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The U.S. Virgin Islands attracts more than two million people each year, most of whom are eager to explore the white sandy beaches and tropical marine ecosystems, including coral reefs. 

However, coral reefs around the world, including those in the U.S. Virgin Islands, are experiencing a variety of stressors including increased sea surface temperature, disease, and a variety of environmental contaminants. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been conducting projects on St. John, USVI, to learn more about potential contamination in the waters of the Virgin Islands National Park (VIIS) and the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument (VICR) to help the National Park Service (NPS) manage these important protected areas.

Montastrea annularis in the U.S. Virgin Islands
Montastrea annularis in the U.S. Virgin Islands; image taken while detritus sampling from coral reef

Natural resource managers from the NPS are concerned with the negative effect of contaminants, including sunscreen chemicals worn by beachgoers, on sensitive coastal habitats such as coral reefs.  Several studies conducted by the USGS in collaboration with the VIIS have begun addressing these concerns. Coral tissue, fish, plankton, detritus, and water were collected from multiple bays of the VIIS and VICR, and then analyzed for a variety of contaminants to get a general understanding of the presence of contaminants in these areas.  The USGS is also investigating the potential presence of a banned component of anti-fouling paints in sediments in a couple bays within the VIIS. Anti-fouling paints are commonly applied to the bottoms of boats to help prevent marine organisms such as barnacles or algae from growing and potentially damaging the vessel.  Other research includes assessing nutrient enrichment through the collection and analysis of water and algae samples from several bays and investigating the presence of sunscreen chemicals in coastal waters to better understand the possible risk of those chemicals for the aquatic plants and animals.

The studies have revealed that compounds used in chemical sunscreen are detectable in marine waters near high-use beaches on St. John. The impact of these chemicals is not yet known, but the USGS continues to investigate how these chemicals might affect coral reefs and the species that rely upon them.

Learn more about the study here.

USGS scientist collects water samples for contaminant analysis in the US Virgin Islands
USGS scientist collects water samples for contaminant analysis in the US Virgin Islands

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