove shorelines in 2018. After discovering how much more debris there was in the STEER mangroves compared to beaches, we realized that mangroves may be more susceptible than first thought.

Mangrove roots above the ground.
Mangroves in the St. Thomas East End Reserves, a marine protected area and NOAA priority watershed (Photo: Kristin Wilson Grimes).

Mangroves create a jungle-gym of roots above the ground, and it is much easier for debris to get caught there compared to sandy beaches. This root-maze also makes them harder to clean, meaning these shorelines often get overlooked when planning a cleanup. As a result, the 2nd Annual Great Mangrove Cleanup in STEER was organized in 2019, along with an expansion to St. Croix mangroves for the first time in 2020. The Great Mangrove Cleanups provide a visual link that illustrates how our actions on land affect sensitive coastal habitats in the USVI. Engagement at this level can be a powerful tool, however, cleanups alone won’t prevent marine debris.

In addition to the Great Mangrove Cleanups, UVI is leading the development of a USVI Marine Debris Action Plan to create a strategic framework to address marine debris and increase collaboration between stakeholders in the territory. The first of two stakeholder workshops was hosted in 2020, with approximately 80 participants from various governmental, non-governmental, and private industries, convening to provide their input on the Action Plan’s goals and strategies. Once completed later this year, the synergistic efforts of the Action Plan and the Great Mangrove Cleanups together will work to reduce the negative impacts of marine debris in the USVI.

In the meantime, you can have an immediate impact on reducing marine debris in coastal habitats. Most debris in the USVI comes from single-use drink-ware, but the good news is that you can help! Whether you live near or far, make a commitment to reduce your usage of common marine debris items and learn more about other UVI removal and prevention efforts.

Take the USVI Marine Debris Pledge by reusing beverage containers, recycling them, or if you have to throw them away, making sure they get into a proper waste receptacle. Together we can make a difference!

—Dr. Kristin Wilson Grimes