Keeping an eye on Cayman’s reefs

Cayman’s coral reefs are one of the jewels in its crown. Yet these reefs are under constant threat from various environmental factors, as well as human impact.

However, without proper monitoring, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint possible reasons for coral decline or receive early warning that such decline may be imminent.

The recent installation of a Coral Reef Early Warning Station in the Bloody Bay marine park in Little Cayman is already proving very helpful in keeping an eye on Cayman’s reefs. The station records information oceanographic and meteorological information, which is integrated with the other information gathered by the Integrated Coral Observing Network partners. The network forms part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, an organisation tasked with monitoring the environment from daily weather forecasts and severe storm warnings to climate monitoring and fisheries management.

The installation of the ICON/CREWS station in Little Cayman started in April 2008, with the groundwork being laid for the installation of the 40 foot pylon standing in seven metres of water. The installation was completed in early 2009, and has since been providing invaluable information to researchers, not only those based at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute on Little Cayman but around the globe.

According to Brenda Gadd, managing director of the CCMI in Little Cayman, the importance of the ICON/CREWS station cannot be overestimated.

“The ICON/CREWS station on Little Cayman has far- reaching implications for improving the technological and scientific capacity for Cayman, including environmental monitoring, weather forecasting, global predictions of risk, and potentially climate modelling,” she says.

The station records detailed information on wind speed, wind direction, air temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation, light and UV levels above or below water, sea temperature, pressure and salinity.

The data collected is averaged and these hourly averages are sent, via satellite, to the NOAA’s National Satellite, Data and Information Services facility in Virginia. From there it is passed on to Florida, where it is processed at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. The information collected in this way can help pinpoint any factors that may have an impact on the reefs within the monitored area, for example coral bleaching.

“These data are reported near real-time and integrated with satellite data on the web. Additional sensors will be added in 2010 to augment new and continued research programmes near LCRC and the adjacent Bloody Bay Marine Park. These data will soon be available to the Cayman Islands Weather Service and to the National Weather Service via NOAA/National Data Buoy Centre (station LCIY2),” says Gadd.

The information gathered by the station is used for more than improving the accuracy of weather predictions though.

“It provides a starting point for a critical timeline to track longer-term changes in our ocean environments, including the causes and effects of environmental changes on local Cayman reefs,” Gadd says.

According to her, the CCMI is the first independent scientific organisation in the world to participate in this type of programme and the station in Little Cayman is also currently the only ICON ocean observatory in international waters.

The station has already proven its worth in helping to predict events that could impact on local reefs.

“Perhaps of most importance is the data reported directly prior to the massive bleaching event that began a little over two weeks ago in the Cayman Islands, wherein it was stated that conditions were favourable for bleaching,” says Gadd.

Although there was nothing that could be done to prevent the bleaching event from taking place, the indication of favourable conditions allowed the Department of Environment to conduct a quick survey of the reefs in order to see whether bleaching was indeed taking place.

According to the quick survey, nearly all shallow corals, down to about 30 feet, showed moderate to severe bleaching. Deeper reefs did not show such serious bleaching, but almost 80 per cent of corals down to 120 feet showed early signs of bleaching.

Bleaching takes place primarily due to high ocean temperatures and exposure to UV light. The quiet hurricane season the Caribbean has been enjoying has also had a role to play, as storms tend to churn up water from much deeper in the ocean, thereby cooling sea surface temperatures.

Any scientific progress relies on economic input, and the station in Little Cayman is no different.

“The ICON/CREWS project was funded by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, the Cayman Islands Government, Stuarts Walker Hersant, NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Programme and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. In-kind services and resources were likewise provided by the DOE and local individuals,” according to Gadd.

Maintaining funding for the programme even in the face of tough economic times is vital.

“It is our goal that the Cayman Islands will quickly become a centre of excellence for climate change research and a global leader for the entire Caribbean region. The Cayman Islands are surrounded by the open ocean, with well developed coral reefs and minimal run-off from land-based sources,” says Gadd.

“We are poised to provide critical information that may ultimately solve the global climate change puzzle. As such, it is crucial that programmes such as these continue to be funded.”