The Eco Diver way.

I got started working with coral by growing it in an aquarium at home in California.  I loved it and quickly began to farm my little corals and sell or trade them locally.  At one point I had around 500 gallons of reeftanks in my living room.  This fascination with coral led me to learn how to SCUBA dive.  Northern California has cold water with no major coral reefs, but the Bull Kelp and wildlife was amazing.  Eventually, I became a Divemaster and began to look toward tropical diving and the corals I loved so much.  I ended up moving to Grand Cayman and have worked here as a SCUBA instructor for a decade.  I established the Eco Diver program to enable a coral nursery and outplant program in the Cayman Islands.  I have always been passionate about corals and diving, I understood the threat facing corals and chose to put myself into the process of reef management. 

I also understand that I am on my own doing this. 

Our program could be held up to public scrutiny if anything goes wrong.  So, we try not to make mistakes, we plan meticulously and we make certain to provide results that the island can share and be proud of.  And I am very proud of how we have progressed.  At this point, we manage three nursery sites. 10 genotypes of ACER coral, 2 genotypes of APAL coral and 1 genotype (asisting the DOE) of Pillar corals.  I even have some thoughts on eventually adding some specimens of Porites, Madracis and some Mycetophyllia.  

Our Pillar corals after one year of care.


I do all of this because nobody else seems to care, have the ability or the time. I pay for most of this by fundraising, but much of it still comes out of my own pocket.  Pub quizzes, raffles, I do some teaching and it all goes toward the program.  Hopefully, I can get sponsors to support us over time, but I fear that is a problem everyone in this field suffers under.  Regardless, I will push on.  I set reasonable goals, with reasonable methods and have received a lot of support from the community here. 

I am doing this because I really think this is working and will continue to work.  I honestly believe that I might be able to save the corals I am working with from going extinct before I die.  Because, I also fully believe that they will be extinct very soon if we don’t do something.

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About results on the reef.  It is a tricky concept that lends itself to inflated numbers and misleading terms or results.  I think we first have to look at what result we are looking for.  Is it simply moving a thousand pieces of coral?  I learned that some programs chop up their overgrown nursery corals and call the maimed fragments “1000 outplanted corals!”  The number sounds impressive, but if it all tends to die shortly afterward then who cares?  That is the opposite of productive.  


Are we trying to replace the coral reef we remember from our childhood?  Storms, disease, rising water temperatures, all ignored to satisfy our desire to return to the world we once knew?  No amount of replacement coral will detour us from stubbornly persisting until either we run out of coral or money!  This sounds silly to me, but is exactly what many programs are doing right now.  Again this is a wasteful misuse of our limited supply of coral.


Our intention is to allow our native corals to spawn and resettle as best they are able to.  The coral will determine where it returns to.  Right now, that appears to be anywhere from 30 ft depth or deeper.  Nothing in any shallow water is spawning and surviving the year.  So, our mini-wall reefs (and deeper wall sections) are where we focus our corals.


How do we measure what makes an out planted coral?  Our corals have a size requirement of roughly a six inch cube to be able to be outplanted.  They can not be damaged or freshly cut.  All injuries have to be healed or else they are likely to die when placed onto the reef.  We outplant in sets of 100 corals.  10 genotypes of staghorn (ACER) with 10 colonies from each genotype.  One outplant roughly every 1000-1500 meters  


So, for our Western side, we ended up with 14 outplant sites.  1400 corals.  Not a massive amount, yet enough to cover the entire Western side of Grand Cayman.  Our outplanted corals are only there to spawn.  Their addition to the reef is not counted in any other manner for reef renewal.  We added them, they were not spawned onto the reef.  10 genotypes represented at each outplant site allow us a suitable mix of genetics for recreating a gene-pool for our ACER corals.  I have read that 10-15 is advised.  We might add another 5 later on, but 10 works for our needs right now.  10 specimens from each genotype means that by their third year, we are dealing with a quantity of each gentoype that exceeds anything we are currently working with in our test sites.  


As for testing and results.  Our reefs are like everywhere else, ACER corals are present, but very rare.  Our survey in 2018 and 2019 show dramatic shifts in coral abundance in areas adjacent to our two test nursery sties.  Areas upcurrent or beyond a 500 meter range, return to the scarcity of ACER corals we find on all of our baseline surveys in areas outside of our impact.  Our methods involved three dives and mapping each ACER coral in up to a 1200 meter range of reef.  The mapped results of all three dives are compared and then mapped onto an image of the reef area.  Our first survey dives this Summer are showing ACER coral increase of roughly double the amounts found in 2018.  We still have a few more dives to do before we can say with certainty, but unless I counted wildly wrong, there is a dramatic increase in ACER corals in our target sites compared to last Summer.  I will be certainly sharing the results with great enthusiasm as they become better refined.


So you might see my issue and difficulty with results.  We have moved over 600 corals this Summer already.  Harvesting and adding new genetics to our nurseries.  We plan to create another 22 nursery structures and 2200 new corals being placed onto them.  We plan to have outplanted 800 corals to our new sites and add another 240 to our existing coral outplant sites.  Our 2018 survey showed 74 newly spawned ACER coral colonies in our target areas in 2018.  Of those, 14 were patches of coral over three meters square.  Compared to unimpacted areas of the reef, we would find an average of 10-12 ACER corals in the same sample size.  Our first survey of 2019 show those target area numbers doubling and the unimpacted area numbers unchanged.  In August, we will be conducting further refinement of our coral spawning documentation and logging.  


I am afraid that it is just too early right now for our numbers to make anything resembling sense.  Or, we have 1400 outplanted corals for our program for the 2018-2019 season.


Our goal is a five year result of our outplanted corals.  They must survive, grow, spawn and keep spawning for all five years.  Then we count the ACER corals that appear.  I have three more years to go, but the first two years are looking encouraging.  This will not happen overnight.  It will take a little bit of time, but it is working already.  
As for survival of our corals.  If they die, then we better be able to figure out why and prevent that.  Life happens, and I would tolerate up to a 10% loss rate, but if anything is dying at higher rates, then we have to blame ourselves and rework the plan to prevent that.  Our current count is holding around 85% survival at our original outplantings, but we are concerned over the appearance of white band disease already this Summer.  Discussion on how to sidestep that is already underway and a rough plan has formed, but some testing will have to be done to confirm that our methods are effective.  So far mortality of our spawned corals  appears to be minimal, but we are trying to count the impacts of disease and predation on the newly spawned corals.  Maybe someone will lend us one of those photo mosaic camera programs that allow us to make images of the reef and then let a computer read the results into something useful.  

And that leads to our last topic.  Outplanted corals versus nursery sites for what is presumed to be spawned corals appearing downcurrent.  Sometimes I think we do things because that’s just the way we have always done them.  So, if diseases, viruses and predators are already on the reef, why are we putting our nursery corals there?  Even if an outplanted site can yield higher amounts of coral for spawning, what good does that do if the original coral slowly dies over the next five years?  But in a nursery structure, the coral is safe.  It is easy to manage and appears to be effective at spawning and settling new corals downcurrent from it.  I am testing both methods.  We will let you know more when we have more data.  2019 represents the first year we will be able to see the impact from our outplanted sites on the reef.  I personally think we should abandon direct placement of coral to the reef.  I believe that using all nursery structures would benefit our program in almost every regard.  So we have to wait on further results.

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I hope this helps.  Or at least explains my own position a little better.  

Aaron Hunt

Director, Eco Divers Reef Foundation

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