Polaris: ‘We expect strong survival of relocated corals’

Guest column
Greg Challenger

As the marine biologist from Polaris Applied Sciences Inc who attached the corals at the Tatoosh anchor damage site in West Bay, Grand Cayman, and the container vessel Saga grounding at Eden Rock, Grand Cayman, I am responding to the statements made by Dr. Carrie Manfrino at the official launch of the Cruise Port Referendum campaign on Wednesday, 20 Nov. 2019, as reported in Cayman News Service on 21 Nov. 2019.

Dr. Manfrino is incorrect in her inferences and lacks a basic understanding of what occurred and what was completed at the vessel-damaged sites. It is unfortunate that misinformation is being communicated to the public.

On 14 Jan. 2016, the anchor chain of the 303-foot mega yacht, MV Tatoosh, owned by Paul Allen, destroyed approximately 14,000 square feet of protected coral reef in the area of West Bay, Cayman Islands.

The team at Polaris Applied Sciences successfully attached all the corals that remained after the anchor and chain damage in the MV Tatoosh case. If we had more available corals that had not been crushed by the anchor and chain, we would have been able to have attached them successfully as well. Dr. Manfrino claims 80% of the site is dead. In their own study, CCMI identifies coral cover in Grand Cayman as 17% average. That sounds correct. After a ship grounding on a 17% coral cover site, we would have been fortunate to attain a small percentage of live coral cover. However, there was approximately 20% live cover of benthic organisms, which is a very good result. Smashed or damaged corals from a vessel hull or anchor are in greater danger of mortality than those removed carefully, yet survival was high for reattached corals in this instance, as it has been in all of our cases.

Dr. Manfrino also claimed in another article published in the Cayman Compass on 21 Nov. 2019 that the coral restoration work undertaken by Polaris at Eden Rock, to repair damage caused by the Saga container ship, was unsuccessful because coral cover was lower than surrounding areas. Of course it is lower. The cargo ship crushed most of the corals in the damaged footprint. Again, all the available undamaged and partly damaged corals were attached successfully. I assume a scientist would be aware that a large vessel crashing into a coral reef would likely kill most corals and reduce the numbers available to reattach. It is disingenuous to say the vessel damage projects were unsuccessful because coral cover is lower than surrounding areas. Coral cover is lower because the large vessels crushed them, not because Polaris did not attach all remaining corals in the vessel-damaged rubble successfully.

The coral relocation project for the proposed port redevelopment is a very different project to these as this is carefully planned relocation rather than repairing significant damage. We plan to attach all corals successfully, as we always have, and expect strong survival of those corals.

This project is an environmental project in our view. Reducing anchoring on many acres of corals in Grand Cayman, as a result of the building of two piers, will start a recovery process for a much larger area than that proposed to be affected in George Town harbour. The anchor-damaged areas can be restored as has been done in the past. There is a net benefit of ecological gains in the longer term, even if relocation is only partly successful. We fully anticipate success as we have in every other similar project. The net environmental benefit, of many acres of reef no longer damaged by anchors, coral relocation and the coral nursery, could be substantially greater than no action.

I have never worked for a cruise company. I have no affiliation with the industry. This is an environmental project. I’m not saying this because Polaris want to do the job – hire someone else and I still say this is an environmental project. Greatly reducing the anchor damage that has pulverised a much larger area of reef will have benefits in perpetuity.

Polaris has just returned from Bikini Atoll where the US dropped a thermonuclear weapon in WWII. Coral growth is amazing. Grand Cayman isn’t the Marshall Islands, but corals grow and recover. With some assistance, recovery can be enhanced at the anchor-damaged areas to proceed faster. I am happy for Dr. Manfrino to communicate with me directly to avoid misinformation in the future.