By Selene Muldowney
Often nicknamed the “rainforest of the sea” coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. There may be more than one million species inhabiting the coral reefs around the world. In many ways, they are akin to the rainforests, where many of the inhabitants have yet to be discovered. Unfortunately, coral reefs as we know them are dying and sadly their inhabitants are losing their homes. These fragile, yet vital ecosystems are under siege from a vast array of assailants including localized pollutants, global warming, invasive species, human carelessness, ocean acidification, and other aggressors. While many human inhabitants of our planet have been slow to respond to the problem or creating a mechanism of protecting these ecosystems, hope is within site: Grand Cayman.
As a region, the Cayman Islands are already well ahead of other countries, regions, and nations around the globe, with initiatives ranging from fixed moorings to marine parks to seasonal and limited fishing. To add to the list of the measures to protect marine life already taken, the Grand Cayman Eco Divers, in collaboration with Sunset House, Ocean Frontiers, Divetech, Central Caribbean Marine Institue (CCMI), Cayman Brac Shack, and the Riviera are working to build sustainable coral tree nurseries. All this done under the guidance and watchful eye of the C.I. Department of Environment.
Collectively, the mission of this ambitious group of environmentalists, biologists, and citizen scientists is to help accelerate the recovery and growth of existing coral reef structures. The project began as an idea over five years ago and through a series of discussions with different organizations and businesses, local government, and experimenting with the growth of the coral, the program has developed, been approved, and now grown to a more robust endeavor.
Already the initiative has shown success in growing coral trees in nurseries. Collectively, each affiliate has started a coral tree nursery and actively participates in maintaining the nurseries and transplanting viable coral fragments onto critical reefs and ecosystems.
Aaron Hunt, from Grand Cayman Eco Divers, has developed effective strategies for protecting and restoring the damaged areas of coral reef. In short, they are growing Staghorn coral in nurseries on coral trees made from PVC and fiberglass rods and after significant growth, they are removed from the trees and replanted. Hunt explains, “The methodology is fairly new, much of what we do is through trial and error although about 15 years ago this same method was first attempted. In some areas, we have seen a 99% success rate from moving the coral onto the nursery tree which in itself is incredible and then to see some sites experience 100% growth after transplant is almost unfathomable.” The aim is to spread the coral along damaged sites to encourage new growth and maximize recovery. “This is done carefully and with incredible care so as not to damage healthy coral, “states Hunt. He also hopes that by replanting new corals in close proximity to one another they will create genetic diversity leading to healthier and stronger coral in the future.
The process of collecting the coral and transplanting them has been greatly assisted by the Coral Restoration Foundation for their assistance in developing the coral trees as well as the Sea of Change Foundation for their knowledge and financial assistance. The project required not only skilled coral removal, maintenance, and transplant knowledge but also protection from carelessness and harvesting for a profit. The coral nurseries require a substantial effort to be successful.
The Grand Cayman Eco Divers are seeking to expand the current Coral Nursery Program to include data collection, research, and educational programs. The research would aid in long term restoration efforts by providing key information on the survivability of the coral fragments, which coral genes are resistant to disease or bounce back quickly, how coral adapts to climate change issues and pressures, and locating any unique new species of coral. The educational program is open to applicants both national and international whose interest is in learning about and participating in the Coral Nursery Program. The program will provide international students with an all-inclusive stay at the local resorts Sunset House and Divetech as well as affordable island lodging. The educational program is offered as: a one week program, 2-week program, 4-week program, and a 6-week summertime program.
“The collaborative efforts of research combined with an educational component benefits the Island’s efforts in conservation while also enabling other organizations from around the globe to start their own restoration programs,” emphasizes Hunt.
The program also enables the growth of ecotourism on the Cayman Islands. Divers, non-divers can take an open water class and learn to dive while attending the program, can take part in an opportunity to directly and positively assist with conservation of the coral reefs.
“We have had people from 25 to 71 years old and from all levels of education participate in the program. They learn step-by-step the restoration process, in hopes to educate others. We hope the students and conservationists from around the globe see the results because of their hard work and carry that urgency to help conservation efforts within them. In the past few months we have encouraged locals to also participate so they too can appreciate the efforts made to create a sustainable reef,” continues Hunt.
Grand Cayman Eco Divers is an environmentally responsible dive company whose owners, Brittany Balli and Aaron Hunt, know first-hand the importance of conservation from their extensive background in marine biology. They are both also well versed in Cayman’s incredible shipwreck history.
It is important that we take heed to the changing climate of our globe and the significant effects humankind as well as nature has bestowed upon us both topside and underwater. The coral reefs serve as both a foothold of tourism on the islands but also a measure of the health of the marine Biosystems underwater. Cayman’s dive industry as well as their tourism industry and government recognize the economic value of the coral reefs as well as the importance of maintaining biodiversity for a sustainable marine future. It is absolutely vital to support healthy coral reefs now faced with multiple threats. This innovative approach may mark a new era in conservation with collaborative efforts from business, government, and citizens.