USGS - science for a changing world

Southeast Ecological Science Center

Biological Resources
U.S. Geological Survey Field Station
Virgin Islands National Park

In a Place and Time of Change

People at Virgin Islands National Park on St. John, as on many Caribbean islands, are concerned about the environmental changes that result from such disturbances as anchor damage to coral reefs, over fishing, the encroachment of exotic plants, sediment run-off from construction and loss of winter habitat for migratory birds. It is becoming increasingly important to be able to determine how these human-caused changes differ from and aggravate such natural disturbances as hurricanes, diseases and long-term fluctuations in environmental conditions.

The overall goal of the field station on St. John and those located throughout the world is to research long-term natural and anthropogenic changes in the marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Working with local, federal and international government agencies, universities and non-governmental organizations, field station staff provide data from basic and applied research projects that enable the National Park Service and other clients to best manage their biological resources.

Special Role

Through its own research and through cooperative agreements with other researchers, field station scientists have promoted a high level of research activity on coral reefs, seagrass beds, marine water quality, migratory birds, tropical soils, watershed erosion, hurricane effects, dry forest restoration, endemic and endangered plants, and the effects of fishing. The staff's expertise on tropical marine ecology is not found elsewhere in the National Park Service or Biological Resources.

The field station is headquartered at the Biosphere Reserve Center in Virgin Islands National Park on St. John, one of very few Caribbean islands where it has been possible to do long-term research on relatively undisturbed forests and reefs. This unique environment enables field station scientists to operate one of the programs of integrated marine and terrestrial projects conducted over a period of time within a protected area, and few other programs include the combined efforts of so many agencies and individuals, within and outside the government.

Primary Focus

Primary responsibilities include coordinating and participating in a number of programs for long-term research and monitoring. These include the National Park Service/Biological Resources Division Inventory and Monitoring Program, Reef Fisheries Program, Reef Assessment Program, and other major research in sediment runoff, forest dynamics, and marine water quality.

Bacteria, Algae and Fungi Killing Living Coral Polyps
The black band on this head coral is a mixture of bacteria, algae and fungi which kills the living coral polyps, leaving the white skeleton open to colonization by other organism.

To build on and integrate several long-term research projects already underway by the Biological Resources team and by outside researchers with Biological Resources and National Park Service support, field station staff on St. John work with National Park Service resource management specialists to develop a comprehensive approach to inventory and monitoring activities in Virgin Islands National Park, Buck Island Reef National Monument and Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida.

Researcher Jeff Miller
Jeff Miller is taking videos of the St. John coral reefs, to follow the changes on the reefs.

National Park Service/Biological Resources
 Inventory and Monitoring Program

Reef Fisheries Program

Cooperative research by the Biological Resources, National Park Service, Jacksonville University and the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii has included studying the impact of trap fishing on reef fishes in Virgin Islands National Park and Buck Island Reef National Monument, and establishing the status of reef fishes around St. John. Study results indicate that the St. John fishery is overexploited, with grouper and snapper numbers extremely low. Whereas groupers and snappers used to dominate the catch, today it is overwhelmingly tangs, angelfishes and parrotfishes.  The number of fish per trap is down, as is the size of fishes caught.

Reef Assessment Program

The field station at St. John has one of the longest coral reef monitoring programs for the Atlantic/Caribbean, with core research focusing on natural and human disturbances to reefs around St. John and their recovery. The staff has worked with others to establish long-term coral reef and reef fish monitoring sites in Virgin Islands National Park, Buck Island Reef National Monument, Dry Tortugas National Park and Biscayne National Park to provide resource managers with urgently needed data about changes from natural and human-induced stresses so that they can more effectively control detrimental activities. To date, there has been no noticeable recovery from damage on the St. John reefs studied.

Diseased CoralIn July 1997, a new, apparently virulent and rapidly advancing coral disease was observed on a number of coral reefs: since then, field station scientist have been following the spread of the disease and fate of the infected coral heads. Samples of diseased mucus and tissue have been sent to marine microbiologist at Florida International University and the University of South Carolina-Aiken for isolation and identification of the pathogen. Disease has killed the coral polyps in the central area of this large head coral (Montastraea cavernosa). Low turf algae and larger macro algae have colonized the coral skeleton; the white area is coral skeleton where polyps have recently died and other organisms have not had time to colonize.

roadcutOther Major Research Projects

Sediment Runoff. To encourage more effective sediment control measures, field station scientist are monitoring water quality, coral reefs and seagrass habitats in Haulover Bay that are jeopardized by runoff from construction on a steep hillside. Other participants include a Colorado State University graduate student, National Park Service resource management specialists, the V.I. Coastal Zone Management Program and Island Resources Foundation.

Sediment from this road cut will quickly find its way into the nearshore waters of St. John, muddying the waters and settling on seagrass beds, live coral heads and other organism.

Marine Water Quality

Field station scientists have been collecting data on turbidity and other basic water quality parameters from 15 sites around St. John since 1988 and on nutrient levels since mid-1993. One objective is to document any changes in nutrient concentrations from sewage input or decreases in water clarity from sediment runoff. Not surprisingly, the bays with the worst water clarity are associated with developed watersheds.

All of the field station research programs have applicability beyond the local level. St. John data on marine resources can be compared with similar data from national parks and marine sanctuaries in Florida and the Caribbean, enabling a regional overview.

