The CAYMAN BOTTOM TIMES: Ocean Frontiers to Establish Coral Nursery for Reef Conservation

Cayman in the News 28 October 2015
After waiting and watching international research, Government has approved local nursery policy in the Cayman Islands

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands (Oct 28, 2015) - Ocean Frontiers, the conservation-minded dive operator at Grand Cayman’s East End, expects to soon establish a coral nursery to help repair and replenish local reefs. Co-owner Steve Broadbelt has long wanted to set one up, so when the Cayman Islands government approved a policy for nurseries earlier this year and called for local proposals, Ocean Frontiers promptly submitted theirs. The company has been granted approval in principal, but the go-ahead from the Department of Environment, which will oversee the conservation work, has not been issued.

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

After monitoring research successes and failures internationally, the Cayman Islands Department of Environment noted that Caribbean researchers are having good success with Acropora, a fast-growing species of coral that includes elkhorn coral and staghorn coral. Once plentiful in Cayman’s near-shore reefs, these corals are now considered critically endangered. They began to die off in the 1980s, victims of disease, damage and global warming. Coral nurseries might help rescue them.

Research Officer John Bothwell says after corals are established in a nursery, clippings will be outplanted to reef sites identified by the DOE. Although outplanting still has a low success rate because of the reasons the corals died off in the first place, Bothwell says they have expectations.

“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,” says Bothwell.

Ocean Frontiers has been approved for 10 trees, with approval of 25 more once nursery shows that the corals will grow there. Lois Hatcher, experienced with coral nurseries and reef restoration, will be managing the coral nursery. She has been busy with prep work.

“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 says.

“We are fortunate to have Lois 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,” says Broadbelt, who recruited Hatcher with this in mind. “We strongly believe that the person running the project needs to live and breathe coral - and that describes Lois.”

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 centered, to benefit the Cayman Islands,” says John Bothwell, explaining that 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 currently helping lead a major reef restoration project, is anxious to get started and feels confident they will have coral colonies to outplant within 18 months after they get the green light. The nursery will also give Ocean Frontiers another program to educate guests, and get them involved in caring for corals.

“This planet will be in a lot of trouble if we lose all our coral reefs,” says Lois Hatchr. “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 defense 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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