Threats to Marine Ecosystems

Many of our marine, and coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, estuaries, salt marshes, and coral reefs are threatened by recreational use, fishing, climate change, land-based sources of pollution, and lack of public awareness. The three main stressors of coral reefs and their resources in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and wider Caribbean are fishing impacts, land-based sources of pollution, and climate change.

  • Recreational use: The use of our marine ecosystems for recreational activities can harm coral reefs. The breakage of coral colonies and tissue damage can occur from direct contact such as walking, touching, kicking, standing, or gear contact. Boat anchors can also cause considerable damage to coral reefs, including coral breakage and fragmentation.
  • Fishing: The waters around the Virgin Islands are home to an abundance of marine life. There are several regulations regarding protected areas, fishery species, and size and catch limits in place to help manage and protect local fisheries.
  • Climate change: Climate change is anticipated to add to the stresses on our coastal environment from the things like development by altering temperature and precipitation patterns, increasing the likelihood of extreme precipitation events, and accelerating rates of sea level rise. The ocean absorbs a significant portion of carbon dioxide generated through human activities. Carbon dioxide can cause ocean acidification, which is particularly harmful to coral species, shellfish, and planktonic organisms that create shells or exoskeletons. Tropical storms and heavier rainfall may increase as climate changes as well, which could also result in physical damage to coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems
  • Land-based sources of pollution: Land-based pollution has adverse effects on coral reefs and associated habitats, but limited studies have been done to address the role of recreational activities in exacerbating these effects. The use of agricultural fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels, also present threats to marine ecosystems, primarily coastal systems. The runoff of fertilizers and petroleum products can result in harmful impacts to a variety of marine species including fish, corals, and other invertebrates, resulting in ‘dead zones.’
  • Lack of public awareness: Many individuals do not understand how the activities they engage in can and have impacted coral reef habitats upon which we depend. It is important to build awareness of the importance of coral reefs & teach and encourage positive behaviors that will protect and nurture them through:

Here are some links for additional information on the ‘lack of public awareness’ to the threats to marine ecosystems:

LOCAL ACTION STRATEGY: LACK OF PUBLIC AWARENESS U.S. Virgin Islands

Marine Outreach and Education US Virgin Islands Style (MOES-VI)


Endangered Species and Essential Fish Habitat

In the Virgin Islands there are about 500 different species of fish that inhabit our waters, each with its own ecological part to play. Coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and mangrove roots, are all important habitats for fish. These habitats provide food, shelter, and nursery areas for fish at various stages of their lives. Habitats for important fishery species are protected under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act through the essential fish habitat (EFH) amendment. In addition to EFH protections for fishery habitat, 7 coral species are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Sea turtles are also protected under the ESA.

Helpful links for ESA:

U.S. Virgin Island’s Threatened and Endangered Species

NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional office Protected Resources Division

Helpful links for EFH:

NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office Habitat Conservation Division