The United States Virgin Islands ("USVI"), which are comprised of the islands of Saint Thomas, Saint John, Saint Croix, and a variety of smaller cays and islets, harbor a significant proportion of the United States' tropical biodiversity. Situated at the inflection point of the North-South Lesser Antilles and the East-West Greater Antilles, the USVI are a meeting place for biodiversity evolutionarily derived from both North and South America. The result is a singular and fascinating mixture.
Although the USVI host thousands of native plant and insect species, along with a rich array of native birds, bats, lizards, and snakes, much of their biological diversity is below the waves. Coral reefs provide habitat for myriad fish, turtles, manatees, invertebrates, and microbes. This is one of the United States' biological paradises.
There is, however, trouble in paradise. Though Saint John had the fortunate distinction of having once been largely owned by Lawrance Rockefeller, who donated much of the island to the United States government to create the relatively well protected Virgin Islands National Park, Saint Thomas suffers from high density human population and overdevelopment. Saint Croix is much larger than the other two Saints, so, although following a development trajectory much like that of Saint Thomas, its human population density remains modest by comparison.
The main challenges to the USVI's biodiversity can be summarized by highlighting each of the five components of E.O. Wilson's "HIPPO" mnemonic. Habitat is being liquidated and modified, both on land and underwater. Invasive species of plants, animals, and fungi arrive and thrive at worrying rates. Dense human population crowds out other species. Pollution harms the air, sullies the disappearing aquifers, and runs off into the ocean, harming the coral reefs. And, overexploitation of marine resources have severely depleted local fish populations, both in terms of numbers and size of individuals. Added to these are the potentially vast, yet difficult to predict, threats posed by global climate change and ozone depletion.
Over the next ten days, my Biodiversity Law class will be in the USVI to explore issues of biodiversity science, policy, and law. I will post regular reports to BioLaw to share what we discover.