Ilsa Kuffner and team finishing coral calcification study funded by the National Park Service in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

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A team of scientists from the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center will be wrapping up an experiment this week on coral calcification (growth) and restoration feasibility in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Calcification monitoring station with a colony of the massive starlet coral, Siderastrea siderea, fastened in place.

Calcification monitoring station with a colony of the massive starlet coral, Siderastrea siderea, fastened in place. The white plastic "cow tags" are used as settlement tiles for measuring calcification by the crustose coralline algae (CCA) community, and the black temperature logger records ocean temperature every 15 minutes (temperature data are available at (Public domain.)

The team, including Ilsa Kuffner (not shown), Anastasios Stathakopoulos, and BJ Reynolds (USGS); and Erin Lyons (Cherokee Nations Systems Solutions, contracted to the USGS) will visit three study sites in the Buck Island Reef National Monument to assess the growth and success of corals planted there in June 2019. Each site contains 20 colonies of reef-building corals—including 10 brain coral (Pseusodiploria strigosa) colonies and 10 elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) colonies, 5 of which are known as ‘legacy’ colonies – genetic strains of elkhorn coral that have withstood major disturbances such as bleaching events and white band disease. The corals are weighed and measured every six months to assess how quickly they grow at each site. During this final trip, the team will wrap up the project by taking final measurements of each of the experimental corals, (non-lethally) sampling core slices from the coral skeletons for chemical analysis, and outplanting the corals back on the reef to continue growing. Although the team has not been able to visit these sites since early 2020 due to the pandemic, National Park Service partners at Buck Island Reef National Monument were able to complete USGS field work needs in the interim.

The growth measurements will be used to assess the feasibility of coral restoration within the Buck Island Reef National Monument and determine which genetic strains may be most successful. Buck Island Reef is one of many throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean that has been devastated by disturbances including ocean warming and resultant coral bleaching events, diseases, and most recently Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). Three of the brain corals (known to be highly susceptible to SCTLD) used in the experiment were actually lost to the disease during the course of the project. Although SCTLD is still present in many locations throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands, studies like this provide some hope and guidance for groups leading coral reef restoration. Buck Island serves as important nesting habitat for several sea turtle species listed under the Endangered Species Act. The coral reefs surrounding the island protect these beaches from storm damage, further underscoring the importance of restoring the Monument’s reefs.

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