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Emerging Threat to Caribbean Coral Reefs: The Rise of Algal Crusts

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The health of the world’s coral reefs, long jeopardized by the impacts of warming oceans and bleaching events, is now confronting an additional, less-known danger. Recent research highlights a new environmental challenge in the form of peyssonnelid algal crusts (PACs), which pose a significant threat to these vital marine ecosystems.

A recent study in “Cell,” a leading biological journal, brings to light the alarming spread of PACs, particularly in the Caribbean region. Researchers Peter Edmunds, Thom Schils, and Bryan Wilson have provided an in-depth analysis of these algal crusts, particularly in the shallow waters off St. John, USVI. Their study, based on data up to 2019, indicates that nearly two-thirds of the seabed in this region is covered with PACs.

The deceptive simplicity of PACs has allowed them to avoid detection and proper classification for years. These crusts are often mistaken for other seaweed types due to their appearance, leading to misclassification and underestimation of their prevalence.

The research team points out that while PACs are naturally occurring in tropical reefs, their recent proliferation is causing ecological imbalances. They are capable of overgrowing live coral and monopolizing spaces cleared by natural disturbances, such as hurricanes. This dominance prevents the settlement of coral larvae, hindering the growth and regeneration of coral reefs.

Furthermore, PACs seem to be resilient to ocean acidification, an advantage that further threatens coral polyps. Although they provide sustenance for a certain type of sea urchin, the decline of Diadema antillarum populations in Caribbean waters has led to unchecked PAC expansion.

The study warns of a growing crisis, as PACs capitalize on the ecological vulnerabilities created by decades of reef degradation. The researchers stress the need for immediate and comprehensive studies on PACs, starting with improved methods for accurate identification. The survival of coral reefs, both in the Caribbean and globally, might very well depend on these efforts.

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Environment

Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minister Considers National Emergency Due to Severe Oil Spill Near Tobago

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The serene waters of the southern Caribbean are now the center of an escalating environmental crisis. Trinidad & Tobago’s leadership, led by Prime Minister Keith Rowley, is on the verge of declaring a national emergency in response to a challenging oil spill situation off Tobago’s coast, which remains uncontrolled.

Early on a Wednesday morning, the Tobago Emergency Management Agency was alerted to a distressing sight: a capsized ship near the Cove Eco-Industrial Estate, accompanied by the distressing arrival of a thick, oil-like substance along the coast stretching from Canoe Bay to Scarborough, and extending further north.

By the evening, divers had attempted to identify the vessel through its International Maritime Organization (IMO) registration number, but the murky waters and the ship’s instability thwarted their efforts. The situation worsened by Thursday, as the pervasive smell of asphalt forced businesses in Scarborough to shut down, signaling the onset of cleanup operations on the island’s west side. These efforts also confirmed the absence of any individuals on board the derelict ship, which, according to Farley Augustine, Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, might have been adrift for an extended period before impacting a coral reef near Canoe Bay.

Subsequent investigations revealed extensive damage to the ship, with the main living quarters and parts of the superstructure detached, prompting a search for any possible trapped individuals. Alvin Douglas, leading the emergency dive team from Tobago Marine Safety and Security Services Ltd, noted the discovery of a cable attached to the bow, indicating the vessel might have been under tow prior to capsizing.

Amid ongoing efforts to contain the spill and speculation about the ship’s origins, officials have faced challenges in sealing the leak and mitigating the environmental impact. The response has included deploying booms and cleaning oil-soaked sargassum from affected beaches.

A Sunday press briefing by Augustine and Rowley highlighted unresolved questions about the vessel’s identity and origins, despite it being tentatively named “Gulfstream” by some reports. The absence of a clear IMO number complicates the response, with plans to employ infrared technology for further examination.

Rowley expressed concerns over the vessel’s background, emphasizing the need for testing to identify the specific type of hydrocarbon contaminating the waters. The prime minister acknowledged the necessity of international assistance for the salvage operation, given the scope exceeds local capabilities, though he also mentioned that significant aid has been offered by international partners.

