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Title: Ecological research in the Virgin Islands, historical and administrative background
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00096195/00001
 Material Information
Title: Ecological research in the Virgin Islands, historical and administrative background
Abbreviated Title: Background paper - United States Virgin Islands ; 2
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Caribbean Research Institute
Publisher: Caribbean Research Institute
Place of Publication: St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
Publication Date: 1973
Copyright Date: 1973
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00096195
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of the Virgin Islands
Holding Location: University of the Virgin Islands
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.


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Full Text

Background Paper No. 2
24 April 1973


Historical and Administrative Background

0. Marcus Buchanan, Director

Virgin Islands Ecological Research Station

Lameshur Bay, St. John, Virgin Islands

Submitted for the College of the Virgin Islands
Caribbean Research Institute
St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
24 April 1973

Background Paper No. 2


Historical and Administrative Background

This paper is intended to provide for a general intro-

ductory background theme to the topic of "Research Needs in

Ecology in the Virgin Islands", one session of the Research

Needs Conference, a multi-disciplinary effort, sponsored by

the College of the Virgin Islands through it's Caribbean Re-

search Institute, and being held at the College, St. Thomas,

Virgin Islands, 24 April 1973.

In this discourse I am restricting my definition of the

word "ecology" to the traditional definition used by biolo-

gists; that is, a study of the relationships of plants and

animals to one another and to their environment. I do not in-

tend to provide background discussion upon those broader, and

more lately popular, definitions which in fact would preclude

a comprehension of the sum total of environmental influences,

thus breaching several of the other topics of this Conference.

This paper is also not an attempt to examine in depth

what has already been accomplished in ecological research in

the Virgin Islands; such would merely be redundant, for this

technical information is already in command and use by those

participants at this Conference. For those readers who may

not have a background on such research, there is no quick and

easy reference; excellent starting points, however, are the

- 1 -

Background Paper No. 2

various Reports of the New York Academy of Sciences (1913-

et sec); Miss Enid Baa's monograph on dissertations and the-

sis on Caribbean topics (1969); and, the Reports of the Carib-

bean Research Institute.

My objective, rather, is to demonstrate in a broad man-

ner the status of ecological research in the Virgin Islands

at the present time, with particular regard to those factors

of it's historical development, it's perspective within the

West Indies, and it's current administrative status, which

latter eminently governs it's immediately future development.

Historical and Perspective Background

The Virgin Islands are, today, an anomaly with regard

to ecological research in the West Indies. It is important to

understand the causative factors behind this situation in pro-

jecting the ecological research needs of these islands.

Located geographia&Altyin the east-central part of an

archipelago of islands extending from Trinidad and South Am-

erica to Florida and the Yucatan Peninsula, the Virgin Islands

are biologically, as well as socially, ethnically, and geo-

graphically, West Indian and Neotropical. That their political

and economic structure is not a part of this regional scene

is rather an artifact of history than a result of natural reg-

ional associations.

The biota of the Virgin Islands shares with those other

- 2 -

Background Paper No. 2

islands of this archipelago common affinities of origin, sys-

tematic relationship, evolution, and adaptation. This rela-

tionship parallels, with differing origins, the evolution of

the present human population of the West Indies.

Our biota has, as a result of the human influence, been

subject to those same changes that have effected plant and

animal communities on each of the other West Indian islands.

While some of the reasons for these changes are peculiarly

West Indian, most are typical of the same changes that have

occurred throughout the world tropics, and in particular on

tropical islands.

The questions relating to the nature and degree of these

changes, and the effect that they have on the present and fu-

ture inhabitants of these islands, not only with their biota

but also with themselves, is the motivating factor behind

much of the endemically-originated ecological research in

the West Indies.

The anomalous status of the Virgin Islands with regard

to ecological research arises from the fact that, with no-

table exceptions outlined below, little such research has

been endemically-generated. In this aspect, the Virgin Is-

lands differ startlingly from their sister island* in the

West Indies. They represent, in fact, a situation compara-

ble to that of other West Indian islands a generation ot

more ago. The Virgin Islands are distinctly behind their

other West Indian neighbors in ecological awareness.

