It’s not loo late for coral reefs

In a new article published today in the world’s leading academic journal, Science, Mark Spalding, Senior Marine Scientist for The Nature Conservancy looks at the broad issues surrounding the current situation of coral reefs and highlights points of hope.

“There is growing concern around coral reefs,” said Spalding. “For decades they have had to survive a growing array of human threats and now climate change has added to this. It’s the new threat on the block and it’s a deep worry, but it is too early to proclaim the end of reefs.”

Many corals are showing some degree of adaptive capacity to both warming and to acidification, more than some scientists were expecting. Spalding notes that such adaptive capacity, alongside the natural resilience of reefs can enable them to recover even from quite severe perturbations. For example, most reefs in the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Seychelles, which lost virturally all their coral in 1998 due to warm-water induced coral “bleaching”, showed good recovery within a decade. Read more.

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U.S. Virgin Islands – Disturbance Response

The U.S. Virgin Islands BleachWatch Program

U.S. Virgin Islands

Bleaching Coral. Photo © TNC

Bleaching Coral. Photo © TNC

The Challenge
In 2005, coral reefs throughout the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean were severely impacted by a mass coral bleaching event triggered by prolonged exposure to above normal water temperatures. The bleaching observed in 2005 caused some direct mortality and was also followed by an increased incidence of disease outbreaks. Multiple studies reported this pathway of bleaching followed by increased incidence of disease, with corals varying in degree of mortality resulting from both stresses. This event caused resource managers to realize a formal plan was needed to better respond to coral bleaching events and communicate with stakeholders.

Actions Taken
The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) BleachWatch Program was developed to assess and monitor coral bleaching primarily from warm water events and document the distribution, severity and impacts of bleaching to reefs and reef communities. The program was developed by adopting and modifying strategies from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Florida’s successful BleachWatch programs.

BleachWatch BCD Tag

BleachWatch BCD Tag. Photo © TNC

Program Development
To guide the development of bleaching response efforts a steering committee was formed. The committee was composed of reef experts from local and federal government resource agencies, non-profit organizations, and academia. The Bleachwatch Program is one of five main components of the US Virgin Islands Reef Resilience Plan (VIRRP), a larger planning effort to conserve coral reefs in the USVI and promote coral reef resilience.

The VI Reef Resilience Plan and steering committee were necessary to generate and document agreed upon protocols between key stakeholders for the Bleachwatch Program. The Plan provides details on the purpose, response activities and triggers, monitoring protocols and community volunteer training. See further details of the plan below:

Assessment and Monitoring
NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch (CRW) Program, provides current reef environmental conditions to identify areas at risk for coral bleaching, and is used to prepare and respond to mass bleaching events. The following CRW products are monitored by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the USVI to provide a early warning system: Alert Areas, Hot Spots (current thermal stress), Degree Heating Week (DHW), Sea Surface Temperature (SST) and Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly (SSTA). These products are available free to researchers and stakeholders to understand and better manage coral bleaching in the region.

USVI Bleachwatch response activities are directly based on advisories and alert levels received from NOAA along with local temperature data. When a Bleachwatch alert is received from CRW by TNC, volunteers are mobilized. They are the first eyes in the water, reporting basic observations such as presence or absence of bleaching. Volunteers are asked to collect data for any areas they visit and also asked to survey specific sites of interest such as coral nursery outplantings and sites assessed with high resilience. If a more severe event takes place, TNC alerts the steering committee and the scientific community. During this time, volunteers might continue to assist with monitoring, but data is more specific and collected at a finer scale to estimate of the percentage of coral reef affected.

Alerts are issued by NOAA only when a station experiences a change in thermal stress level. Table 1 presents a summary of the advisories/alert levels from NOAA monitored by TNC, definitions of the each levels and the response of the USVI Bleachwatch program to each advisory.

BleachWatch Table 1

Community Volunteer Training
Individual volunteers from the public are a main component of the USVI Bleachwatch Program and contribute to the assessment of coral bleaching. BleachWatch assessment methods are taught through in-person training sessions (Since 2013, 4 volunteer trainings have been conducted in St. Croix and St. Thomas). Training sessions are 1 hour in length and focus on the identification of corals reef, fishes, and other creatures. Differences between bleaching, disease and mortality are discussed. Each session also includes training on survey methods, materials, methodology and guidelines for submitting data. A USVI Bleachwatch website was developed to communicate with volunteers and the public. Volunteers have the option of submitting reports through an online datasheet, by email or mail.

