Muffled shouts of glee bubbled through dive masks in Little Cayman as scientists witnessed a spectacular display of viability by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute’s coral nursery.

For the first time since its establishment five years ago, the nursery’s staghorn and elkhorn coral synchronously spawned in late August.

Scientists patiently observed the nursery in Little Cayman’s shallows for six nights after the full moon, until the evening of Aug. 13. Within half an hour, thousands of coral gametes emerged, proving the potential for nursery coral to build endangered reefs.

While the project still faces outplanting challenges in the wild, August’s spawning event shows how human-made nurseries can help restore natural ecosystems.

“What is most exciting is the branching staghorn corals and larger elkhorn corals, which are on the endangered species list, are thriving in the Little Cayman nurseries,” said a CCMI press release.

“The good news is the corals may reproduce themselves, making restoration of this species unnecessary with time.”

The project began with support from the Department of Environment and the Dart Foundation in 2012 with five small coral fragments from wild colonies. The fragments have since grown into thousands of coral pieces. Experiments on these specimens aim to establish resilient coral that can thrive in the wild.

In this latest experiment, scientists hoped to discover whether coral in a nursery setting and small, recently fragmented coral could successfully reproduce.

Coral at the CCMI nursery in Little Cayman spawn on Aug. 13. The events shows the viability of nurseries for restoration work. – Photo: Paul Maneval

While scientists theorized the smaller coral fragments would not spawn due to stress, all 60 small colonies spawned in the nursery, in addition to the 90 medium and large colonies.

“These exciting and stunning results provide extremely timely and important proof for further work that will continue later this winter when the ocean temperatures cool off,” the CCMI press release said.

The viability of smaller coral colonies means larger corals may be fragmented, creating more pieces for restoration and allowing scientists to better secure the pieces in nurseries.

CCMI president Carrie Manfrino said the spawning took place at the same time as spawning events in the wild in Florida and Belize. She said the institute’s nursery in Little Cayman’s deep waters was not observed this season but will be of interest in the future.

Expansion of Little Cayman’s coral nurseries has been funded by the Dart Foundation, the Disney Conservation Fund and Consolidated Water.

CCMI will host its annual Festival of Seas on Sept. 30. For ticket information, contact [email protected]

A CCMI scientist works on a coral nursery in Little Cayman aimed at restoring reefs in the wild. – Photos: Paul Maneval
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