- 3 -

Background Paper No. 2

This situation appertains only today in the adjacent Com-

monwealth of Puerto Rico.

The present United States Virgin Islands have, for over

250 years, been under the federal control of two continental

governments: The Republic of Denmark and the United States of

America. This control, in fact, parallels that which was ex-

cersized on other West Indian islands in the past, and today

is also the case in Puerto Rico. However, in terms of eco-

logical research if in no other fields, such parallels do in

fact end.

The remaining West Indian islands were, for the most

part, under the control of external governments that had es-

tablished a heritage o0 interest and a president for research

in natural history; a heritage that was ultimately in greater

or lesser degree passed on to the peoples of their islands.

Great Britain, The Nethelands, France, and to a lesser degree

Spain, were all such nations.

In case any of the participants at this Conference are

unaware of the impact which such colonial actions in fact

had in the West Indies, I would demonstrate in point the dev-

elopment of such a heritage in the former British possessions.

Britains were, and are, by nature naturalists: In th6&r col-

onies in the New World tropics, as elsewhere, they early es-

tablished formal clubs promoting the study of natural hist-

ory; they established botanic and agricultural research sta-

- 4 -

Background Paper No. 2

tions; and thyy not infrequently established viable and of-

ten still extant mmall natural history museums. In the West

Indies, such institutions were established on St. Vincent

in 1763, Trinidad in 1820, Guyana in 1879, Grenada in 1886,

Dominica in 1891; other such institutions existed on Jamaica,

St. Lucia, and Antigua by 1907 (Aspinall, 1907). The Royal

Victoria Institute Museum and the still eminently viable Tri-

nidad Field Naturalists' Club were both founded in 1892. In

1922 the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, now the

Faculty of Agriculture of the University of the West Indies,

was established at St. Augustine, Trinidad. I.C.T.A. played

the most important role in the Caribbean in the training of

essentially applied ecologists in agriculture, entomology,

botany, silviculture, and soil science.

The Dutch established similar facilities on Curacao,

and later a formal research station, as did the French on


This background of governmental interest in natural his-

tory helped form the basis of a heritage on those islands

today for the basic subject matter that now comprises eco-

logy. While it is true that the primary political and pro-

fessional motivation behind the establishment of most of these

facilities was improved agriculture, these organizations in

fact served as a regional locus for research in a wide var-

iety of biological topics. A significant part of the func-

tions of such establishments was the attraction to them of

visiting biologists, thus infusing the local naturalists

- 5 -

Background Paper No.2

with current concepts and tending to break down insular

barriers to new knowledge.

This lack of a heritage for ecological studies in the

United States Virgin Islands is clearly due to the absence

of such viable research organizations and educational and

social institutions until very recent years. The reasons

for this would appear to be the post-emancipation emphasis

by both the Danish and the United States governments upon

non-agricultural economics, commerce, and later tourism. It

is in fact the recent emphasis upon tourism that has to no

small extent provided the germ of interest in ecological

studies in these islands.

Without such a heritage, it is not surprising that

most anplied as well as basic ecological research in the

Virgin Islands prior to the early, 1960's was conducted by

commuter scientists. In turn, this lack of heritage upon

the part of the local community has mace it somctimer' dif-

ficult to nress forth the need for endemically originated

ecological research. In this regard, the transcription of

ecological needs based upon temperate-zone continental con-

cepts, popular during the past decade, into an essentially

West Indian social community has been merely confusing.

The Virgin Islands need a regional and a local eco-

logical identity, an identity that will ultimately provide

for heritage. The structural basis for the establishment of

that identity is now present.

- 6 -

Background Paper No. 2

The Basis for Current Ecological Research

in the Virgin Islands

Four primary events mark the basis for current inter-

est in ecological research in the Virgin Islands. Those

events were:

1) The establishment of the Virgin Islands National Park

for the most part on the island of St. John, 1956.

2) The opening of the College of the Virgin Islands as

a territorial institution of higher learning, 1962.

