Carysfort Reef Five Years Later
By Richard Weinstein, Senior Vice President Membership
“It’s just so close to Ocean Reef” states our captain as he eases back the throttles and settles next to the anchor buoy at Carysfort Reef. That Captain is Ken Dewey, Ocean Reef Equity Member, who has offered to take me out along with one of the Coral Restoration Foundation™ Board Members, Patti Gross and her husband David to photograph the reef along with some of the latest coral plantings.
Once secured to the buoy Patti provides a brief synopsis of our dive plan and what we can expect to see. “This is the location where CRF™ started their ecosystem level coral restoration model. Originally we would transplant clusters of staghorn coral in groups of 10. But now we are blanketing larger areas of the reef with much bigger clusters of at least 50 corals. We are also returning more species, not just staghorn, but also elkhorn and two species of boulder coral.” It was in 2015 that the Ocean Reef Club and the Ocean Reef Conservation Association began a partnership with the Coral Restoration Foundation™ (CRF™) with a goal to plant 20,000 corals on Carysfort Reef. It was an ambitious goal that would take five years and was dubbed “Carysfort 2020”. Once underway, there was no stopping CRF™. After being raised in nearby Coral Tree™ nurseries, over 25,000 corals have now been rehomed on Carysfort Reef.
Carefully passing the photography gear onto Patti and David, we ease into the water, submerging to view this new large-scale restoration strategy. “It starts with our teams clearing and removing nuisance and invasive species like algae and predatory snails off the planting site,” notes Gross. “This gives the new coral a clean place to attach and start off strong in its new home.” The site is stunning. As someone who has been diving these waters since 1980, the devastation to the coral populations has been depressing to witness. The efforts by CRF™ have brought hope and visible progress; and it’s a good day to dive with high visibility, we see live, healthy coral of several varieties. As we swim across the reef there is coral to view in an abundance not seen for twenty years.
For our second dive site we maneuver the boat just a short distance to one of the original outplanting sites from 2015. Here there is a slightly different story to tell. We quickly find the cluster plantings because there were so many groupings placed over the years. However, we notice that some have fared much better than others. Curious as to why some have grown together into a healthy living structure while others languish with sparse growth and disease I asked Amelia Moura, Science Program Manager for CRF, “It’s hard to say what causes some clusters to die while others thrive, but it is likely due to a number of factors including their genetic makeup, presence or absence of predators, and differences in the microhabitat of each cluster. Unlike the more controlled and sheltered nursery environment, there are so many factors at play on a reef. But you have to remember that much like restoring populations of any animal, it is unrealistic to expect every little colony to survive. Think of proportions of turtle hatchlings that end up surviving to adulthood – survival is a numbers game. Over the years, we have learned that a moderate amount of die-off is to be expected, but we have factored that into our restoration strategy; saturating reef sites with thousands of corals every year yields overall survivorship in the long run.”
And we are in this for the long run. Early on CRF™ knew they had to find a strategy that would raise the survival rate of the transplanted coral. After all, they are planting in the same environment that killed off the coral in the first place. What they have done is select the most genetically diverse genotypes to give the community as a whole the ability to survive the many environmental factors that place them at risk, and then reproduce to hopefully create even more resilient offspring. “We work to mitigate as many of these risks as we can, collecting data and adjusting our practices as we learn more about what sites, environments, outplanting strategies, and genotypes lead to successful restoration,” Moura concludes.
So our day concludes as well. We considered ourselves fortunate to have such a wonderful day on the water and to witness what may prove to be the first step in saving this unique underwater ecosystem. We also recognize this work is about something much larger. It is not about saving just one reef, it is about first proving we can, with the right partnerships…save all the reefs. And…it’s all just so close to Ocean Reef.