Conservationists are planting several coral “trees” in Grand Cayman’s waters this week to help build up the reefs, thanks to a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the ocean environment.
The organization, Sea of Change, has donated money and materials and brought in experts to help six Cayman Islands companies that have been issued permits by the Cayman Islands Department of Environment to begin coral nurseries.
The nurseries, which grow coral, will assist in boosting the population of healthy and strong corals here, where the reefs attract thousands of tourists each year. However, the reefs are in jeopardy as they face threats from overfishing, boat groundings, pollution and rising ocean temperatures.
By growing hundreds of new corals from tiny snippets of the most resilient of those marine invertebrates, conservationists hope they can help to offset those threats.
“Coral reefs are the life of the ocean, so it’s very important to keep our coral reefs healthy and to grow corals,” said Wayne Hasson, a Sea of Change board member.
Mr. Hasson, who is from Cayman but resides in Florida, and other Sea of Change board members are in Cayman this week, along with experts from the Coral Restoration Foundation, to begin installing coral trees and help train dive operators in the process of planting and maintaining the nurseries.
In Grand Cayman, permits have been issued to Sunset House, Ocean Frontiers, Divetech and Cayman Eco Divers to plant nurseries. Brac Scuba Shack in Cayman Brac and the Central Caribbean Marine Institute on Little Cayman also have permits.
The Coral Restoration Foundation, which developed the coral tree nursery framework in 2010, brought in 20 trees and plans to plant 10 to 15 of them at Grand Cayman sites this week, foundation president Ken Nedimyer said.
The trees are made out of PVC piping and resemble white Christmas trees. Each tree can hold up to 100 corals. The trees float in the water, attached to an anchor with a rope, and can move with storm-generated wave surges, even surviving hurricanes.
Coral nursery builders take snippets of what Mr. Nedimyer calls “tough corals” – those that have survived bleaching and disease. The snippets are then tied onto the tree “branches” and left to grow at the nursery for a year or so, and cleaned at least once a month.
Mr. Nedimyer said the snippets will usually turn into “basketball sized” corals within a year. When the corals are grown, most are moved from the nursery and planted onto reefs, while the rest are cut into snippets to keep the nursery going.
The goal is to keep the nurseries continuously producing coral by getting recreational divers involved in the process.
“We’ve refined the process to where it’s very simple to train, very simple to do, and any recreational diver can pick it up [with] an hour of training,” Mr. Nedimyer said.
Cameron Higgins, a 17-year-old recreational diver from Pennsylvania, found it easy to learn when he came to Cayman this week to help build the nurseries for a school community service project.
“A lot of my friends are volunteering at food banks and animal shelters and that’s all important, but people forget how important coral reefs are,” Cameron said.
The high school junior said he has been a frequent visitor to Cayman and has seen firsthand how coral reefs have degraded over the years.
“When I was down here maybe four years ago, the problem did not seem as bad,” he said.
“It really took a nosedive, and there was a lot of coral bleaching, so I just think it’s important to preserve it and let future generations come here and see what’s going on.”
Mr. Hasson said he hopes to get more Caymanians involved in the coral restoration process and Cayman-based businesses to invest in the process.
“You live in the environment, you take people diving, you fish, but you don’t necessarily think about planting coral,” Mr. Hasson said. “I think it’s an important and phenomenal opportunity for Caymanians to get involved.”
Mr. Nedimyer said that when people are actively involved in building nurseries and rebuilding reefs, the coral reef becomes their own, in a way.
“We’re trying to develop this sense of ownership,” Mr. Nedimyer said. “If you start to own something, you’ll take care of it.”