Staghorn Coral Cluster Outplanted at Cane Bay, St. Croix  One Year Later

Coral Gardening and the Future of Our Reefs

Words by Dr. Shannon Gore, Managing Director – Association of Reef Keepers (ARK)

Photography courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

 News about how coral reefs have declined upwards of 80% throughout the Caribbean over the past 40 years, makes one wonder what the future will bring for younger generations; however, coral restoration programmes, particularly programmes that propagate corals in a ‘nursery’ have become popular throughout the region as an effort to reverse the decline of deteriorating reefs.

     Like a garden nursery uses a greenhouse to help grow young fragile plants in a protected environment, the same concept is used for coral nurseries.

     Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) ‘trees’ or cinderblocks are used to ‘house’ small fragments of coral until they grow strong enough (about the size of a cantaloupe) to remove from the nursery. Where these corals are then planted depends on whether or not there are any existing threats such as potential anchor damage, runoff, or sedimentation; to plant corals in areas where their fate would be destruction from impact would be pointless.

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     The concept sounds simple enough and seems almost unquestionable as to why it shouldn’t be implemented in as many places we can find. Coral reefs are necessary for food, coastal protection, tourism, and even to help replenish the sand that creates our beaches.

     While the benefits of having healthy reef ecosystems far outweigh the cost of developing and maintaining coral nurseries, growing coral isn’t quite as easy as simply growing a garden.

Staghorn coral thicket outplanted at Great St. James on  St. Thomas USVI

     Several years ago, a number of applications from various organisations were submitted to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour to implement coral nurseries in the BVI; however, a coral nursery is considered as a ‘development’ under Virgin Islands laws and technically requires both a sea bed license and permission from the Planning Authority.

     Coming up with a way to waive these requirements for a programme ultimately for the good of the community has not been easy.  It has taken careful planning regarding the responsibilities and management of the nurseries, but on June 1, 2015, the months of planning finally came to fruition and the implementation of the BVI’s first coral nurseries were established off of Little Thatch and Virgin Gorda.

Single staghorn coral outplanted at Cane Bay 1 year  later

     The Coral Reef Restoration Committee acts as the managing body of the nurseries and is composed of both local government and non-governmental organisations. Over the following year, this pilot project is being guided by the financial and technical support of the Nature Conservancy to ensure the success of the nurseries while the day-to-day management of maintaining the nurseries is being carried out by the Association of Reef Keepers (ARK). 

     As the committee and a select few volunteers literally ‘get their feet wet’ learning what it takes to have successful nurseries over this first year, these lessons learned will be passed on to the local community to help participate in the programme.

     With all the stakeholders contributing, reversing the decline of our coral reefs has a much better chance of succeeding, thus maintaining the natural environment of the BVI.

Staghorn corals growing on block nursery structure at Cane  Bay, St. Croix