Governor Martyn Roper announced on Tuesday that the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be giving the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos almost £500,000 (CI$590,000) to help manage stony coral tissue loss disease which is devastating coral reefs in the region.

Roper said that just over £200,000 had also been approved for work on assessing and conserving Cayman’s deep-water reefs and fish species, and more than £484,000 will go towards safeguarding the Sister Islands from invasive species, such as feral cats and green iguanas.

“This is a significant investment from the UK and demonstrates the importance being put on the Overseas Territories in the run up to COP26, the major climate change conference which takes place in Glasgow later this year,” the governor said.

The UK government announced on Saturday – which was World Environment Day – that these grants are part of more than £8 million in funding for 31 environmental projects in the British Overseas Territories.

In a statement Saturday, the UK’s International Environment Minister Lord Peter Goldsmith said, “The Darwin Plus funding… will support the magnificent biodiversity hotspots that make up our Overseas Territories, which are so threatened by climate change. It will restore precious ecosystems, prevent the extinction of some of the world’s most wonderful species, and at the same time transform the lives of the poorest communities.”

According to a post on the Darwin Initiative website, the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee is partnering with the environmental departments in Cayman, Turks and Caicos and BVI on projects to combat the coral disease. The start date for the funding, which totals £496,257, is 1 July 2021, and the end date is 31 March 2024.

On its site, the JNCC said stony coral tissue loss disease is spreading rapidly across reefs in Caribbean UK Overseas Territories, “threatening biodiversity, tourism, food security, livelihoods and disaster resilience”.

It added, “An urgent priority, this project will develop a strong collaborative approach to managing the disease in the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, and British Virgin Islands and consider modelling approaches to inform adaptive management options. Knowledge exchange will be extended to all Caribbean OTs and a longer-term partnership to support coral reef resilience fostered.”

Stony coral tissue loss disease was spotted for the first time in Cayman in July last year, at Penny’s Arch near Rum Point in North Side. Since then it has spread several miles along the north edge of Grand Cayman, and has also been found at a site off Smith Cove in the southeastern corner of the island.

Deep-water reefs

The UK’s Heriot-Watt University’s Centre for Marine Biodiversity & Biotechnology and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment will be working together on a deep-water coral project, with the aid of a two-year Darwin Plus grant of £207,681 from 1 Oct. this year.

According to details of the grant on the Darwin Initiative website, while Cayman lies adjacent to deep ocean trenches, little is known of its marine life below 160 feet, or whether its deep reefs offer a refuge from climate change.

“The project will undertake surveys of Cayman seabed habitats down to 2,000m (6,560 feet) and evaluate connectivity between shallow-water and deep-reef communities. The work will focus on threatened and commercial fish species, including sharks, and map the distribution of deep-water coral and other biotopes with a view to designating additional protected areas,” the Darwin Initiative site noted.

Sisters Islands invasive species

The third grant – of £484,227 – involves a partnership between the DoE, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the University of Aberdeen to deal with invasive species, such as feral cats and green iguanas, on the Sister Islands, which the Darwin Initiative organisation described as a “major yet largely unmanaged threat”.

It states on the Darwin Initiative site, “Feral cat predation has resulted in catastrophic native species declines whilst invasive green iguanas are spreading from Grand Cayman. This project will strengthen Territory-wide biosecurity and implement [Invasive Alien Vertebrates] management with local communities, building knowledge, capacity and support for effective and sustainable action.”

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