USVI Bleachwatch Volunteer Survey Methodology
Conduct a 15 minute roving snorkel or dive pausing each 3 minutes to document a “survey station”. At each survey station:

  • Take a photo or record data for a 1 m2 surface area of the reef
  • Estimate percent coral coverage and percent bleaching of coral
  • Report observations of the absence of bleaching
  • Record other findings such as number and types of herbivorous fishes, number and types of invertebrates and types of diseases
  • Record your findings on the VIRRP BleachWatch Reef Assessment Data Sheet

Materials Needed

  • Diving or snorkeling equipment
  • Underwater clipboard or slate
  • Underwater datasheet and pencils
  • Coral Watch Bleaching Cards
  • Underwater digital camera or video camera – if available (optional)

How Successful Has it Been?
Since the launch of the USVI BleachWatch Program over 35 individuals on St. Croix and St. Thomas have been trained to identify and quantify the severity of bleaching. In 2014 the program protocols were tested for the first time. A Bleachwatch alert was sent out and volunteers were successfully mobilized to survey sites for bleaching. Over 30 reports were received and, fortunately, no bleaching was observed. The secondary response components of the program have been fully tested, as there has not been significant bleaching of corals in the territory since 2005.

The USVI Bleachwatch Program has resulted in increased support and capacity for resource managers to identify and respond to bleaching events. Volunteers are functioning as an early warning system for bleaching events. Managers and the scientific community have a clear plan for assessment and response to bleaching events to inform the proactive management of coral reefs during severe bleaching events.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
The most important lesson learned is to be mindful that not all volunteers will collect data uniformly. In some instances volunteers are comfortable only sharing whether or not bleaching was observed, which is also important information. It is important to be mindful of volunteers’ time and welcome any level of information that they are willing to share.

Here are some additional recommendations to consider when developing a program:

  • Have a point person in place to keep program organized and lead communication with steering committee members and volunteers. During the development of the program it is critical to determine who can serve as point of contact for the program, this requires staff time for coordination. Consider where point of contact responsibilities can be integrated into existing or complementary efforts for example coral reef monitoring efforts.
  • Clearly defining benefits, incentives, and creating a feedback loop to the volunteers is important.
  • Be flexible and realistic about of the quality of data you hope to receive and the format in which you will receive it from the volunteers – some will fill out the entire form, some will just send an email.
  • Provide other alternatives and options for reporting such as a mapping tool to make it easier for people to report the event.
  • Group volunteer time effort – consider expanding the topics included in a training to include other issues affecting coral reef health that volunteers are interested in reporting for example; invasive species, grounding damages.

Funding Summary
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Conservation Program

Lead Organizations
The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy
The University of the Virgin Islands Center for Marine and Environmental Studies

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Density-Dependent Effects On Initial Growth Of A Branching Coral Under Restoration

Coral reef restoration is a process by which key habitat-forming species are reestablished in threatened coral ecosystems to help them recover from severe declines. However, alternative possible outcomes may result from out-planting coral fragments individually or in larger aggregations. It has been suggested that out-plants within aggregations might suffer from either negative interactions with neighbors (e.g. competition for space) or may benefit from such interactions (e.g. buffering wave disturbances). Given these possible contrasting outcomes, experiments are required to determine how spatial configuration and density affects the success of out-planted species. This study evaluates whether coral fragments should be out-planted individually or in larger aggregations by experimentally testing how aggregation density influenced initial coral growth over 3 months. The study was conducted on a degraded reef in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, using out-plants of the critically endangered staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis.

Results showed that coral growth declined as a function of aggregation size. In addition, out-plants within larger aggregations had fewer and shorter secondary branches on average. These results indicate horizontal competition for space, suggesting that wide spacing of individuals will maximize the initial growth of out-planted branching corals. Researchers suggest explicit considerations of out-plant spatial arrangement and density in ongoing and future coral reef restoration projects.

Author: Griffin, J. N., E.C. Schrack, K.-A. Lewis, I.B. Baums, N. Soomdat, and B.R. Silliman
Year: 2015
View Abstract
Email for the full article:

Restoration Ecology. doi: 10.1111/rec.12173

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The Nature Conservancy in Cuba: A major step in protecting Caribbean resources

Dr. Bob Steneck and Ramon Lloveras TNC Caribbean Program Trustees snorkeling off of Playa Girón, Cuba, viewing healthy endangered Elkhorn coral stands. © Alex Quintero, Director of Operations, North America Region.

