East End dive shop plans coral nursery

| 30/10/2015
Cayman News Service

Coral nursery (Photo by Lois Hatcher)

(CNS): The co-owner of East End dive operation, Ocean Frontiers, has revealed plans to create a coral nursery in the area to repair and replenish threatened reef systems in the waters around Cayman. As the tourism minister proceeds with cruise berthing plans that may destroy more than 35 acres in the George Town Harbour, the ministry with responsibility for the environment has approved a policy for coral nurseries and called for local proposals.

Steve Broadbelt has submitted one such proposal and has, according to an article in the local dive industry blog, Cayman Bottom Times, been granted approval in principal and is awaiting the go-ahead from the Department of Environment (DoE), which will oversee the conservation work.

“We need to wait until hurricane season is completed before any significant work can begin on the nursery,” Broadbelt said. “We plan to have our first coral trees in service by the end of 2015.”

After monitoring research successes and failures internationally, the DoE found that researchers have had some success with Acropora, a fast-growing species of coral that includes elkhorn coral and staghorn coral. These species were once common in Cayman waters but are now critically endangered as they have been dying off since the 1980s due to disease, damage and climate change.

According to DoE Research Officer John Bothwell, once corals are established in a nursery, clippings will be planted on reef sites identified by the department. Out-planting has a low success rate because the original causes of coral decline remain but Bothwell said the DoE remains hopeful that some may survive.

Cayman News Service

Coral growth from a fragment salvaged and nursed (Photo by Lois Hatcher)

“The hope of coral nurseries is that by out-planting fingerling Acroporas in a sort of head starting, they will have a better chance of becoming established on the reef. There may even be the potential for identifying corals that are better able to survive, are more heat tolerant for example, and increasing their number on the reef faster than would naturally occur,” he added.

Ocean Frontiers has been approved for 10 trees with 25 more if the nursery can sustain coral growth. Lois Hatcher, a coral nursery and reef restorer, will manage the project.

“We have been picking out donor colonies and monitoring them, especially now for bleaching, as we want strong corals to put in the nursery. There are many different genotypes and some are more resistant to heat, salinity, etc. It’s important that we do our research and pick corals that are resistant and survive,” she said.

Broadbelt, who recruited Hatcher with this in mind, said the dive shop was fortunate to have her on board. “The project wouldn’t be possible without her expertise. It is critical to have an experienced project leader in order for the nursery to have the hands-on day-to-day supervision that is needed.”

The Department of Environment has established guidelines for the six operations, including Ocean Frontiers, which have been shortlisted to establish the nurseries.

“Having a guiding policy is important to protect wild corals and to make sure that the corals remain the property of the people of the Cayman Islands, and that all nursery activity is conservation-centred, to benefit the Cayman Islands,” Bothwell said, explaining that the DoE has in the past rejected proposals for commercial coral harvesting.

“Everyone is enthusiastic about the opportunity and all are cognizant of the long road ahead,” he said. “Coral nurseries, like any other gardening, requires a lot of work. The nurseries need regular ‘weeding’ to remove algae that might otherwise overgrow the coral fingerlings, as well as the occasional removal of other pest organisms.”

A current global bleaching event is seriously affecting Cayman’s coral reefs and creating urgency for the conservation measures. Hatcher, who is anxious to get started, is confident of coral colonies ready to out-plant within 18 months after the green light.

“This planet will be in a lot of trouble if we lose all our coral reefs,” Hatcher said. “They are home to 25% of all marine life. Every breath of air we take comes from the ocean and corals are primary producers. They are the first defence against hurricanes and so many other things. Corals are adaptable given time, but time is running out and they are not keeping up with the changes naturally. Coral nurseries are a helping hand.”

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Category: Environment, Marine Environment

Comments (2)

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  1. , says:

    Can they grow about 35 acres… Quick time?

    No seriously though props to them. Great work.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations to all involved on this initiative. I wish you great success.

    CNS: your overlooked to mention that the scenario you painted regarding the proposed cruise port is the absolute worst case – perfect storm disaster scenario.