Piece by piece, section by section, scientists for Verdant Isle claim they can relocate some of the coral reef impacted by the planned cruise and cargo port.
The $10 million scheme – part of a package of proposed mitigation measures to lessen the environmental damage from dredging – is expected to involve the relocation of up to 180,000 corals and take around a year to complete.
The idea of moving ancient coral reefs from the harbour has provoked significant public scepticism.
Cayman’s own coral research centre, the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, has been among those to voice concerns.
But project scientists insist it has been done before and can be done again.
For a complex plan, the process is relatively crude.
If the port port project is approved, scuba divers will use hydraulic chisels and underwater saws to detach sections of coral in the impact zone.
Those sections will then be affixed, using marine epoxy, to structures at one of two donor sites.
Polaris Applied Sciences, a firm which has been involved in previous coral-restoration projects in Cayman, has been hired for the project, along with Reef Tech Inc and Sea Ventures Marine Response Unit. Verdant Isle says the same companies have successfully managed more than 70 reef assessment and restoration projects across the world.
Stephen Swingle, senior environmental scientist for Schneider Engineering and Consulting, which will oversee the process, said, “Part of what they are doing is to bring in limestone slabs that are removed from the land in Cayman,” he said.
“That provides the underpinning structure and will be placed in such a way to replicate a typical coral reef.”
He said all of the rare corals – endangered red-listed species like staghorn and elkhorn formations – and around “30-50%” of the more common corals could be removed in this way.
One of the donor sites selected is around 1km north of the site for the cruise terminal. The second site is 8km away at the north end of Seven Mile Beach.
Swingle acknowledged public doubts about the process, which studies show has mixed success rates.
He said anyone looking for evidence that coral relocation can work, could find it in Grand Cayman.
Polaris, the same firm recruited for this project, was hired to relocate impacted coral after two recent incidents where boat anchors damaged reefs. In one of those cases, monitoring studies by Polaris showed an 89% survival rate of tagged specimens following the restoration.
Those were much smaller projects, collectively involving the removal of 3,000 corals, around 50 times less than what is being proposed for the port.
Nonetheless, Swingle believes the survival rate can be replicated.
“The same coral species in the same vicinity relocated by the same teams may provide the best evidence of likelihood of success for this project,” he said.
“It is a very common practice and it is also very successful,” he added, “In some cases, it takes some time to return to the full productivity of the original system. It is the same if you are relocating corals, mangroves or seagrass. It will, over time, be a full replacement.”
He said the “majority of the scientific population” accepted the viability of coral relocation but acknowledged it was harder for regular people to accept.
Greg Challenger, president of Polaris, said transplanting corals to create a functioning reef environment elsewhere was complex but achievable.
“This is not a small project. It is going to take a number of months to move the corals,” he said in a promotional video for the project.
“We’ve worked on some large projects and we have skilled scientists, engineers and, frankly, artists. It is not just a scientific endeavour, it is not just an engineering endeavour, it is an artistic endeavour. Our goal is to make a reef that looks like a reef using all-natural material with healthy corals.”
A second tier of mitigation planned in this instance is a partnership with Dr. David Vaughan’s ‘Plant a Million Corals Foundation’.
Vaughan, director of the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Florida, has developed a technique called micro fragmenting, which has made it possible to grow coral significantly faster than the normal rate.
Swingle said the corals that could not be relocated would be “replaced” through Vaughan’s technique.
Government and Verdant Isle, at recent public meetings and in a public information brochure on the project, have claimed their long-term goal is to replace 10 times the amount of coral removed for the project. CCMI has cautioned that the technique has not been proven at scale.
See Thursday’s Compass for an interview with Dr. Vaughan and more from CCMI.