Dr. Bob Steneck and Ramon Lloveras TNC Caribbean Program Trustees snorkeling off of Playa Girón, Cuba, viewing healthy endangered Elkhorn coral stands. © Alex Quintero, Director of Operations, North America Region.

Roughly the size of Florida, Cuba is the most ecologically diverse island in the Caribbean with more than 10,000 endemic plant and animal species. The country’s coral reefs span 1000 sq. miles and represent a third of all reefs in the insular Caribbean. Cuba’s healthy marine ecosystems are crucial for regional coral larvae dispersal and fisheries production that not only benefit the Caribbean region, but also the southeastern United States.

The Nature Conservancy has partnered with Cuban conservation agencies for more than 20 years, providing trainings such as protected area management and planning, GPS and GIS, coral reef monitoring, climate adaptation, and sustainable tourism that otherwise would not be available. During this time, the Conservancy has also mapped coral reefs, sea grasses, and mangrove forests within protected areas – these maps have been used to facilitate monitoring and targeted protection of these high-biodiversity locations. The Conservancy’s commitment to Cuba has made us one of the few organizations that have an excellent active working relationship with conservation agencies in Cuba. The Conservancy supports conservation agencies in Cuba by responding to their existing commitments and training government and NGO staff in skills necessary to advance marine and terrestrial conservation. Through funding from the China Global Conservation Fund and private donors there are currently plans to develop a comprehensive conservation blueprint for the island using new mapping techniques to improve existing data and refine it through expert knowledge. These products will be integrated within an information system to evaluate conservation and development scenarios—providing guidance about habitat protection, natural resource development and mitigation.

Dr. Luis Solórzano, Executive Director of the Caribbean Program, Mr. Raimundo Espinoza, Program Manager for Cuba, and Dr. Steve Schill, Senior Scientist for the Caribbean Program have all played integral roles in advancing collaborations and conservation efforts in Cuba. We asked them a few questions about The Nature Conservancy’s work in the country and here’s what they had to say:

RR: What do you see as the greatest challenges for Cubans working in coral reef conservation?
Mr. Raimundo Espinoza: Cuban conservationists are very passionate, creative, and have high academic standards. However, limitations with everyday technology, such as slow Internet speeds and restrictions on software needed for scientific analysis, are challenges they face on a daily basis. Specifically for coral reefs, Cuban reefs represent over one third of all reefs in the insular Caribbean presenting challenges for monitoring and management of such a vast area. Nonetheless, Cuba has some of the more pristine reef systems in the Caribbean. The lack of massive coastal development and low nutrient and sediment flows onto Cuban reefs provide a hypothesis as to why these systems have been able to maintain their integrity compared to many others degrading systems in the Caribbean.

A potential threat of increased development will likely be a challenge in keeping Cuban coral reef systems healthy. We are currently working with Cuban conservation agencies to identify the best way to achieve coral reef conservation and work towards maximizing the ocean’s benefits to people, while maintaining healthy marine habitats.

RR: What is TNC doing to help address these challenges?
Mr. Raimundo Espinoza: We currently have two major efforts underway. The first is the Cuba Conservation Blueprint, which will be undertaken in collaboration with Cuban conservation agencies. The blueprint will guide efforts to focus conservation in areas of high ecological value, which will help Cuba make informed decisions about future development in ways that will promote sustainable use without sacrificing ecological integrity. In addition, the Conservancy will be building capacity for enhanced coral management and restoration in Cuba by establishing coral nurseries in partnership with the Cuban National Center for Protected Areas at the Elemento Natural Destacado- Sistema Espeleolacuste, a Protected Area within the Ciénega de Zapata ecosystem. We are also providing coral reef managers with current science, best practices, and tools necessary to establish and manage Cuba’s first coral nursery.

RR: What are the expected outcomes of the Cuba Conservation and Development Blueprint?
Dr. Steve Schill: The Cuba Conservation Blueprint will provide an improved and updated spatial database of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine habitats as well as socioeconomic activities throughout Cuba. These features will be consistently mapped at much greater accuracy than previous datasets that are outdated, inaccurate, or mapped at inadequate scales. Through this process, we will identify protection gaps that will ultimately lead to the design of an optimal protected area network that efficiently meets identified conservation goals for terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems.