3) The establishment of the Virgin Islands Ecological

Research Station, 1965.

4) The vitalization of research by the Bureau of Fish

and Wildlife, Department of Conservation and Cultur-

al Affairs, 1970.

I shall discuss the role of these units separately. For

the moment, however, it is pertinent to point out that the

primary impetus for the establishment of the research ele-

ments of these organizations was the scientific "crisis"

which faced the United States in the late 1950's, and the

consequent large amounts of federal funds that became avail-

able for such programs. Without that funding, it is exceed-

ingly doubtful if ecological research in the Virgin Islands

would have progressed beyond the individual inquiry stage.

The College of the Virgin Islands.

The College of the Virgin Islands was established in

- 7 -

Background Paper No. 2 8 -

1962 to provide for post-secondary school education in the

Virgin Islands. It has progressed through two-year Associate

to four-year Baccalaureate programs, and is now a territor-

ial Land Grant institution. To provide for a broad liberal

curriculum, a Division of Science and Mathematics was es-

tablished, including a resident faculty in the biological


Primarily a teaching institution, the College shortly

after founding established a Caribbean Research Institute

within it's administrative framework, with the object of

the Institute acting as the research arm of the College.

The Institute is in concept a multi-disciplinary organiza-

tion, and includes the Virgin Islands Ecological Research

Station within it's administrative jurisdiction.

Within the field of ecological research, the role of

the College should be clear:

1) It provides through it's faculty in biology and

through the Caribbean Research Institute for the educational

and experential training in ecology of regional students on

the baccalaureate level. It is on this level, in fact, and

not on the graduate level that the greatest paucity of eco-

logical manpower exists today in the Virgin Islands.

2) It provides for the training of public school teach-

ers in ecological subject matter, to better fit them, re-

gardless of their academic backgrounds, for the needed in-

terest which will ultimately lead to heritage in local stu-


Background Paper No. 2

3) As a Land Grant institution, the College is now in

a position to fill the local niche that has traditionally

provided for the bulk of core research, both basic and ap-

plied, in the ecological sciences.

4) With the presence of the administrative (Caribbean

Research Institute) and operational (Virgin Islands Ecolo-

gical Research Station) structures for this research, the

College is functionally prepared to undertake a wide variety

of research programs.

Virgin Islands Ecological Research Station.

The Ecological Research Station is a unique research

facility in the West Indies, in that it: (1) Is administra-

tivel authorized to conduct ecological research on both ter-

restrial and marine habitats, and, (2) Is by right of it's

location on the island of St. John logistically positioned

to conduct such research literally in it's own backyard.

Further to this, is the fact that those habitats are pro-

tected by right of the presence of the Virgin Islands Nat-

ional Park.

This facility is funded by an annual appropriation from

the Legislature of the Government of the Virgin Islands, and

is administered by the College of the Virgin Islands through

it's Caribbean Research Institute.

Logically, and by continental president, this facility

as a part of a Land Grant College should provide for the bulk

of ecological research in the Virgin Islands. The history of

the Station and it's contributions have been clouded by ad-

- 9 -

Background Paper No. 2

- 10 -

ministrative and policy problems. One major problem con-

cerns the precise role the Station should play as a region-

ally funded and directed organization.

The Ecological Research Station has, in the past, sup-

ported the following kinds of programs:

1) Basic research on marine and terrestrial ecology,

with a major emphasis on the former prior to 1971. For the

most part, these studies have represented thesis or disser-

tation problems originated and conducted by visiting inves-

tigators, and funded by United States federal granting agen-


2) Support for the Tektite I and II Projects (Collette

and Earle, 1972, for technical studies). These were major,

federally-funded, short-duration concentrated basic studies

conducted almost exclusively by visiting investigators. Al-

though the research conducted under these two programs was

basic in motivation, much of the biological results have

practical applications in the Virgin Islands.

