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Keeping the Peace

Keeping the Peace Among The Reefs

For two weeks in May—year after year—Trish Baily wakes with the rising sun to document the health of the islands’ intricate reef systems, from the western edge of Norman Island to the eastern tip of Tortola. Fourteen years ago, the expert diver and veteran marine preservationist brought the international marine movement Reef Check to the British Virgin Islands—an effort that initially started with a few volunteers and has since netted a group of more than a dozen. Watching her in action during this year’s opening-day trek to Spyglass off Norman Island, I could tell the passionate participant has taken the task to heart.  This year, even though she passed on the title of Reef Check coordinator to Dive BVI’s Casey McNutt, the tested veteran remained vigilant as a coach for the cause—a cause which will progress under the enveloping arm of the Association of Reef Keepers (ARK).   


The group’s core efforts and game plan have not changed, as they remain devoted to the international cause that aims to collect data from more than 90 countries and thousands of reef systems worldwide. Just shy of 8:00 a.m. on a drizzly and overcast Tuesday, when we arrived at the Spyglass dive site, McNutt presented the familiar agenda, a concise canvassing of marine life at three- and ten-metre intervals throughout a carefully mapped underwater transect. Groups of two, two groups at a time, would sweep the area and would first document fish life, then invertebrates, then note the substrate at the ocean’s basin.
I shadowed the teams from above for a while as a stealthy snorkeler, snapping off some photos and admiring their work. I headed back to the boat and took a seat next to Clive Petrovic, a local ecologist who has been taking score and analyzing the data retrieved from the BVI Reef Check since day one. Although a jovial and persistent member of the team, the researcher admitted that the project—on a micro scale in the BVI—would not necessarily heed significant results in the short term.
“When you do things like [Reef Check], you’ve got hard data to report back to government officials,” the researcher said about the positives of the project. Continuing, Petrovic said that “too many variables” in the traditional Reef Check method can cause “too much noise” interfering with data collection. A short-term or more focused method—like photographing the same reef samples year after year as Baily has recently embarked upon—would help to bring forth more accurate and useful results, he said.
So now, along with the long-term monitoring efforts of Reef Check, ARK will move forward as an umbrella group for similar marine-based projects. Following the usual Reef Check protocol, those devoted to the cause of protecting the reefs will expand efforts to protect the ecosystem’s fragile existence, while educating the public—visitors and residents alike—about ways they can help.
“ARK is being resurrected with new goals and objectives to fit current needs and issues,” said marine biologist Shannon Gore, who oversees the project from the Department of Conservation and Fisheries. “We need to answer some of the questions now. [Reef Check] takes too long. … [But] it does, however, contribute on a global scale in terms of reef trends, so it will continue; we’ll just make it work better for us.”
Focus will shift toward educating the public to become more aware of the environment, while encouraging volunteer projects that aren’t dependent on government funding or grants, she said.
“We are looking at a few short-term projects that would have long-term effects, such as having one of the coral reef CSI courses held here that teach how to deal with adverse impacts effectively to bring them to court.” Such courses, she said would call on lawyers and law enforcement agents to educate themselves on the laws that hold offenders accountable for the environment.
Newbie coordinator McNutt also has some plans up her sleeve to rope in youngsters to get excited about reef preservation. “We’ve got some high school students coming for beginner Reef Check programmess that are incorporated in their science programmes at school,” she said. “We also want to begin a better programme for Virgin Gorda youth to start scuba diving and taking an investment in their tourism product and interest in their environment.”   


Petrovic, who has a Cedar International School son on path to becoming a marine researcher like his father, agreed that instilling interest at a young age is key to preserving an environment increasingly susceptible with the tests of time.
“It’s hard to get people involved—getting that local involvement and more kids involved,” he said “but occasionally you hook that one or two, who then make it their life passion—and that’s great.”
For the veteran Baily, who undoubtedly holds an undying passion for the reefs, the path ahead is indeed a multi-faceted one. A stickler in her 14 years for accuracy and efficiency, the devoted diver took moments out of her reef checks to admire the overall operation—one she has piloted and one she can be proud of. The draw of Reef Check expands across borders, and has become a newfound form of ecotourism for some divers that participate year after year. As I chatted with the group of ten divers about the overall goal of the project, Baily chimed in with her observational offering of the scenario.
“Ecotourism,” she said, nodding at two Britons, who travelled from New York to be with the group. “You see that? That’s the true form of ecotourism, and that’s what it’s all about. That won’t change.”
To date, the international Reef Check programme has published poignant articles and reports documenting the atrocious affects from overfishing, rampant pollution and acts of general neglect that have caused the world’s pristine reefs to dwindle. And while the work of many contributes to the widespread action and attention needed to evoke change, it’s the ambitions of a few from within these watery borders that bring the battle home. 

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