St. Croix students help scientists plant corals

Written by: Mary Alice Blackstock and Elsbeth Waskom

Eight high schoolers from the U.S. Virgin Islands helped outplant 20 elkhorn corals on May 13 in St. Croix, with mentors from Mote Marine Laboratory and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

The students, led by Mote staff scientist Dr. Erinn Muller, went to coral nurseries with four TNC employees to collect healthy elkhorn coral fragments and transport them to a damaged reef, where TNC staff reattached the corals.

Mote and TNC partner in coral conservation, including an initiative announced in 2016 that ultimately aims to enable coral restoration at unprecedented scales throughout the Caribbean and the Florida Keys.

Muller, manager of Mote’s Coral Health & Disease Program, received a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2015 to study the variability in resilience of corals affected by environmental change: important information for restoring reefs effectively.

Coral reefs provide a home and support system for diverse marine life. Sadly, reef ecosystems are in danger due to both natural causes and harmful human impacts such as temperature increases and ocean acidification from excess carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere.

The NSF-supported, research-based high school program focuses on research related to coral health, conservation and restoration and its goal is to relieve some of the stress affecting reefs.

“The program provides a one of a kind experience for the youth of St. Croix,” Muller said.  “We provide mentorship and education that fosters a scientific and emotional connection with their surrounding reef environments. The students learn the value of the coral reefs in their backyards and become local stewards for ocean conservation. Several will also go on to continue studying the marine environment as a career, and become mentors for the next generation themselves.”

This program, now in its second year, emphasizes educating and inspiring students to conserve natural resources. The program, overseen by Muller at Mote and the St. Croix nonprofit EARTHANGLE, led by Ms. Daina King-Sall, provides research experience along with educational snorkeling excursions.

“Some of the participants weren’t even comfortable swimming when we started, and now, several of them have been scuba certified, and others are snorkeling and freediving. We hope to get them all scuba certified eventually,” Muller said. “It’s awesome to see them go from not being able to swim to see them actually out there on a reef, freediving and participating in a reef restoration project. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Although corals grow slowly, Muller is hopeful they will see progress in the upcoming years.

“While we were planting our corals, we could see nearby corals that had been outplanted four years earlier and had grown remarkably since then,” Muller said. “So we’re hoping that four years from now we’ll be able to go out and see our corals really big and healthy too. We are truly rebuilding the function of that reef, one coral at a time.”

Amyah Estrill, high schoolers in St. Croix, carry elkhorn coral soon to be planted onto the reef, under the supervision of mentors from Mote Marine Laboratory and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
Bianca Patterson, high schoolers in St. Croix, carry elkhorn coral soon to be planted onto the reef, under the supervision of mentors from Mote Marine Laboratory and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).