3) Non-thesis graduate studies. The Ecological Research

Station has served as a training ground in basic principles

of tropical ecology for a limited number of selected grad-

uate students from United States universities. While no

specific research is usually conducted by these students,

the students do act as a potential pool of future investi-

gators with the advantage of previous Virgin Islands exper-


Background Paper No.2

4) Applied research, which to date has been concerned

with marine resources. Two signal projects were a study of

the fisheries potential of the Virgin Islands (Dammann, 1969)

and a spiny lobster management program (Olsen, 1972). Pro-

posals have been submitted for a program of research on

pollination and seed dispersal in Virgin Islands plants of

economic and aesthetic importance (Buchanan, MS).

5) Undergraduate field studies. These studies, basic-

ally pedagogic and experential in nature, have been season-

ally conducted at the Station by groups from United States

colleges and universities. There is great demand for the

use of the Station facilities by such external groups, and

there is serious contention as to what extent the Station

should serve such purposes. There is no question that the

Station could, and would be justified in serving such a use-

ful role in undergraduate training at the College of the

Virgin Islands; this has not been the case, however, because

of course scheduling and the problem of inter-island logis-


Department of Conservation and Cultural Affairs.

The Department of Conservation and Cultural Affairs is

an agency of the Government of the Virgin Islands, headed by

an appointed Commissioner, and possessing a Bureau of Fish

and Wildlife with a professional biologist as Director.

The staff of the Bureau consists of a number of trained

fisheries and wildlife management biologists. The Department

- 11 -

Background Paper No. 2

is charged with the authority for the control, use, and

management of the natural resources of the Virgin Islands

not predisposed by United States federal authority. The

Department is also concerned with the development and use

of recreational facilities and with the cultural affairs

of the island communities.

The Bureau of Fish and Ti'd]ife is, in effect, an ad-

ministrati'-ve and operational duplicate in general aspects

of "irilar agencies in each of the various t'nitecd States,

anm' it has an authoritative parallel.

In terms of ecological research, the Bureau acts as an

interpretive clearing house for the results of basic ecolo-

gical research conducted in the Virgin Islands, and makes

use of the results of such research in devising meaningful

applied research programs conducted by it's own staff.

Recent examples of applied programs conducted under

the direction of the Bureau include food and sport fisheries

studies, artificial reef design, mongoose ecology, a study

of parasites of St. Croix whitetail deer, and primary sup-

port for the compilation of a popular handbook to the nat-

ural history of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Virgin Islands National Park.

The establishment of the Virgin Islands National Park,

administered by the United States National Park Service un-

der the Department of the Interior, had a profound physical,

- 12 -

Background Paper No. 2

biological, social, and economic effect upon the island of

St. John, and to a lesser extent the other Virgin Islands.

Entirely aside from the very real social and economic

changes wrought, the Virgin Islands National Park brought

to the West Indies the concept of a major portion of a large

island being under almost complete ecological control, with

that control having it's ultimate authority and administra-

tion from without the territory. From a historical stand-

point, this represents a reversal of the general trend in

the West Indies for greater territorial control, including

that of natural resources. It is interesting to note that

this same event coincided with the establishment of the

Five Year Development Programmes leading to the independence

of two major West Indian islands, Jamaica and Trinidad and

Tobago, under which programs transferrence of authority for

Crown Forest Lands and Reserves was made to the regional


In terms of it's meaning to regional ecological re-

search, the Virgin Islands National Park has provided for

the following:

1) It has reserved a large mass of lands and waters,

comprising some 6,000 acres, where ecological disturbance

has been reduced to a minimum. The reserve includes reef

and inshore habitats; mangrove swamps; cactus, arid thorn

scrub, tropical deciduous, and some regenerating rain for-

est communities. No single reserve in the West Indies con-

- 13 -

Background Paper No.2 14 -

tains so many diverse habitats; it provides for a large nat-

ural arena for comparative ecological studies in the West


2) For the management of the resources of the Park, the

National Park Service has devised a Management Resources Plan

the bulk of which consists of problems which can only be an-

swered by the application of ecological research. Provision

for the funding for the execution of those projects by con-

tract is in process.