This improved network of protected areas will help to preserve ecological function and long-term viability of these systems throughout Cuba. In addition, we will host a series of workshops and meetings to educate, raise awareness and build common consensus for a smart conservation agenda. This agenda will prioritize and guide conservation efforts, helping the government make informed and smarter choices about future development in ways that will promote sustainable use without sacrificing ecological integrity.

RR: How is The Nature Conservancy’s work in Cuba important for conservation efforts in the Caribbean Region?
Dr. Luis Solórzano: Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and one of the top 20 largest islands worldwide and therefore has one of the highest conservation values in the region. The island hosts high levels of endemic species, is important for migrations of birds from North America, and holds a healthy genetic bank of marine species for the region. In addition, Cuba is well preserved due to low-impact agriculture and development and low human population density.

With changes in the U.S.A. – Cuba diplomatic relations, a potential for increased economic activities could fuel changes in land-use in sectors such as agriculture, oil, mining, tourism, and immigration. The Conservancy is working to protect and conserve the Caribbean’s natural resources and so any regional conservation goal and strategy need to include Cuba to secure biological representation and biogeographical connectivity. We will work with Cuban partners to complete the conservation blueprint for the country, and support the design and implementation of a network of effectively managed protected areas. The goal of these efforts is to capture the biological richness of Cuba’s marine and terrestrial ecosystems and engage with different sectors to achieve development goals, while preserving the environmental integrity and the country’s natural richness. Cuba has the potential to become an example of true sustainable development in the 21st century, where human development needs and aspirations are met without eroding the life support systems that maintain us all.

Log on to the Network Forum to ask Mr. Raimundo Espinoza questions or share your comments about marine conservation efforts in Cuba.

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New and improved Network Forum

The Reef Resilience Network has launched a new and improved online discussion forum!

Now part of the Reef Resilience website, this interactive online community is a place where coral reef managers and practitioners from around the world can connect and share with others to better manage marine resources.

If you work to protect, manage, or promote coral reefs please join the conversation:

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Experiment Mimics Fishing on Parrotfish: Insights on Coral Reef Recovery and Alternative Attractors

Alternative stable states and phase shifts of coral- to algae- dominated systems has been observed on Caribbean coral reefs with little or no signs of recovery. To better understand the mechanism by which depletion of herbivores leads to a loss of coral, large parrotfish were excluded from coral nursery habitat in two locations on the Belizean Barrier Reef, Glovers Reef and Carrie Bow Cay. Mimicking the removal of large fish by fishing, the authors used ‘parrotfish deterrents’ (PDs) around coral settlement plates and studied herbivory and macroalgae abundance. At both sites algae abundance was found to reduce coral recruitment. Porites coral failed to recruit at medium levels of algae and was more negatively impacted than Agaricia coral. These finding along with other studies suggest that algal abundance is a proximate driver of coral recruitment and thus recovery of Caribbean coral reefs.

Author: Steneck, R.S., S.N. Arnold, and P.J. Mumby
Year: 2014
View Full Article

Marine Ecology Progress Series 506: 115–127. doi: 10.3354/meps10764

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Bahamas – Ecological Restoration

Working to Increase Reef Resilience to Climate Change through Coral Restoration in the Bahamas

The Bahamas

The Challenge
The Bahamas is a string of nearly 700 emerald islands and cays in azure waters stretching 100,000 mi2 from the Florida Keys to Hispaniola, home to the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Bahamian islands are rich in marine life and replete with coppice, mangrove, pine forests and a wealth of endemic species. Each year millions of visitors flock to these islands’ breathtaking natural beauty, and tourism accounts for around 60% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The Bahamas are known for their natural resources, which are healthier than many other islands throughout the Caribbean. Though the marine environment plays a critical role in supporting the Bahamanian way of life, many Bahamians are not fully aware of its value.

Coral reef populations in the Bahamas are declining due to both natural and anthropogenic factors. Bahamian marine environments are primarily impacted by fishery and tourism related activities throughout the archipelago. Localized effects of large-scale development have greater impact near those developments. In the Bahamas these developments are concentrated on the islands of New Providence, where the capital city of Nassau is located, and Grand Bahama, where the second city of Freeport is located.

Actions Taken
Together with conservation partners, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the Bahamas is working to improve the conditions of coral reefs through stewardship and management. Efforts have been made to develop a coral reef conservation strategy that focuses on coral reef monitoring and research; recruiting and training Bahamians in coral reef research and restoration methods and conducting marine outreach and education initiatives taking into consideration the effects of climate change. Building the country’s capacity and increasing community awareness of the importance of coral reefs and other marine resources is critical to the long-term sustainability of these resources.


