What is a coral nursery?

At Coral Restoration Panama, we are often asked to define the concept of “Coral Nursery”. Describing the operation of a Coral Nursery is like describing how to make a cake. The end results can be as arbitrary as the recipes and procedures used to get there. The variables are endless even though the ultimate intention is often readily definable. In the case of a Coral Nursery, the ultimate goal is to protect and preserve one of the world’s most beautiful and precious ecosystems. 

The coral reefs of today are much different than they were 20 years or even 10 years ago. What has happened and why are topics of great debate, but the undisputable fact is that unless counter-measures are taken immediately, some and perhaps all of the coral reefs of the planet could disappear or be altered in ways that will effect entire marine ecosystems. What will happen is again a topic of great academic discussion but you can be sure that it does not take a government grant and endless studies to be assured that it will not be pretty. The great news is that there are teams of really smart and dedicated researchers using their talents and funding to create solutions for reestablishment and preservation.

The result is that in many places and, thankfully, in the Caribbean, a movement is underway to use practical knowledge and common sense to restore some of the reef-building corals that have been so decimated in recent years. Spearheaded by dedicated practitioners in the Florida Keys, Coral nurseries are springing up in Bonaire, Jamaica, Tallaboa, Belize, Barbados and St. Lucia. And now  our own Caribbean Coral Restoration has began filing for permits to establish a Coral Nursery and Education Center in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama.

So what does that mean and how does it work?  First, to know how and why a coral nursery works, it is very helpful to understand a little about coral and how they work. Simply stated, coral is made up of colonies of tiny little animals called coral polyps that create limestone out of seawater to build distinctive shapes that give them an identity, like Elkhorn coral or Brain coral or Black coral. They have existed for millions of years using both sexual and asexual methods of propagation but they are extremely slow-growing and very susceptible to a huge onslaught of perils due in part to the small size of each individual polyp in the colony.

What happens in a Coral Nursery is that many of the hazards such as sedimentation, temperature extremes, sunlight variations, extreme wave action and predation are eliminated or at least mitigated so that growing colonies have a chance to achieve a rate of growth and healthy status much faster than they would in a free state.

There is nothing magical, chemical or artificial used to alter the genetics or natural abilities of the corals. They are simply introduced to a natural habitat that is more protected and ideal for their individual needs. The result is an amazing amount of juvenile coral colonies that grow to a size capable for successful outplanting into coral reef areas in as little time as six months. A process that would normally take from three to six years.

The really exciting news is that as more Coral nurseries come online, new discoveries are being made that are creating better and better techniques and success records. It will be exciting and interesting to watch the development of Panama Coral Restoration since the location of that facility is unique and promises to have the potential for some truly profound results if all goes well there.