In addition to these primary government-funded research

organizations, there are three others which play a signifi-

cant role in ecological thought, education, and research in

the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands Conservation Society,

Inc., a public non-profit society, is concerned primarily

with the stimulus of ecological research and with education;

it has recently concentrated on the publishing of popular

tracts relating to such research. The Environmental Studies

Program of the Department of Education is primarily concern-

ed with the development of an ecological awareness upon the

part of primary and secondary school students; in this sense,

the Program plays a critical role in the initiation of inter-

est leading to heritage in the natural sciences. The Island

Resources Foundation, Inc., a private non-profit organiza-

tion, includes significantly ecological research within the

framework of it's broader resource programs; it also serves

as the headquarters of the Caribbean Conservation Association,

Background Paper No. 2

- 15 -

the regional West Indian conservation organization.

I am fully aware that I have not touched upon those

several aspects of research that should, rightly, come with-

in the scope of ecological research in the Virgin Islands.

These include, for example, research conducted by the De-

partment of Agriculture, the Soil Conservation Service, and

possibly other agencies. They also include research conduct-

ed at the West Indies Laboratory of Fairleigh Dickinson Uni-

versity, St. Croix. I hope that those officials in these or-

ganizations will not feel that such omission is intentional;

it is rather simply based upon my lack of information con-

cerning their activities.


It should be obvious from the data presented above that

the Virgin Islands today have a large and diverse number of

organizations within the operational structure of which eco-

logical research is conducted. It is, in fact, a remarkable

assemblage for a tri-island community comprising only some

70,000 inhabitants.

A major factor in defining the research needs of the

Virgin Islands today lies in the need for a clear definition

of the respective roles to he played by these now extant

research organizations, and consequently the allocations of

research programs.

Background Paper No. 2

- 16 -

The roles of the educational and conservation affili-

ates, the Environmental Studies Program and the Virgin Is-

lands Conservation Society, are already clearly defined.

However, the relationships between the College of the Virgin

Islands, the Caribbean Research Institute and Virgin Islands

Ecological Research Station, the Bureau of Fish and Wildlife

of the Department of Conservation and Cultural Affairs, and

to a lesser degree, the United States National Park Service

are less well-defined.

The need for definition arises out of the very real

possibility of duplication of effort with regard to: (1)

Overall research objectives; (2) Expenditures for facilities,

equipment, and field work; and, (3) Utilization of available

scientific manpower. Such overlap and duplication within the

governmental structure of a community of islands such as

these, with restricted fiscal ane human resources, cannot

easily be long tolerated. The restrictions of recent years

in federal funds available for biological research of the

kind needed in these islands makes this point abundantly


With regard to the National Park Service, it is clear

that there are policy decisions which to a great extent lim-

it the use of their human, fiscal, and physical research re-

sources to objectives which, in effect, are directly associ-

ated with the management of the National Park. To some ex-

Background Paper No. 2

tent there is a sharing of these resources between the

Park Service and the Ecological Research Station, author-

ized through a Memorandum of Agreement between the Park

Service and the College of the Virgin Islands. It is very

doubtful that such a relationship would exist if the Sta-

tion were located otherwise. This is so because most of the

research objectives of the National Park Service lie in the

field of resource management, not in strict research which

in fact is the reason for the existence of the Ecological

Research Station.

It is clear that whatever formal research relationship

that may exist between the Station and the National Park

Service will, under present policies, be limited to the exe-

cution of contract research by the Station for the Park Ser-

vice. The limit to which this contract relationship exists

should be defined. To a very great extent, however, those

possibilities are severely limited by the National Park Ser-

vice since they do not accept unsolicited proposals for re-

search. This is an undesireable situation, considering the

unique role played by the National Park within the community.

That the National Park Service has made concessions in other

aspects of the natural resources of the Virgin Islands Nat-

ional Park should give license for modification of policies

which in effect are designed to cover continental Park man-

agement, and are not necessarily realistic in this insular


* 17 -

Background Paper No. 2

The research relationship between the Department of

Conservation and Cultural Affairs and the Ecological Re-

search Station is perhaps less well-defined than that be-

tween the Station and the National Park Service. This is,

in fact, another curious anomaly of Virgin Islands bureau-

cracy, since the funding for the Ecological Research Sta-

tion is provided by the Legislature through the Department

of Conservation and Cultural Affairs.

