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Transplanting Coral Fragments to Damaged Coral Reefs in a National Park - Planting the Seeds to Recovery?

Background

diver at work
students
scientists and students
National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey scientists and student volunteers at work.
Transplantation of storm-generated coral fragments to enhance Caribbean coral reefs: A successful method but not a solutionn
Project Publication:
Transplantation of storm-generated coral fragments to enhance Caribbean coral reefs: A successful method but not a solutionn
(720 KB PDF)

Coral reefs make up the most complex marine ecosystem on earth, essential to literally millions of plant and animal species. Over the past three decades, coral reefs in the western North Atlantic, including those in Virgin Islands National Park, have been damaged by diseases, storms, coral predators, high water temperatures, and a multitude of direct and indirect human activities. To date, there has been little to no recovery on damaged reefs. Diseases, storms and high seawater temperatures have played a major role. Degradation from human impacts continues to escalate simply because there are more and more people living near or dependent on the sea. A damaged coral reef cannot be restored to its original condition. True recovery of a reef could take decades to centuries, making damage prevention the priority management strategy. Nonetheless, with the increased incidence of damage and the continuing lack of recovery on Caribbean reefs, interest in rehabilitation and enhancement of reefs has heightened, specifically in transplantation of coral colonies to reefs of importance to local communities or in protected areas.

If reef enhancement or rehabilitation is to be undertaken, two questions must be answered:

  1. What is the best source for transplanted colonies (degrading one reef to restore another is not an option)?
  2. Do the survival and growth rates warrant the cost and time required to transplant coral colonies (will it work)?

Project

This research was conducted in the nearshore waters of Virgin Islands National Park, St. John, US Virgin Islands. Storm-produced fragments of the three fastest growing species of Caribbean coral (elkhorn, staghorn and finger corals) were collected from habitats inhospitable to survival and transplanted to other reefs (Trunk and Whistling Cay). Inert nylon cable ties were used to secure the fragments to the sea bottom (dead coral). At the beginning of the project, little was known about survival and growth of small coral colonies. Sixty transplanted and 75 reference colonies were monitored for survival and growth for 12 years (1999-2011). Over 70 volunteers from Friends of Virgin Islands National Park and 5th and 6th grade classes from Pine Peace School monitored the colonies monthly (1999-2001).

Results

  # colonies
monitored
colonies
alive at
12 years
transplant
survival at
12 years
reference
survival at
12 years
All colonies 135 12 (9%) 3 (5%) 9 (12%)
Elkhorn coral 75 9 (12%) 1 (3%) 8 (18%)
Staghorn coral 30 0 0 0
Finger coral 30 3 (10%) 2 (3%) 1 (7%)
  1. Survival rates for all species were low and were similar for transplant and reference colonies. Only 9% of colonies were alive after 12 years: no staghorn; 3% of elkhorn transplants and 18% of reference colonies; and 13% of finger coral transplants and 7% of reference colonies.
  2. One in three colonies died in place (disease, bleaching, predators, or other causes) whereas more than half of all colonies were lost as a result of physical displacement.
  3. Storm-generated fragments were shown to be a plentiful and non-destructive source of healthy coral fragments for transplantation.
  4. The shallow reef environment was found to be highly dynamic, with corals recruiting to the reef, growing and dying.
  5. Nylon cable ties were effective at attaching fragments, inexpensive and easy to use.
  6. The method was found to be simple, inexpensive and easily conducted by community volunteers and/or resource managers wishing to enhance or repair a reef. (e.g., damage from boat groundings).

Conclusions

July 1999 April 2010
Elkhorn coral fragment 1999 Elkhorn coral fragment 2010
Eleven years of growth of Elkhorn coral fragment transplanted to Trunk Cay reef.

map of Virgin Island National Park
  1. The transplantation method was simple, inexpensive and worked. Survival of transplanted storm-generated coral fragments was similar to reference colonies on the reef and storm-generated fragments are a viable, non-destructive source of transplants.
  2. Transplantation is not the solution to reversing or even halting reef degradation when mortality of corals on the reef is high due to local, regional, and/or global factors.
  3. Until the basic processes driving declines on coral reefs worldwide are understood and forcing factors such as increasing human-population pressures on marine and coastal resources are addressed, restoration of reefs will not be the solution to declines on coral reefs.

To reiterate, damaged and degraded reefs cannot be restored or rehabilitated to their original condition. Until the basic processes driving declines on coral reefs worldwide are understood and forcing factors such as increasing human-population pressures on marine and coastal resources are addressed, the future does not look bright for coral reefs. However, there is a place for small-scale rehabilitation efforts. For little expense and using readily available materials, local communities can effectively, albeit modestly: 1) minimize damage to intact corals by stabilizing loose fragments; 2) decrease incidence of human caused reef damage through community education; and; 3) create coral "gardens" of harvested storm-generated fragments that can then be used to mitigate direct damage to coral reefs, such as from boat groundings.

Publications

Garrison, V.H., Ward, G. 2012. Transplantation of storm-generated coral fragments for coral conservation: A successful method but not the solution. Revista Biologia Tropical (Int. J. Trop. Biol) 60 (Suppl. 1): 59-70. [transplantation-storm-generated-coral.pdf (720 KB PDF)]

Garrison, V., Ward, G. 2008. Storm-generated coral fragments – A viable source of transplants for reef rehabilitation. Biological Conservation 141: 3089-3100. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2008.09.020]

Contact Information

VH Garrison (US Geological Survey, 600 Fourth St S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701; 727 803-8747 ext. 3061; ginger_garrison@usgs.gov)

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