Cooperation with Other Agencies and Organizations

St. John field station staff have provided support to and/or worked cooperatively with researchers and resource managers at many government agencies and non-governmental organizations, including those listed below. Most of these agencies would be unable to conduct research within Virgin Islands National Park or Buck Island Reef National Monument without the local direct and in-kind contributions in the areas of scientific expertise, technical and logistical support. In many cases, relatively small amounts of funding or limited in-kind support from the Biological Resources have been used to support excellent long-term research.

Non-Governmental Organizations

Non-governmental organizations cooperating with the St. John field station include Island Resources Foundation, Virgin Islands Resource Management Cooperative, Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, The Nature Conservancy (building a Biological Conservation Data Center and The Oceanic Institute).

Governmental Agencies

Governmental agencies cooperating with the St. John field station include Florida Department of Natural Resources, coral reef work; NOAA (National Marine Fisheries Service), reef fish; USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, soil maps of the USVI; USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Coral Reef Initiative; U.S. Geological Survey, studies runoff, geology of the V.I., and reef ecology in Culebra, Puerto Rico.

The cooperation of federal government scientist with scientist from a number of universities has also provided excellent opportunities for high quality research. Numerous publications, reports and presentations at national and international meetings attest to the productivity of the St. John field Station. Cooperating universities include California State University-Northridge coral recruitment; Colorado State University, erosion; Florida International University; Jacksonville University, seagrass and fisheries studies; University of Rhode Island, nutrients in water and macro algae; and University of South Carolina-Aiken.

Plaque on Coral

This coral head has healthy tissue (brown), newly dead polyps (white skeleton), and skeleton which has been covered by algae (green-brown fuzz).

The disease which killed part of this coral colony,  is thought to be caused by a bacterium which attacks many species of head corals. The disease was first seen in Florida in 1996 and in St. John in July 1997.

Providing Guidance and Advice

The Superintendent of two U.S. Virgin Islands parks consults St. John field station scientist for research information relevant to park management issues and implementation of the international biosphere reserve program. The scientists advice on marine park management, and long-term research is also sought by the British Virgin Islands, other Caribbean sites and international coral reef scientist and managers.


St. John field station staff have provided training sessions on monitoring and resource management issues for park personnel from Anguilla, Antigua, Barbados, Belize, The British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, Dominica, Jamaica, Panama, Saba, St. Lucia, Trinidad-Tobago, The Turks and Caicos and Venezuela.

Coral reef expertise

St. John field station research is directly applicable to the Department of State Coral Reef Initiative and the Year of the Reef. St. John field station scientist initiated the National Park Service Reef Assessment Program for four national parks.

Expert Witnesses

St. John field station Scientists have served as expert witnesses in lawsuits filed by the National Park Service and the Department of Justice against cruise ship lines for reef damage within park waters and have obtained compensation for the park.

Scientist at VINP are following the growth and mortality of elkhorn coral juveniles.


Scientist at the St. John field station have produced a  110-page Coral Reef Monitoring Manual that has been distributed to over 500 individuals and agencies in countries throughout the world. The manual was a key resource document at the recent Coral Reef Initiative meetings in the Philippines and Jamaica and serves as the basis for the State of Hawaii Coral Reef Monitoring Manual.

CoralDr. Caroline Rogers, a marine biologist and the director of the St. John field station, has published several peer-reviewed papers; including (1992) "A matter of scale: damage from Hurricane Hugo" (1989) to the U.S. Virgin Islands reef at the colony, community and the whole reef level," Proc. 7th Int. Coral Reef Symp., 127-133. (1993) "Hurricanes and coral reefs: the intermediate disturbances hypothesis revised," Coral Reefs 12:127-137. (1197) A fishy story about hurricanes and herbivory: seven years of research on a reef in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, Proc. 8th Int. Coral Reef Sym 1:555-560. 91998) Coral Reefs of the U.S. Virgin Islands. In Mac, M.J., P.A. Opler, C.E. Puckett Haeker and P.D. Doran, eds. Status and trends of the nationīs biological resources, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Washington D.C.

Through a "Park to Park" cooperative arrangement, Ginger Garrison, a marine biologist at the St. John field station has written a field identification book on the fishes of the Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica; printing will be funded by the UNESCO. She has published three peer-reviewed papers: (1996) New Records of fishes at the Isla del Coco, Costa Rica, Bull. Mar. Sci. 58 (3): 253-256; (1998) Reef fishes of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. In Mac, M.J., P.A. Opler, C.E. Puckett Hacker and P.D. Doran, eds. Status and trends of the nations Biological Resources, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Washington D.C.; (1998) Of reef fishes, over fishing and in situ observations of fish traps in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, Rev. Biol. Trop.

Staff and Facilities

The St. John field station staff includes two permanent employees Dr. Caroline Rogers and Ginger Garrison both of whom are marine biologist with 14 years on St. John; one term employee, Jeff Miller; and two marine biologist on contract, Ellen Link and Rob Waara. Brendalee Phillips, also part of the research team, is based on St. Croix at NPS facilities.

The St. John field station shares and office building and basic lab facilities at the Biosphere Reserve Center with National Park Service Resource Management Specialists, with whom the field station staff works closely. All research sites can be reached within one hour of leaving the station. The field station has two research boats a 24-ft diesel lobster boat and a 22-ft Boston Whaler.

Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park


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