Cayman coral study published in global research journal

An article based on the results of a study conducted in the Cayman Islands that focused on optimizing the productivity of staghorn coral in artificial coral nurseries has been published in the scientific journal Endangered Species Research. 

The study was conducted by scientists from the Central Caribbean Marine Institute and the University of Miami. 

Coral nurseries are a method of re-establishing threatened populations of staghorn and other coral species. To create a nursery, live coral samples are collected from wild donor colonies, and then cut into smaller fragments and attached to underwater lines and PVC “trees.” 

Once the fragments grow large enough, they can be re-fragmented to increase the number of colonies in the nursery or out-planted to the wild. 

CCMI and the Department of Environment established the coral nursery, the first of its kind in the Cayman Islands, on Little Cayman. The published study was conducted in 2013 during the initial propagation stage at the Little Cayman nursery in an effort to determine the amount of coral that may be clipped from a nursery-reared colony for propagation purposes without causing mortality or decreasing growth of the nursery-reared donor colony. 

“We anticipate that our observations will have practical applications for maximizing propagation of staghorn coral within nurseries throughout the wider Caribbean,” said Kathryn Lohr, lead author of the article and former CCMI Conservation Scientist who is now pursuing her doctorate at the University of Florida with a focus on coral restoration. 

The study found that up to 75 percent of a nursery-reared donor coral may be clipped to create new fragments without negatively affecting the colony’s survivorship, growth, or rate of addition of new branches. However, fragmentation can increase a parent colony’s susceptibility to stressors such as storms and disease outbreaks. To avoid this problem, nursery best practices include avoiding fragmentation during hurricane season, which in the Atlantic Basin runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. 

The researchers hope their study may be used to plan nursery development and expansion throughout the Caribbean in an effort to facilitate the restoration and conservation efforts for the staghorn coral. However, they caution that similar strategies may not be appropriate for coral species less adapted to natural fragmentation. 

“Preservation is key,” said Dr. Carrie Manfrino, president and research director of CCMI, “While coral nurseries are a viable solution, we should expand our efforts to minimise negative impacts on wild populations.” 

The Little Cayman coral nursery project is funded in part by the Darwin Initiative, Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, and Cayman Consolidated Water. 

A student takes notes as she observes the artificial coral reef off Little Cayman.