Students of Samford University, Alabama, just finished a one-month study programme for research on the options of starting a coral nursery on Saba, writes The Daily Herald. Their hope is to establish such a nursery as soon as possible.
The students discovered that a coral nursery is not so different from a tree nursery. “When forests need to be re-planted, you start by planting a seed, nurturing the seedling and then transplanting the sapling to final natural environment,” Samford’s associate professor of geography Jennifer Rahn explained, based on the student research.
The students stated that the same as declining forests, reefs are declining worldwide but there is a way to assist in restoration. Since the early 1990’s, scientists and conservationists have attempted various methods to mend the damage caused by coral disease, sedimentation, anchors, dynamiting, storms and algal overgrowth.
Since the initial trials and tribulations, there are true success stories, according to Rahn. More than 70 countries, including the Caribbean islands St. Maarten, Curaçao and Bonaire, are now successfully using coral nurseries to repair and enhance their natural reefs.
Saba Marine Park is a world-renowned protected area with a mission to preserve and manage Saba’s natural and cultural heritage. Therefore, it is inherent for the park to adopt this internationally accepted approach to preserve areas where damage has already occurred.
After the Samford students conducted their pilot study there was general agreement on the damaged status of Saba’s reefs, and hope with enthusiasm and willingness to participate in a restoration programme, Rahn said. According to Rahn, 2015 is an El Niño year and therefore, forecasters predict a light storm season. “If we can implement a coral nursery as soon as possible, we can hope to be transplanting corals by the next storm season and give our reefs a better chance to withstand any upcoming assaults, whether natural or unnatural. Coral “gardening” beckons ecotourists to restore reefs.”
Several steps need to be taken to create a coral nursery. There has to be approval from Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF) to establish a few dedicated areas. Then nursery infrastructure has to be created with limited risk of predators and sedimentation issues. Broken and loose coral fragments have also to be collected from the sea floor. Schedules for bi-weekly cleaning and monitoring also have to be established.
Approximately one year later, corals may be transplanted back to the reef by volunteers and tourists. “Transplanted reefs will be monitored for their health and their success in comparison to other reefs,” Rahn said.
According to professor Rahn, the benefits of coral nurseries are that loose and broken corals can regenerate faster and that after transplantation these corals are healthier, grow faster and help to rehabilitate the reef and overall balance of the ecosystem, including fish populations.
She said another benefit will be the development of more stony corals which will provide a better habitat for fish, thereby helping to sustain, not just the reefs, but Saba’s fisheries as well. Rahn stated that a coral nursery would reinforce Saba’s eco-tourism and its “citizen science” product would give a boost to Saba’s economy.
She also believes that dedicated nursery areas, such as artificial wrecks or reefs, are attractive dive sites as they not only create a safe habitat for corals to grow but also become a magnet for unusual marine life.
Another great benefit, Rahn stated, is that tourists and volunteers as well as the community obtain a sense of ownership and pride in helping to protect the environment.
While in Saba, Rahn’s students also assisted her in monitoring the off-shore sands of Wells Bay’s wandering beach and the beach slopes of Tent Bay. The students spent their time on Saba well and also received scuba pool skills training at The Cottage Club, a PADI open water and advanced open water dive course and an Eco Immersion research programme, all through Sea Saba dive centre.
While doing 21 dives, students concentrated their efforts on observing the hard corals in Saba Marine Park. They also assisted SCF with third-grade conservation classes and helped on a conch reproduction research dive.