The new buzz word in marine conservation these days is Coral Restoration, and St. Croix is getting in on the action. You may hear your dive professional say that the reef is our office, our home, our peaceful escape, and the truth is that it is all of those things and much more. While coral reefs only cover about 1% of the ocean's surface, they house at least one-third of all salt water marine species. In the Caribbean, the mainly fringing reef system is made of over 65 hard coral species, and many other soft coral and calcareous algae species, all of which make up the foundation of the reef itself. It is also home to between 500-700 fish species, and provides erosion protection and economical benefits to island communities in the form of tourism and fishing . And so, with coral reef mortality reaching its highest rate ever this year, it has never been more important for ocean advocates to do everything we can to combat the loss of our reef systems, and preserve these incredible ecosystems for generations of divers to come.
While there are many natural causes of coral reef destruction, such as severe weather, increasing water temperatures and algae blooms, a greater percentage of the damage is anthropogenic, or human caused. These can include coastal development, runoff pollution, poor boating or tourism activity, or over-fishing. The creation of MPA's or Marine Protected Areas, such as St. Croix's East End, are a great start in passively protecting our reefs, allowing nature to recuperate in our general absence. Coral reef restoration is a way for us to take a more proactive approach to improve coral cover, biodiversity and reef health.
How is this accomplished? It starts with cultivation. Professionals extract segments of healthy living coral, or collect samples during coral reproduction. Here on St. Croix we use extraction, mainly of Acropora species, more commonly known as Stag Horn or Elk Horn. This particular species was nearly wiped out in the Caribbean in the 1990's due to rising water temperatures and disease. The new samples are first placed in controlled environments, called nurseries, while they are most vulnerable. Once they are showing signs of viability, they can be transferred to floating nurseries, made up of artificial bases, with the coral segments attached with string. These are usually placed at around 15-20 FT depth, in an area that receives ample sunlight and light current, for around 8 to 24 months. When big enough they can then be strategically transplanted back onto the reef with anchor points or epoxy glue. The hope is that these transplants will thrive, foster further coral reproduction, and contribute to the reconstruction of the natural seascape. You can find some of these floating nursery sites on St. Croix at Cane Bay, south of Fredriksted Pier, Chenay Bay, and coming soon to Davis Bay!
Furthermore, scientists, usually those working with reproductive samples, are using some amazing, innovative technologies in their coral nurseries to promote desirable traits in coral samples, such as color, shape, growth and survivability, to promote reef resilience. The goal is to rear high temperature or disease resistant clones that once transplanted back into the reef systems, will make the entire reef stronger and able to survive the inevitable changes that are to come. It is a very exciting time for marine conservation, and St. Croix is happy to play its part!
For more information please visit the Natures Conservancy website: