Coral salvage effort could have international impact

Researcher Tammi Warrender and Aaron Hunt of Cayman Eco Divers affix transplanted coral to a coral 'tree.'

A project to transplant and relocate pillar coral impacted by disease appears to have contained an outbreak, according to the Department of Environment.

The salvage effort involved amputating healthy coral tissue from affected reefs, growing them in coral nurseries and reattaching them to healthy reefs using cement.

The research team, including visiting scientists from Florida and the U.K., believe the methods used in Cayman could be deployed elsewhere to help save threatened reefs from disease.

The outbreak was first noted at the “Killer Pillar” dive site, famous for its towering seven-foot pillar corals that rise like skyscrapers from the reef.

Staff from scuba operator Cayman Eco Divers noticed black bands had formed around the corals and experts diagnosed a combination of black band and white plague coral disease.

The diseases appeared to be spreading rapidly, sparking fears for the species, described as rare and charismatic in a report on the outbreak published by the Department of Environment last month.

A similar combination of diseases caused “rapid and catastrophic” loss of pillar corals in Florida, the report notes.

Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said, “This is a very aggressive disease. It wiped out more than 90 percent of the population of this particular species in Florida.”

He said there was grant funding available to experiment with different interventions that could prevent the outbreak from spreading.

Mr. Austin said the early signs were very encouraging that the techniques used in Cayman had been successful and could be used by other agencies fighting similar outbreaks in future.

Florida-based researcher William Precht and Tammi Warrender, from the U.K., worked with DoE research officers and Cayman Eco Divers on the project in Grand Cayman.

The team experimented with five different methods, including transplanting coral to nurseries and to other healthy reefs.

Trials using silicone tape and epoxy to prevent the spread of the disease without amputating proved unsuccessful. However, a method of creating a trench above the disease band and filling the void with chlorinated epoxy appears to have worked.

“Based on the preliminary results, it appears that three out of the five methods have shown moderately successful results,” the report concludes.

“If longer-term monitoring results prove equally successful, the salvage, relocation and restoration of actively diseased coral colonies could become an everyday tool in the restoration toolbox of coral reef managers.”

Aaron Hunt, manager of Cayman Eco Divers, said his company had worked in an advisory and support role on the project. He said they had helped harvest healthy portions of the pillar coral. Those were treated with an iodine and seawater mix – a process he likens to putting Neosporin on a cut – before being attached to nursery structures.

He said the early results were encouraging but it would likely take a year or more to determine if the process had been completely successful.

Compass journalist Kayla Young contributed to this story.