Reviving Barbados’ coral reefs

An intensive effort to reinvigorate Barbados’ coral reefs is currently being led by the Coastal Zone Management Unit (CZMU).

It is the Ecosystem-Based Adaptation Pilot Project that falls under the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)-funded Coastal Risk Assessment and Management Programme (CRMP), which is designed to investigate the potential to “kick start” the recovery of the island’s coral reefs. The project began in June 2014 and will end in December this year.

Coastal Information Systems (CIS) Manager at the CZMU, Ramon Roach, said this component of the project would involve an examination of the location of specific healthy coral types, the water quality challenges at those locations, and the development of a coral nursery through the renovation of an existing laboratory at the Bellairs Research Institute of McGill University.

Coastal Planner at the CZMU, Kareem Sabir (left), Acting Water Quality Analyst at the CZMU, Richard Suckoo, and Coastal Information Systems (CIS) Manager at the CZMU, Ramon Roach, examining some of the coral in the lab.
Coastal Planner at the CZMU, Kareem Sabir (left), Acting Water Quality Analyst at the CZMU, Richard Suckoo, and Coastal Information Systems (CIS) Manager at the CZMU, Ramon Roach, examining some of the coral in the lab.

Explaining that a coral nursery is a way to grow corals via asexual reproduction, Roach said that while some species reproduced sexually through the release of sperm and eggs, some corals would begin to grow a new colony if a piece was broken off from the main colony. This process, he said, was referred to as asexual fragmentation.

The CIS Manager said that the project was conceptualized to determine if non-traditional engineering methods could be used to reduce erosion across the island’s beaches.

“This is a pilot project to improve our resistance to natural impacts by reinvigorating our nearshore reefs. If we kick start the recovery of the reef, we could over time reduce erosion on beaches without having to construct as many engineering structures,” he reasoned.

Roach explained that while breakwaters and other engineering structures such as groynes and revetments were successful, they had a limited design life span compared with corals, which can “self-renew” over long time periods, as long as conditions are favourable.

“Breakwaters provide a service and reduce the amount of wave energy reaching the shoreline, and the boulders also recruit the coral and fish. However, healthy coral reefs are still the best environment for reef fish and other organisms to thrive. Furthermore, the sand on most of our beaches is derived from coral reefs, while the breakwaters and other engineering structures primarily trap existing sand,” he outlined.

Under the project, four species of corals will be harvested – staghorn coral; finger coral; mustard hill coral and brain coral – from Barbados’ west and south coasts. Roach explained these species were chosen because they are among the primary reef-building corals in Barbados and are hard coral species.

He said the process involved harvesting pieces of coral from the reefs, breaking them into small pieces, attaching them to plates on a frame, and allowing them to grow in tanks in a lab under controlled conditions, before transferring them back to the sea.

Over the course of the project, approximately 1,600 coral fragments about two centimetres in size will be created from coral colonies harvested from donor sites around the island. The matured fragments will be transplanted to the marine environment at year-end and closely monitored by the CZMU.

However, officials at the CZMU are assuring that their harvesting of the coral from the ocean will not put the already stressed reefs in any further danger, given the small volume of material being collected overall.

Acting Water Quality Analyst at the CZMU, Richard Suckoo, explained that the CZMU was doing research to see if the coral reef could be reinvigorated, and the island’s legislation provided leeway for research to be conducted.

He added that though officials at the CZMU were highly trained and specialized in the area, specialists were brought in to help guide the process and design the laboratory.

Suckoo further explained that the process involved taking up an entire head or colony of coral from the ocean, transporting it to the lab and fragmenting it by sectioning the colony into smaller pieces under sterile conditions. “It is the expectation that every fragment we create will survive,” he said, noting the process was very time sensitive.

The water quality analyst said the nursery at the Bellairs Research Institute provided the best location for the project, as not only is there a closed room where the lighting and temperature could be controlled, but it is still near to the sea.

“By putting the corals in a lab, we are ensuring that every day is a good day,” he remarked, noting that access to the lab was also strictly controlled.

