As fall begins to set in Caye Caulker, the frontier team begins to prepare for the second round of coral surveys of the year. Coral is surveyed in the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve (CCMR) in the spring and in the fall of each year, before and after the summer period when ocean temperatures would normally be as high as 32 degrees Celsius. In recent years however, as global mean temperatures continue to rise, ocean temperatures in the CCMR have risen well above their normal temperature.
As a living organism, coral has a threshold temperature which it thrives under. Once ocean temperatures heighten past this point, the corals begin to suffer. This is commonly known as coral bleaching which becomes more prevalent and spreads more quickly with warming oceans. To monitor coral colony health in the CCMR we conduct two surveys. The aim of these surveys is to better understand how our population of coral is responding to increased temperatures and the added pressures of disease. In these two surveys, we measure coral density, species diversity, presence of disease and bleaching, percentage of alive colony’s, and colony height and width.
Over the past few weeks the AROs have been studying coral disease to prepare for conducting coral surveys. This involved becoming familiar with all the species of coral and the various coral diseases that are found in Caye Caulker, so that we could easily identify them in the field.
After passing the coral and coral disease ID test last week, we were able to conduct our first coral transects at Elkhorn Point this week. This location is special because unlike much of CCMR and the entire Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, at elkhorn point there are multiple healthy colonies of elkhorn and staghorn corals. Doing our first coral transect at Elkhorn Point was extraordinary because we were able to see entire colonies of extremely rare coral. However, it was possible to see the early signs of disease appearing on these corals.
As beautiful as it was to see these amazing living colonies of elkhorn and staghorn coral, it was sobering to have a true understanding of the difficulties they will face in the coming decades as oceans continue to warm, and as coral diseases continue to spread across our oceans at unprecedented rates.