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Project RESCQ

Restoring endangered coral species to TCI reefs.

Story & Photos By Don Stark, Chairman, Turks & Caicos Reef Fund

Coral reefs form some of the planet’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, providing protection of beaches, habitat for fishes, and a natural source of carbon capture from the atmosphere (corals build their homes out of calcium carbonate which they source from atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in seawater). Until the 1980s, Acropora coral species dominated the near shore zone of many Caribbean islands with cover estimates of up to 85% of the sea floor. Unfortunately, Elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and Staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) coral reef zones have almost disappeared from most islands in the region largely as a result of White Band Disease, a coral disease which remains poorly understood. Elkhorn and Staghorn corals are currently listed as “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

The loss of these corals has had large negative effects on biodiversity, biomass of fishes, and coastal protection as well as a significant decline in the attractiveness of the shallow underwater landscape.

Some colonies have survived the outbreak of White Band Disease and have been reported to be resistant to the disease, which still persists, but with much-reduced virulence. The remnant colonies have as yet not been able to recolonise the reef to anywhere near their former occurrence.

Thriving Elkhart coral at Northwest Point, one of the few areas not affected by White Band Disease.

Thriving Elkhart coral at Northwest Point, one of the few areas not affected by White Band Disease.

The Turks & Caicos has several areas of healthy Elkhorn coral (for example, near Wheeland Cut off the coast of Providenciales) and there has been a slow regrowth of Staghorn coral on some of the reefs off Northwest Point, West Caicos, Pine Cay, and Grace Bay, but not nearly the density that once existed. The only area in the TCI that has impressive stands of Staghorn coral is off the coast of East Caicos, the last remaining virtually untouched example of what these islands were like before development began.

Coral reproduce in two ways—both sexually and asexually. Sexual reproduction occurs when coral polyps release bundles of sperm and eggs into the water column.  When a sperm bundle comes in contact with an egg bundle, baby corals, called planulae, are formed. These free swimming planktonic babies swim toward the light at the surface of the sea and drift with the currents until they settle to the bottom and form a new coral polyp.

Asexual reproduction occurs when a piece of a coral colony is broken off, either by a storm, accidental contact by humans, or other causes. This coral fragment can form a new coral colony where it lands on the sea floor. Sexual reproduction produces a more genetically diverse offspring than asexual reproduction which produces offspring with the exact same genetic make-up of the parent colony.

In early 2016, the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF) was informed that a grant submitted to the European Union for a project to help restore Elkhorn and Staghorn corals was funded. The project, which is being led by IMARES, the research arm of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, involves four islands in the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic: St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, Saba, and the Turks & Caicos Islands. The project is called “Restoration of Ecosystem Services and Coral Reef Quality” or RESCQ for short.

The three-year project will restore Elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and Staghorn (A. cervicornis) coral reef zones by establishing a coral nursery on each of the four islands to grow coral fragments and ultimately transplant the newly grown-up corals at selected restoration sites. Coral fragments (small pieces of living coral) will be harvested from healthy growths of Staghorn and Elkhorn corals around the Turks & Caicos and attached to locally built coral nursery structures.

Coral fragment attached to the ladder rungs. Within six months to a year, they will grow into larger corals.

Coral fragment attached to the ladder rungs. Within six months to a year, they will grow into larger corals.

The type of structure that will be used in the TCI is a “Coral Ladder” which is a series of bamboo poles (the rungs of the ladder) suspended between two ropes. Each ladder will be anchored to the sea floor and supported vertically with floats to keep the entire structure suspended in the water column. The small pieces (about 5 cm or 2 inch fragments) of coral will then be attached to the ladder rungs with monofilament line. After six months to a year, these small fragments will grow into much larger corals which can then either be refragmented to restock the nursery or transplanted on a reef where they will continue to grow.

Both Staghorn and Elkhorn corals are relatively fast-growing corals. Both species can, under the right conditions, grow nearly a half a foot a year or more. Harvesting small pieces (fragments) from existing colonies rarely causes harm to the colony as the wounds created heal rapidly. But this will, of course, be monitored as part of the study to ensure that the naturally occurring stands of both coral species are not harmed.

TCRF will work closely with the TCI Government’s Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR) to implement this research project in the TCI. DECR and TCRF are beginning to survey existing reefs to identify healthy parent colonies of both coral species that will provide the initial coral fragments for the nursery once it is built and installed. The first of the nurseries should be in place by late 2016.

DNA analysis of the corals in each nursery on all four islands will also be conducted by researchers at IMARES in the Netherlands. This genetic information, as well as monitoring the resilience of coral fragments, will be used to maintain genetic diversity within the restored colonies and ensure that the most resilient fragments are transplanted to the restoration sites. Establishing multiple small, genetically diverse populations that will, in time, become sexually reproductive can contribute to species recovery, especially in areas of significant parent population declines.

To ensure the long term success of this project, especially after the grant funding ends, the TCRF has started an “Adopt a Coral” program. Visitors and residents wishing to help support this project can adopt a coral fragment for $50.  Each adoptive “parent” will receive a certificate and a photograph of their adopted coral. Anyone interested can visit the TCRF website to join the program (

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