Local staff working with the coral nursery are undergoing training in lab operations, which entails the management of the tanks and filtration system, and would ensure that the equipment is working on a daily basis. Training is also being conducted in harvesting and segmentation techniques and managing the growth of the corals.

A piece of coral reef being removed from the ocean floor.
A piece of coral reef being removed from the ocean floor.
A piece of coral being carefully handled after it was removed from the ocean floor.
A piece of coral being carefully handled after it was removed from the ocean floor.

Suckoo added that the process would be recorded in a manual, which would be used to manage the system. He stressed that this delicate process should not be attempted by unauthorized, untrained personnel. Apart from the potential harm it could cause, damage to corals is illegal under the Coastal Zone Management Act, except where explicitly authorized by the Minister of the Environment for research purposes.

Suckoo disclosed that the ongoing project had also highlighted problems in the marine environment related to water quality. He reasoned that if those issues were corrected, the recovery of the island’s coral reefs would be accelerated even further, especially with the nursery programme.

4 Responses to Reviving Barbados’ coral reefs

  1. Ann Harding August 5, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    What’s really needed is for every day to be a good day in the marine environment. Large boats’ anchor chains destroy a lot of coral. Net fishing destroys reef life. Concrete drainage running directly into the sea introduces pollution wholesale. I’m only a layperson who enjoys snorkelling and I can see these things. Where is government protection for the sea? Why are existing laws not enforced?

    Reply
  2. Tony Webster August 5, 2016 at 2:26 pm

    I very much support the protection, preservation, conservation, and (if possible) the remediation of those “dead” areas of our valuable coral-reef resources. The most careful scientific approaches I expect would be required in such a remediation exercise/ experiment, and I therefore ask the obvious question: before “re-planting” with new corals, would it not be advisable to first identify the cause of the original coral die-off ( there are several possible causes) and to establish if that/ those causative factors have been eliminated….and only then… try this experiment?

    One of the most callous of the causes, was the ” fishing with dynamite” practice, which was often seen in the 1960’s and 1970’s….now thankfully a shameful memory. Poor coastal water-quality (heat stress; fertilizer, weedicides and pesticide run-off) are more likely current culprits. One assumes these can be monitored at coastal areas adjacent to drains, and watercourses ending at the beach.

    Thanks to the BT team, for highlighting this important work by our CZMU technocrats and scientists.

    Reply
  3. Sam Clarke August 5, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    What is needed to keep the reefs on the west coast alive, is the closure of the Barbados Light and Power plant in Black rock.
    The sea water that they intake to cool the turbines, is returned to the ocean as hot water loaded with all kinds of acids and chemicals.

    As a result it has killed off the reefs, from south of the Flour Mill to west coast of Fitt’s Village. Where once were vibrant reefs are sand banks littered with all manner of garbage. These areas was once vibrant with corals, mosses and eel grasses, now is nothing but sand banks.
    THE BARBADOS LIGHT AND POWER MUST BE MADE TO REPAIR THIS DAMAGE THAT IT HAS DONE OVER ALL THOSE YEARS.

    TO REPLENISH THIS AREA WITH SEA CORALS AND FAUNA, WILL CALL FOR THE POWER COMPANY , TO CHANGE IT’S PRACTICE AND METHODS OF PRODUCING ELECTRICITY. FOR IT’S CURRENT PRACTICE, HAS KILLED OFF THE YOUNG FISH AND OTHER FORMS OF CORAL AND REEF LIVES.
    SO WHILE I COMMEND WHAT THIS PROJECT IS ATTEMPTING TO DO, IT WILL ALL BE FOR NOTHING, IF THE POWER PLANT CONTINUES TO OPERATE AS IT IS CURRENTLY DOING.

    Reply
  4. seagul August 6, 2016 at 5:12 am

    We’ll scream let’s protect this and that but we still want our fat pay checks at the end of the month right. It’s bit late all this replenish talking and not walking…those that are gaining wealth from the increasing tourist activity should now step forward and invest before all is lost.

    Reply

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