Today, Dr. Richard Nemeth, a specialist in ecology and management of tropical fisheries and coral reefs, and the Director of the Maclean Marine Science Center at the University of the Virgin Islands, took us out on his sailboat. He took us for a sail around a few of the small islands surrounding the southern side of St. Thomas. After serving as his crew to sail out to Flat Cay, a small, uninhibited island, and federally-protected bird sanctuary, we moored to a fixed buoy, thus avoiding the need to drop anchor onto the spectacular, yet fragile, coral reef below. We saw a bewildering diversity of fish, echinoderms, crustaceans, coral, and sponges. Dr. Nemeth graciously and expertly pointed out a number of interesting species. For instance, he pointed out a school of Blue-Headed Wrasse, and explained that their unusual closely-synchronized swimming pattern was part of a mating ritual, in which as many as twenty male fish attempted to follow a single female fish to fertilize the eggs she occasionally released into the water. Although comical to watch, this mating aggregation behavior is crucial to producing the next generation of this species on the coral reef. Dr. Nemeth also drew our attention to endangered Fused Staghorn Coral (Acropora prolifera), a rare species of coral that results from the hybridization of endangered Elkhorn Coral (Acropora palmata) and Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis). In addition, he showed us a coral nursery set up by The Nature Conservancy intended to produce individuals of these three coral species that can be used to establish new populations where they have previously been wiped out. We were also very excited to see, and swim with, two Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas), an inspiring sight because these turtles are currently making a comeback in the waters surrounding the Virgin Islands.
After sailing back to the docks at the Maclean Marine Science Center, Dr. Nemeth showed us a captured Red Lionfish (Pterois voltans). Red Lionfish are an increasingly problematic invasive species in the Virgin Islands, and throughout the Caribbean, and anyone spotting one of these fish in the wild is strongly encouraged to report their sighting to the fish and wildlife authorities. Native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Red Lionfish has rapidly spread throughout the Caribbean Sea after Hurricane Andrew smashed a Miami aquarium, spilling six individual Red Lionfish into the Atlantic Ocean who subsequently spawned the entire invasive plague. Since the Red Lionfish has no natural predators outside its natural range, and each individual is capable of consuming vast numbers of coral reef fish, its spread is currently devastating native fish biodiversity in the Caribbean region. Though beautiful, this fish symbolizes the current lack of effective legal responses to the threat of invasive species.Stay tuned for more daily dispatches.