What Coral World Ocean Park is doing to save coral reefs
Since the parks opening in 1977, Coral World has been dedicated to coral reef education, research and conservation. Over the decades, the parks underwater observatory, which was the first of its kind to be constructed in the Western hemisphere, has provided guests with the opportunity to observe and learn about coral reefs and their associated organisms in their natural environment, without getting wet. Educational presentations and feeding demonstrations at the underwater observatory and Caribbean Reef Encounter, allow for guests to learn about this important ecosystem while getting up close and personal with the various reef fish and invertebrates that inhabit coral reefs. Over the past several years, Coral World has hosted and has been a proud sponsor of Reef Fest, an annual event that provides environmental education and awareness to the local community. Coral World has also been active in the field of coral reef restoration, teaming up with the Nature Conservancy in 2009 To install a coral nursery tree at our underwater observatory. Last year, the island was devastated by two category 5 hurricanes and as a result, the nursery was removed from the property. Coral World is proud to announce that as of October 2018, the coral nursery tree has been reinstated at the Underwater Observatory with the help of the University of the Virgin Islands. Coral World is also experimenting with coral micro-fragmentation, a new restoration method that cuts large massive coral species into small fragments. At the present time, Coral World is growing important reef-building coral species such as Orbicella annularis, O. franksi and O. faveolata that have declined in abundance throughout the US Virgin Islands. In addition to our restoration work, Coral World is a proud sponsor of BleachWatch, a citizen science project that enables local community members to collect coral bleaching and disease data around the island. Starting October 2018, Coral World’s dive safety officer, Sonny Alejo and his team, conduct bi-monthly BleachWatch surveys at Coki Point. In the future, Coral World hopes to conduct various laboratory experiments to investigate the efficacy of proposed coral disease treatment options.
Coral Restoration Projects – Land-based
Within the past 30 years, important reef-building coral species such as the branching Elkhorn corals (Acropora palmata) and Staghorn corals (Acropora cervicornis) and the Massive lobed star coral (Orbicella annularis), the Mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) and the Boulder star coral (Orbicella franksi) have declined in abundance and coral cover throughout the Caribbean. These five coral species are considered to be “ecosystem engineers” since they create, modify and maintain coral reef habitats. In other words, without these corals, coral reef ecosystems cannot function properly because they create coral reefs and provide habitats for many coral reef animals. Although these five species of coral are listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, their numbers have continued to decline throughout the Caribbean, especially here in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Scientists have turned to active coral restoration techniques such as coral gardening to re-establish reef-building corals on heavily degraded coral reefs. Coral nurseries can either be built in tanks on land (land-based nurseries) or in the ocean (ocean-based nurseries).
Here at Coral World, we now have a land-based nursery that is currently growing fragments of Massive lobed star corals, Mountainous star corals and Boulder star corals and an ocean-based nursery that will be growing Staghorn corals in the near future!
Within the next couple of years, these nursery-reared corals will be transplanted to nearby coral reefs where they will continue to grow. Through this process, we hope to help restore coral reefs around St. Thomas. If you are interested in our coral nursery project, head down to the Underwater Observatory. There you will see our ocean-based coral nursery tree and the staghorn fragments growing on it!
If you would like to participate in this study, you can contact Logan Williams, our Education and Research Coordinator, at [email protected]
Coral World and the University of the Virgin Islands are working together to help restore Staghorn corals on coral reefs around St. Thomas thorough ocean-based coral nurseries.
Since the 1980’s, a combination of man-made and natural stressors has caused populations of Staghorn corals (Acropora cervicornis) and Elkhorn corals (Acropora palmata) to decline exponentially throughout the Caribbean. These stressors include disease, hurricanes, bleaching events, algal overgrowth, increased predation, overfishing and other human induced impacts. As a result of this decline, Staghorn and Elkhorn corals are listed as threatened and protected federally under the United States Endangered Species Act as well through local law.
Part of the Solution
In 2018, the University of the Virgin Islands received funding to help restore populations of Elkhorn and Staghorn corals around St. Thomas using ocean-based coral nurseries. One of these nursery sites is now located at Coral World. In addition, Coral World and the University of the Virgin Islands are working to establish a citizen science club that will give local Virgin Islanders the opportunity to learn about and participate in ongoing coral restoration projects around St. Thomas.
The goal of this project is to enhance coral populations by growing Elkhorn and Staghorn corals in mid-water nurseries and then transplanting nursery grown coral fragments to depleted reef sites with the help of citizen scientists.
Locally, coral nurseries have been built and are currently being built on sites around St Croix and St Thomas. Marine scientists from Coral World and the University of the Virgin Islands collect “fragments of opportunity”, which are fragments broken by a natural process (storms, high wave action), that are further fragmented and grown in nurseries. The nurseries are maintained weekly to remove coral predators and to prevent the overgrowth of algae, which compete against the corals for space. By increasing the abundance and the genetic diversity at each site, the hope is to also assist in the recovery of these threatened species.
Our hope is that Coral World’s ocean-based nursery will engage residents, especially school children, and visitors in the Coral Restoration Program.