Despite efforts to stabilize the situation, Rowley and Augustine underscored the ongoing risks, including potential shifts in the vessel’s position or structural integrity due to natural forces. The spill’s impact on local communities and the environment remains a pressing concern, especially with the disruption of Tobago’s Carnival activities and the advisories issued to fishers and boaters to avoid the affected area.

Authorities continue to prioritize containment and cleanup efforts, with a focus on safeguarding public health and the environment, as the situation in Tobago remains a testament to the challenges of managing maritime disasters and the importance of international cooperation in response efforts.

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Environment

USVI Secures Nearly $1 Million in Federal Funds for Invasive Species Management

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The U.S. Virgin Islands are poised to significantly enhance their environmental protection efforts with a substantial financial boost from the U.S. Department of the Interior. As part of a wider initiative that spreads nearly $4 million across several U.S. territories, the USVI has been awarded $971,000. This funding is earmarked for critical environmental projects, focusing on the development of an innovative early detection and rapid response system to manage invasive species. Additionally, the grant will facilitate comprehensive surveys of plant communities bridging the northern and southern shores of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John.

This financial support originates from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signaling a strong federal commitment to environmental conservation and sustainability. The initiative also aligns with President Joe Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, underscoring a commitment to ensuring that 40 percent of the benefits from specific federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by pollution and historical underinvestment.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland underscored the significance of this funding in her recent comments, highlighting the integral role of U.S. territories in the broader American landscape. She emphasized the Department’s dedication to working hand in hand with territorial partners to maximize the impact of these investments, particularly as these regions grapple with the escalating effects of climate change on their communities and natural ecosystems.

The allocation is part of a nearly $7 million package aimed at supporting the USVI, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam. These funds are dedicated to combating the effects of climate change, restoring coastal environments, and eliminating invasive species, marking a crucial step forward in preserving our planet’s biodiversity and resilience.

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Environment

Legal Battle Unfolds Over Handling of Refinery Incident, Allegations of Negligence and Exploitation Surface

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A contentious legal dispute has emerged surrounding the handling of a petroleum coke fire at a major refinery, with accusations of negligence leading to severe repercussions for a Customs and Border Protection worker. The incident, dating back to August 2022 at the facility now known as Ocean Point Terminals, has sparked a series of legal claims and counterclaims, highlighting complex relations between the involved entities.

Nicole Wooten, a diligent worker for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, found herself amidst a hazardous situation while on duty at the refinery on August 8, 2022. Her assignment was to conduct official checks on a tugboat, but she was met with an unforeseen challenge: a dense smoke emanating from a dome-shaped structure on the premises, a site under the joint control of Ocean Point Terminals and Port Hamilton Refining and Transportation (PHRT). Unbeknownst to her, a fire involving petroleum coke had been silently burning for days.

Wooten’s ordeal began when, in the absence of guidance and protective gear, she was exposed to the toxic smoke. Her immediate symptoms were severe, ranging from difficulty breathing and violent coughing to acute chest pains and tremors, necessitating emergency medical intervention.

The lawsuit filed by Wooten not only names PHRT as a defendant but also implicates Ocean Point Terminals in exacerbating the situation. She alleges that Ocean Point obstructed PHRT’s efforts to address the smoldering coke pile by denying access to essential firefighting resources located on the refinery property. This alleged obstruction not only intensified the smoldering but also led to significant environmental pollution and posed serious health risks.

In a strategic legal move, PHRT has responded to Wooten’s allegations by supporting her claims against Ocean Point. PHRT contends that Ocean Point’s actions were not just obstructive but also strategically manipulative, using the crisis as leverage to settle financial disputes. According to PHRT, Ocean Point’s management ignored urgent communications for days, exacerbating the situation for financial gain.

PHRT further alleges that the interference by Ocean Point resulted in substantial financial losses, including damage to equipment and escalated costs amounting to millions. These claims are part of a broader legal battle where PHRT seeks to recover damages and argue for punitive actions against Ocean Point for their conduct during the crisis.

The unfolding legal narrative paints a complex picture of corporate relations, emergency management failures, and the quest for accountability in the aftermath of the refinery incident. As the legal proceedings continue, the focus remains on the pursuit of justice for those affected and the implementation of measures to prevent future occurrences of such hazardous incidents.

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