In June 2015, volunteers from the Association of Reef Keepers took about a thousand pieces of elkhorn and staghorn coral and used monofilament line to attach them to PVC “trees” at sites near Little Thatch Island and in Little Mountain Trunk Bay off Virgin Gorda.
By the beginning of September 2017, these first coral “nurseries” in the Virgin Islands were thriving. The original three-inch fragments had grown several times their original size, and some measured two feet.
Pieces already had been transplanted in Smugglers Cove off Tortola, and others were to be transplanted in Little Dix Bay off Virgin Gorda and at Diamond Reef off Great Camanoe.
Then came Sept. 6.
ARK President Dr. Shannon Gore called her first dive after Hurricane Irma “heartbreaking.”
The nurseries were destroyed, and much of the reef was covered in red algal bloom.
“Immediately after the hurricanes, it’s very common,” she said. “The reefs less than 20 feet in depth were decimated.”
Her next stop, however, was the wreck of the RMS Rhone, the VI’s most legendary dive site. She was stunned at the clarity of the waters.
“It was amazing,” she said. “There was some glimmer of hope.”
The corals’ future was still uncertain, though. The original funder of the nursery project, the Nature Conservancy, had already pulled out. Since then, Dr. Gore explained, “ARK has been basically self-supporting, with donations and however we can raise the funds.”
The coral nursery project was part of ARK’s mission to bolster local reefs that are rapidly declining: According to ARK, 80 percent of coral reefs in the Caribbean have died in the past 50 years, a process that leads to degradation of shorelines and overall damage to the ecosystem.
The project was helped along by Dive BVI, the Conservation and Fisheries Department and the VI National Parks Trust.
Still, without funding, Dr. Gore thought she might have to cut her losses and move on.
That’s when she received a call from a donor with the United States-based Coral Restoration Foundation, which was offering 20 new PVC trees that can each hold 2,000 pieces of coral — twice as much as the old ones.
“The length and height is still the same, but the PVC is thinner so you can get twice as many per row,” she said. “We might as well do it again. Why give up now?”
The effort involved in putting them together, Dr. Gore explained, goes beyond a new bedroom set from IKEA: “It’s a lot of little pieces.”
She had assistance from the crew of the RFA Mounts Bay, who helped assemble them during their visit in July.
Lessons from history
Once assembled, the sooner the structures get in the water, the better. Last time, there wasn’t enough time for the corals to glue themselves to the substrate before the storm hit.
This time, she said, “it will be right after hurricane season, so it has six to eight months to secure itself to the substrate instead of loose corals rolling around.”
There are other lessons to be learned from Irma, too: The trees will be planted deeper to prevent them from coming loose.
Then comes the task of finding the coral fragments.
“If it’s broken off and it’s not currently attached to a colony, we can use [it],” said ARK volunteer Emily Graf of Sail Caribbean Divers, who noted that anyone who spots loose coral can help by snapping photos and sending them to ARK. “That’s one of the major harder things to come by, and will take a little more time.”
The nursery sites will be different from the ones used before the storm. Ms. Graf explained that volunteers are working on “finding areas that are a little more protected.”
“If we got hit by [another] Irma, that wouldn’t save the coral, but we could set it somewhere that it wouldn’t get hit as hard,” she said.
Since the boat that ARK used was another Irma victim, an even greater armada of volunteers will be needed, especially those with boats who can reach less accessible areas.
“There’s enough interest in the community that people would come together,” said Ms. Graf. “People who see the underwater world are more concerned, especially after the storm. You can’t see some of the sites where the hurricanes tumbled over coral.”
Training in DR
In November, the project received another stroke of luck, when the BVI Tourist Board and ARK received a grant through a programme set up by the non-profit Tourism Cares, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association and the Grupo Puntacana Foundation.
Ms. Graf and Argel Horton of the Conservation and Fisheries Department were both sent to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic as part of the Coral First Aid Training Programme for hurricane-affected jurisdictions.
There, they worked with coral restoration expert Dr. David Vaughan of Mote Marine Laboratory in the Florida Cays, who introduced them to a technique called micro-fragmentation, which involves rapid regeneration of coral that is then transplanted onto dead reefs.
During the week, trainees practised setting up the coral trees, attaching the fragments and maintaining them, as well as harvesting the new coral and transporting it to the reefs.
“It walks people through the process of maintaining and taking a data on a nursery,” Ms. Graf said.
Now that she’s certified, Ms. Graf will begin training other visiting divers on the course, operating through Sail Caribbean Divers and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Part of the course will involve maintenance of the nurseries.
“They are promoting this ecotourism aspect,” Ms. Graf said. “We don’t have anything like that [in the VI] yet.”
Added Dr. Gore, “It’s a win-win for everyone because it doesn’t cost us anything and they’re paying to do it.”
The Grupo Puntacana Foundation, through its Centre for Marine Innovation, has been restoring corals in the area successfully for more than 14 years, and Ms. Graf said the overall goal is to try to make the VI’s programme as sustainable as the one there.
“The training … showed some ways that made that possible. We may adopt some of the things they’ve done,” she explained.
For example, in the Dominican Republic fishermen have been trained to work as coral gardeners.
Training the right people with the passion and knowledge to lead the programme could also be a big step for its future.
“We could have more nurseries then,” Dr. Gore said. “Otherwise it’s so difficult to try to maintain these.”
Ms. Graf said she’s excited about the potential for rebuilding the coral nurseries.
“It will be a good learning opportunity,” she added. “We can be taking schoolchildren out there and showing tourists and getting them on board.”
As the nursery project progresses, Dr. Gore predicts that awareness about the reefs and the need to protect them will continue to rise. In fact, she added, it’s happening already.
“I think it’s just people becoming more educated about coral reefs in general and climate change, and how they’re important for coastal protection and building resiliency,” she said. “They don’t teach that in schools, and it’s a major part of what’s here.”