Researcher aims to regrow coral in Cayman

Dr. David Vaughan hired by port project team

Dr. David Vaughan, left, developed a microfragmenting technique that has been shown to allow corals to grow significantly faster than they would in nature.

A scientist whose methods have been heralded as a potential game-changer in the emerging field of growing corals has been recruited as part of the mitigation plan for the cruise port.

The Verdant Isle consortium behind the $200 million construction project, which involves dredging more than 10 acres of coral reef habitat, hope the involvement of Dr. David Vaughan will help them offset some of that damage.

The Florida Keys-based scientist is known for developing a microfragmenting technique which has been shown, in lab tests, to allow corals to grow significantly faster than they would in nature.

The method differs from other coral-growing projects because it can be used for massive slow-growing corals, like mountainous star corals and brain corals, considered the building blocks of ancient reef systems. These corals typically grow at a rate of a millimetre a month.

Vaughan believes his techniques make it possible to grow these corals quickly and out-plant them to dying reefs. He said the method could be used to “reskin” a 100-year-old piece of dead brain coral with live tissue within two years. He has started a foundation, ‘Plant a Million Corals’, to help restore reef systems under threat from factors ranging from climate change and disease to marine construction.

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Cayman lab

Verdant Isle recently announced plans to support Vaughan to the tune of $500,000 a year to set up a lab and coral nursery in Grand Cayman. The project would be funded through income from cruise-ship passenger fees, according to TJ O’Sullivan, of Royal Caribbean, one of the partners in the consortium. Vaughan said the aim would be to have a central location near the port where people could see the work in action. He said he could work with others currently involved in coral-replanting projects in the Cayman Islands to help revive ailing reefs.

He acknowledged the partnership with a consortium whose project will impact a significant amount of coral reef habitat was an unlikely marriage.

Click to enlarge. – Image: Compass Media

But he said he believed that if the port project was going to happen, some good could come of it.

“If you came to me and said, ‘Dave, would you like to cut down a tree?’ I would say no. ‘Would you like to kill a coral?’ No. ‘Would I like to move a coral?’ Well, only if I have to.”

But he said demonstrating the effectiveness of this method on a large scale could be influential to saving reefs around the Caribbean.

High hopes

His work is getting attention in the US. While there are other efforts around the world to grow new coral, “this is easily the most promising restoration project that I am aware of”, Billy Causey, a coral expert who oversees marine sanctuaries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The New York Times in 2014.

Doubts persist, however, about the feasibility of planting and regrowing coral on the scale envisaged by Verdant Isle. The Central Caribbean Marine Institute, has warned that there is little scientific research to support the idea, being promoted at recent public meetings, that the technique could be used to regrow 10 times the amount of coral removed for the pier.

On a recent trip to Grand Cayman, Vaughan explained the origin of his microfragmenting technique was a “silly mistake”.

He said he had been working, as director of the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Florida, to grow corals in an aquarium, when he accidentally broke a small piece of elkhorn coral into tiny fragments. The broken pieces doubled in size within a week.

Recent research suggests this acceleration in growth could be a defence mechanism corals have evolved as a response to parrotfish bites. Vaughan likens the process to “wound healing” where the injury prompts a chemical response that stimulates regrowth.

Harnessing this reaction, he says he can break up and regrow multiple fragments from the same ‘parent’ in just a few months.

By out-planting 50 of these onto a dead chunk of coral, “like a pepperoni pizza” – he said he can effectively regrow a coral the size of a kitchen table in a few years.

As the coral pieces grow, they reconnect with each other, effectively reskinning the dead coral with live tissue.

Because they are from the same parent, the fragments recognise and fuse with each other.

“We are putting new live tissue in little pieces like a jigsaw puzzle that will reform into however-many-year-old coral and, yes, we think they are going to start acting like adult corals,” he said.

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  1. I am sitting the airport in Jakarta Indonesia on my way home from a dive trip This past week we dove a area nest to a volcano that erupted in 1981. The area is completely covered in hard coral that looks like it took hundreds of years to grow. I have no clue how or why it grew so fast but if someone wants to grow coral they should look into this