Advocates say the reef restoration work, focused on the region’s fast-growing but threatened staghorn and elkhorn coral species, can boost rates of recovery and improve the outlook for coral. The efforts will never resurrect the vibrant reefs of 50 years ago, they acknowledge, but they believe they can help preserve some of a reef’s functionality and beauty.
“Coral cover is getting a little better here and I believe it will keep improving in the gardened areas,” said Andrew Ross, a Canadian marine biologist and entrepreneur who founded Seascape Caribbean.
Reef-building coral is a tiny polyp-like animal that builds a calcium-carbonate shell around itself and survives in a symbiotic relationship with certain types of algae. Its reefs serve as vital spawning and feeding grounds for numerous marine creatures. It comes in some 1,500 known species, ranging from soft, undulating fans to those with hard skeletons that form reef bases.
But across the globe, reefs that have proven resilient for thousands of years are in serious decline, degraded by overfishing, pollution, coastal development and warming ocean waters. And threats to coral are only expected to intensify as a result of climate change and ocean acidification due to greenhouse gases.
The stakes couldn’t be higher along the Caribbean Sea, which has nearly 8,000 square miles (20,720 sq. kilometers) of coral reefs.
The tropical islands’ iconic reefs protect fragile coastlines by absorbing energy from waves during hurricanes and normal conditions. Financially, the Caribbean has a multibillion-dollar beach tourism and commercial fishing economy. In Jamaica alone, reef fisheries support up to 20,000 fishermen.
Caribbean coral has deteriorated so badly in recent decades that a new report from a team of international scientists says that the rocky structures of the reefs are on the threshold of gradual erosion.
“The Caribbean, as a whole region, seems to be in a very poor state,” said Chris Perry, a geography professor at the University of Exeter who led the regional coral research.