New Providence Habitat Map Sampling Site

Coral Reef Restoration Strategies
The Blue Project began in 2007 in the waters near New Providence Paradise and Rose Islands, which sit in the center of the Bahamian archipelago near the deep Tongue of the Atlantic Ocean. The Blue Project is designed to fund the development of innovative strategies and practices that help preserve and restore coral reefs.

The Blue Project (now known as the Atlantis Blue Project Foundation) began in 2007 in the waters near New Providence Paradise and Rose Islands, which sit in the center of the Bahamian archipelago near the deep Tongue of the Atlantic Ocean. The project is designed to support the development of innovative strategies and practices that help preserve and restore coral reefs.

In 2011, the Atlantis Blue Project and its partners received permission from local government agencies to begin coral propagation at sites around New Providence Island. The initial permit allowed the establishment of the nursery sites and the collection of damaged coral colonies. Since then, TNC has expanded its scope of work by combining efforts under other projects with the Atlantis Blue Project, to establish coral nurseries throughout the Bahamas. To date, more than 4,000 Acropora fragments nurseries have been established in Southwest New Providence, Paradise Island, and Andros Island. The fragments in the Southwest New Providence nursery were used for outplanting in April 2014. This project follows TNC and partner successes of coral propagation and coral nurseries in the Florida Keys and US Virgin Islands as well as input from consultants who have conducted coral nursery efforts in the country.

In March 2014, Dr. Craig Dahlgren of the Perry Institute for Marine Science and science lead of the Atlantis Blue Project, led a young, vibrant team of researchers and volunteers to help maintain and repair the existing coral propagation units (CPUs) or “coral nurseries” within the lagoon and outdoor aquarium facilities at Atlantis. They also worked to expand the nurseries to other suitable areas on the property. The team built different types of CPUs which included CPUs constructed from monofilament lines and PVC pipes after taking into consideration site selection and environmental factors. Fragments of opportunity (i.e. broken coral fragments of Acropora species) that rest on the sea bottom were collected from areas around Rose Island and stored in one of Atlantis’ outdoor sea water waterfall areas until ready for use. The team installed four single level nurseries containing 17-21 coral fragments in the upper falls area. Also, three, two-level CPUs consisting of up to 32 coral fragments were deployed in another section of the upper Voyager falls area. The original line nurseries in the Atlantis lagoon from near the bridge area were also moved to a nearby section of the lagoon, along a seawall where the water is deeper and the area can be easily closed off to water resource users (i.e. snorkelers, kayakers, etc.). However people will still be able to view corals along the lines. There are now 4 line nurseries with 18 coral fragments per line. In total, the Atlantis nurseries contain over 200 coral fragments.

How Successful has it been?

After one year, just under half of the mangroves planted were still alive and many showed significant growth. While just under 50% survival may not seem like a lot, many of those that died were:

    • planted at the high and low tolerance ranges of the species in this system,
    • from freshwater systems and planted to a salt water environment, or
    • ones whose root systems were compromised when they were dug up and not expected to have high survival.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

  • The plantings with the greatest survival and remarkable growth were those planted as propagules or small “seedlings”. Mangroves from the Atlantis nursery averaged 50% survival, with much of the mortality thought to be from root damage when plants were removed from their plastic pots. Improved handling techniques during plantings may greatly improve these results.
  • Surviving mangroves appear to be stabilizing the shoreline of the channel, enhancing natural mangrove recruitment rates, and providing habitat for fish. Prior to the restoration and rehabilitation efforts, the area had no fish. One year later parts of the area are teemed with small snapper, damselfish and needlefish, barracuda and even bonefish! Further monitoring will continue to document changes in mangrove and fish communities as part of this project.

Jolthead Porgy (Calamus bajonado). Leno Davis TNC

Jolthead Porgy (Calamus bajonado). Leno Davis/TNC

Funding Summary
Each partner is funded directly from the Atlantis Blue Project Foundation and The Nature Conservancy coordinates activities, including logistics, communication and reporting. Formerly: Kerzner Marine Foundation and currently: the Atlantis Blue Project.

Lead Organizations
The Nature Conservancy

The Bahamas Department of Marine Resources
The Bahamas National Trust
The Nature Conservancy Caribbean Program
Atlantis Water Features Department
Stuart Cove’s Aqua Adventures

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