Central Caribbean Marine Institute researchers recently joined some 400 top marine ecologists at the 45th Benthic Ecology Meeting in Portland, Maine, to present their findings on Cayman’s marine ecosystems.
CCMI research technician Hunter Hughes presented the research institute’s findings on the impact of the 2015 El Niño warming event on Little Cayman’s corals.
The weather phenomenon, which has been occurring more frequently in the past 50 years, caused dramatic coral bleaching in the Cayman Islands last fall.
“Sea surface temperatures increased through the summer and the Caribbean experienced the highest prolonged temperatures since 2009, causing corals to pale and bleach,” Mr. Hughes reported at the conference.
When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, the algae that covers the coral’s tissue leave. Without the algae – which is the coral’s primary food source – corals can die. They can also lose their color, becoming white or very pale and more susceptible to disease.
Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been predicting mass bleaching since the summer of 2014, and it was feared a that such a situation would occur in Cayman.
In Grand Cayman last fall, coral bleaching was so dramatic that it could be seen by helicopter crews flying over South Sound. Significant coral bleaching was also occurring around the Brac and in Little Cayman.
According to a CCMI press release last month, almost 60 percent of corals surveyed after the peak of the bleaching event in October had changed color.
According to the paper presented by Mr. Hughes at the conference, relief arrived in October in the form of storms and high winds that churned the water, cooling it and halting the bleaching progress. Now the corals surrounding Little Cayman are recovering.
Mr. Hughes was joined at the conference by interns who participated in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at CCMI, which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Interns Aimee Cook, Lizzy Monaghan, Olivia Reda and Abby Treadwell gave written and verbal presentations on a variety of topics, including ancient corals and sea urchin densities.