New federal effort launched to protect Caribbean reefs


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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched an interagency initiative to protect coral reefs off the shores of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The newly formed Caribbean Coral Reef Protection Group, comprising representatives from a number of federal and local agencies, plans to take comments from the public during a meeting next month.

The Caribbean Coral Reef Protection Group was formed to coordinate efforts to protect coral reefs in a way that uses resources wisely, according to a statement the EPA released Tuesday.

"The coral reefs of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are renowned for their beauty, and their ecological and economic value," EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck said in the release. "Unfortunately, these treasures are being destroyed. By working with our fellow governmental agencies, the EPA will help make sure coral reefs continue to contribute to the region's economy and ecology for generations to come."

The agencies that will be part of the group include the EPA, the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Conservation Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

EPA spokesman John Martin said Enck "has a particular interest in making sure reefs are protected. It's important for the economy and ecology of the Caribbean."

He said that the EPA has different tools to protect the coral reefs, most notably the Clean Water Act. EPA wants to make sure all the agencies are working together efficiently to benefit the coral reefs.

"We want to be sure we're doing things efficiently, that we're not duplicating efforts," Martin said. "We want to make sure we're working together in an efficient manner."

Coral reef ecosystems throughout the Caribbean are being damaged by a growing number of problems, such as overfishing, sediment runoff, pollution, disease and climate change, which causes the water to become warmer and more acidic, according to the EPA. The interagency initiative will try to implement measures to reduce the stresses that can be controlled locally to improve coral health, according to the EPA statement.

"Climate change has gotten worse," Martin said. "This is something we felt, with the tools we have, that we could do a better job to protect these reefs."

The public meeting - which the EPA is calling a public "listening session" - is scheduled for 1 p.m. Feb. 25 on St. Thomas, with the location to be announced, Martin said.

The plan is to have video linkups on St. Croix and in Puerto Rico, Martin said.

Members of the Coral Reef Protections Group will be there to hear the discussions and concerns of community groups and citizens about the state of coral reefs throughout the territories, Martin said.

The EPA plans to announce details of the meeting in February, he said.

To sign up to speak at the Feb. 25 meeting, or for more information, contact Charles LoBue at 212-637-3798 or by email at lobue.charles@epa.gov.

LoBue "will be a sounding board, to collect some of the thoughts and concerns people have," Martin said.

Additional meetings, if needed, could take place in the future, Martin said.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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