Ocean acidification study for Little Cayman

A new research project in Little Cayman will investigate the impact of ocean acidification on coral reefs.

The research will be conducted at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute’s Little Cayman Research Centre, with assistance from Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd’s Ocean Fund, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and the Image Group.

According to Carrie Manfrino, director of the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, research into the impact of ocean acidification on coral reefs is vital.

“Discovering how these changes might impact the ocean has emerged as one of the leading environmental concerns today because of the threat to the skeletal regeneration of reef structures and the potential destruction of myriad other organisms,” she said.

Corals provide the structure for reefs, with reefs playing host to the highest biological diversity in the ocean. However, the skeletons of corals, plankton and marine algae are composed of calcium carbonate and an increase in the acidity of the ocean can slow or even reverse the growth of the corals.

The institute’s field station on Little Cayman maintains the region’s only permanently moored oceanographic monitoring station. The Coral Reef Early Warning System, which was conceived by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to continuously measure ocean conditions, has been in place in Little Cayman since 2009. The monitoring station will be outfitted with newly designed instruments to measure ocean acidification and ecological experiments, designed to test whether corals are capable of regenerating, will be conducted at the site.

Laboratory and controlled experiments show the increased acidity of the ocean reduces the capability of marine organisms to maintain and produce their skeletons. However, the predictions need to be tested at a relatively healthy open ocean coral reef site. Studies of the primary structural organisms on reefs including the juvenile coral community will evaluate the level of stress using such indicators as reduced growth rates, changes in the density of skeletons, coral bleaching and declines in recruitment and survival of juvenile corals.

“Only scant information is available on the annual changes in the carbonate chemistry,” Ms Manfrino said. “How increases in CO2 affect calcifying invertebrates at a relatively healthy open ocean coral system is largely unknown. The outcome of our work will be to improve the quality of information that is available about the risks that changing climate presents to communities that rely on healthy coral reefs.”

The flat, pure limestone nature of Little Cayman along with the low human population and well-developed coral reefs surrounding this isolated oceanic island make it an ideal location for the study.

According to the institute, the project will establish a much needed long-term record of the fluctuations in ocean chemistry at the Little Cayman site.

“This study is an opportunity to build on our recent research and publication on coral bleaching thresholds which result from increasing thermal stress,” Ms Manfrino said.

The data collected is expected to provide insight into the immediate effects of the changes on coral and will help reef managers understand these threats so that they can more effectively conserve coral reefs and their associated flora and fauna.

The findings of the study will be shared with the general public and students involved in the institute’s education programmes in order to generate wider understanding of the issue.