What is so special about Little Cayman’s reefs? That’s the question a new $140,000 scientific study at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute will seek to answer.
Scientists want to determine why reefs around the remote island are thriving and whether there are lessons that can be adapted to help protect and maintain vital coral reef systems around the world.
The new study will look specifically at rare and endangered coral species around Little Cayman and attempt to determine why they are bucking a trend of widespread decline in coral reefs across the Caribbean.
An earlier study by CCMI showed that coral cover had been increasing around Little Cayman over the past five years.
The new project will focus specifically on evolutionary distinct and globally endangered species known as edge corals.
Dr. Kristi Foster, CCMI’s assistant director of research, said the aim is to determine the specific conditions present in Little Cayman that allow such corals to be more resilient to the threats facing reefs around the region.
“While elsewhere in the Caribbean reefs are in a state of decline, we are actually seeing an increase in coral cover. There is something special about our system here in Little Cayman,” she said.
“We are going to try to look at where we have hot spots of these edge corals and try to determine the environmental conditions that might explain why they are thriving.”
The study is partly funded through a $70,000 grant awarded by the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, with the money coming from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.
Researchers will conduct snorkel studies around Little Cayman’s reefs, and scientists will combine the results of those surveys with temperature and atmospheric data.
The researchers will also consider Little Cayman’s relative isolation and how its small population and relative protection from overfishing and coastal pollution have affected its corals.
“The idea is that this project will help us develop a ranking system to identify which areas need higher protection, for example through Marine Protected Areas.”
She said the research could be adapted to help put protection plans in place for vulnerable reef systems in other parts of the world.
She said scientists working on the study, titled “Enhancing Capacity for Coral Reef Resilience Management in the Cayman Islands,” have already located several previously unrecorded pillar coral colonies and more than 50 colonies of staghorn and elkhorn corals.
She added, “This grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation enables us to compare the abundance and health of at-risk coral species to the habitats and environmental conditions where they thrive.
“As we learn more about the resilience of Cayman corals to bleaching, disease outbreaks, and other climate-related disturbances, we can improve ecosystem-based management and conservation.”