Nursery bids to bring back staghorn coral to local reefs

Staghorn coral was once dominant in reefs throughout the Cayman Islands and the greater Caribbean, but its population has declined dramatically in recent decades. 

Now, the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, working with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, has set up the coral nursery that focuses on staghorn coral in Little Cayman. 

In September, staff from both organisations took part in a workshop about coral nursery setup and propagation techniques led by Dr. Diego Lirman from the University of Miami, an expert on coral nurseries. 

Staghorn, a branching coral, has been adversely affected by disease, hurricanes and climate change and is one of the threatened corals that scientists are trying to reestablish through coral nurseries. 

As part of the workshop, live coral samples were collected from donor colonies at sites surrounding Little Cayman and transported back to a temporary nursery site, where they were cut into small fragments and attached to lines suspended underwater.  

“Removing coral branches for use in a nursery does not harm the donor colony or the donated branch,” said Katie Lohr, CCMI’s Conservation coordinator and leader of the nursery project in Little Cayman. “Additionally, staghorn coral has been shown to grow faster in a nursery setting than it does in the wild.” 

Once the corals grow large enough in the nursery, they will be fragmented again and the fragments will be put back into the nursery, thereby increasing the number of colonies in the nursery without requiring the removal of any additional wild tissue. Ultimately, the nursery colonies will be returned to the wild, which will increase the number of healthy staghorn colonies on the reef. The hope is that these “outplanted” corals will grow large enough to spawn.  

“These techniques are proving successful in other areas of the Caribbean, and while focus should not be removed on safeguarding our existing coral reefs, we are excited about the potential these kind of approaches offer to assist the natural recovery of this once very abundant and important reef species,” said John Bothwell, the Department of Environment’s senior research officer and part of the DOE’s project oversight group.  

“More healthy, mature colonies on the reef mean more chances for successful spawning. By growing corals in our nursery and then outplanting them back to the reef, we will give this endangered species a better chance of recovering naturally,” Ms Lohr said. 

Staghorn coral is so named because its shape resembles male deer antlers. Its branches can grow to more than 6.5 feet. Since 1980, its population has declined by 98 per cent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ Office of Protected Resources. 

Staghorn coral is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. 

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