The fieldwork was contributing to a long-term study, led by Dr. Edwin Hernandez Delgado, of the ecological impacts of Acropora cervicornis (Staghorn coral) propagation off of the island Culebra. The restoration process is analogous to gardening with coral. Small Staghorn fragments are suspended in an in situ coral nursery for the benefits of accelerated growth, decreased parasitism, predation, and sedimentation. When the fragments reach a specified size, we transplanted them to the degraded reef. We periodically monitor their growth, live cover, disease presence, predation, and indicators of the ecosystem’s health. I was involved with coral nursery maintenance and monitoring. Transplants have consistently achieved significant, measurable ecological recovery! The team is still experimenting with best procedures, including methods for propagation and identifying the best local strains of Staghorn coral for growth and resilience.
Apart from the coral gardening project, we conducted monitoring in several sites as a part of long-term studies on the threatened coral Acropora palmata (Elkhorn coral). We tagged and measured the standard metrics for coral health, growth, and the surrounding ecological conditions. One monitoring site on the northern coast was like no reef I’d seen. There were enormous, healthy fields of Elkhorn coral, meters high with complex branching structures. It was like a prehistoric scene, and at the very least a glimpse of what the reefs looked like decades ago.
The team of researchers, comprised of a microbiologist, community ecologist, epidemiologist, immunologist, and mathematician among others, does really fascinating analysis of relationships between reef conditions and local and regional trends and stressors. For example, the current El Niño is causing all sorts of interesting oceanographic phenomena that they are excited to analyze. Changing currents are bringing more effluent and potentially coral disease from Brazil and Venezuela. At the local level, overfishing and huge sediment loads from irresponsible construction on the small island are creating interesting, and concerning dynamics in the island’s reefs.
When we were not doing fieldwork, I was working on a study to examine fluctuations in sediment load at various reefs around the island in relation to community composition and health. This study is contributing to a greater effort to characterize the watersheds and receiving reefs of the island for better management. I helped with sediment analysis in the lab. A grad student and I dried the sediment from traps collected from the field sites, then separated the samples to determine the sand vs. silt and clay composition of the sediment. Subsequently we conducted two less-on-ignition tests per sample to determine the organic carbon and inorganic carbon content of the sediment. The process could be mundane, but the students and lab techs made it fun. I enjoyed having time in the lab with many graduate and post-doc students to learn about their interests, plans, and career paths, plus grill them about life in Puerto Rico. After completing the sediment analysis, I had to learn dozens of coral species in all their life stages and varying structures in order to do benthic community analysis. Of course I enjoyed the fieldwork most, but I learned a ton just talking to researchers and getting very familiar with the local reef community make-up.
The projects I helped with were collaborations primarily between the Center for Applied Tropical Ecology and Conservation at the university and a NGO called Sociedad Ambiente Marino. They frequently had to consult or cooperate with the DNR, NOAA, NASA, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Besides some impressive negotiations and collaboration, I also witnessed the dire struggle to find funding to support conservation research. Despite the bleak financial outlook, it was heartening that despite better prospects outside of Puerto Rico, much of the team was committed to staying because they were deeply invested in the local ecosystems.
While I did not have the chance to conduct my own research during this internship, helping with various studies provided fun experiences and helpful exposure to research methods, development, and an array of ideas and approaches. Scuba diving with a goofy team of researchers was a blast. Until now, I’ve neglected to mention the perks of studying on a tropical island with an abundance of beaches, rivers, mountains, waterfalls, caves, and delicious food! I would be thrilled to put anyone interested in coral restoration in contact with Dr. Hernandez!