As a generality, however, it may be stated that the

logical research functions of the Department of Conservation

and Cultural Affairs should be those applied studies bearing

directly upon natural resource utilization and management.

Because of it's primary academic affiliation, the Ecological

Research Station should be engaged in basic research and in

the education and training of regional students in the eco-

logical sciences.

There would appear to be an obvious need for circular

allocation of projects, information, and perhaps human re-

sources and facilities in this relationship. The parallel

can again be made between Land Grant colleges in the United

States and their state game and fish commissions: There ex-

ists as a general rule a rapport, if not an actual formal

agreement, that facilities, services, and professional ex-

pertise will be shared, as needed, between the Land Grant

institution and the conservation-oriented departments of the

- 18 -

Background Paper No. 2

- 19 -

state government.

The establishment of a realistic working relationship

such as this between the College of the Virgin Islands and

the Department of Conservation and Cultural Affairs would

clear the way for more meaningful coordination of research,

avoidance of the possibility of duplication of effort, and

possibly fiscal saving with regard to resources.

Each biologist working in the Virgin Islands is inti-

mately familiar with the research needs within his field of

study. Because of the relatively small number of scientists

concerned, and because of the potential degree of informal

communication afforded, there should be a general understand-

ing upon the part of each scientist of the principal eco-

logical research needs.

However, because of the administrative barriers out-

lined above, and because a not inconsiderable amount of the

ecological research conducted in these islands is in fact

conducted by visiting investigators often without affiliation

with these regional organizations, there is often a communi-

cations gap.

It would be in the interests of the various research

organizations within the Virgin Islands to establish a reg-

ular open-discussion group for the systematic and periodic

exchange of ideas and information on ecological research.

The structure of such a group need not be formal, and it's

Background Paper No. 2

- 20 -

published productivity might be limited to minutes. At the

present time, such a group could, in fact, comprise the en-

tire community of scientists engaged in ecological research

in the Virgin Islands. The regular sitting of such a group,

would allow for quick and easy dissemenation of ideas and

information; it's funding, limited in scope, could be shared

by the various agencies represented.

The features of insularity are the meat of the island

ecologist; they are also the major deterant to the projec-

tion of rational research programs endemically generated.

Because of the lack of ecological heritage and tradition in

the Virgin Islands, it is especially important that those

persons charged with the conduct of ecological research com-

municate with one another.

This Conference is an initial step in attempting to

establish that kind of cooperation and exchange of ideas.

Background Paper No. 2

- 21 -

Literature Cited

Aspinall, Sir Algernon.

1907. Guide to the West Indies. Sifton, Praed and

Co., Ltd., London.

Baa, Enid M.

1969. Doctoral Dissertations and Selected Theses on

Caribbean Topics... Bureau of Public Libraries

and Museums, Dept. of Conservation and Cultural

Affairs, Gov't. of the Virgin Islands of the U.S.

St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

Buchanan, 0. Marcus.

1973. A Proposal for Studies on the Natural Pollination

and Seed Dispersal in Selected Virgin Islands Plants.


Caribbean Research Institute.

1965 Reports. Various Authors and Editors. College

of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

Collette, Bruce B. and Sylvia A. Earle.

1972. Results of the Tektite Program: Ecology of Coral

Reef Fishes. Sci. Bull. 14, Natural History Museum

of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, California.

Dammann, A.E. (Ed.)

1969. Study of the Fisheries Potential of the Virgin

Islands. Virgin Is. Ecol. Res. Sta., Contrib. No. 1.

Background Paper No. 2 22 -

New York Academy of Sciences.

1913 Scientific Survey of Porto Rico and the Vir-

gin Islands. Numerous Volumes and Authors. Publ.

by The Academy, New York.

Olsen, David and William Herrnkind.

1971. Ecological Study for the Development of Lobster

Management Techniques. Caribbean Research

Institute, College of the Virgin Islands.

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