Listed here are details of projects that were awarded a grant earlier this year. These projects were chosen as they closely matched our eligibility criteria and also strive to have important coral reef conservation impacts.

Genotyping the Corals in the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences Coral Nursery.

Populations of Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis, at one time the dominant reef-building species across the Caribbean, have declined by >90% since the 1970s due to widespread disease and climate change impacts, with very little recovery. Because of this, restoration efforts in the Caribbean, including at the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS) in Roatán, Honduras, have focused on the recovery of these two important species. The importance of maintaining genetic diversity in these restoration programs is widely acknowledged due to the known resilience benefits of high genetic diversity in restored environments. However, the value of coral genotyping is becoming increasingly clear as coral genotype can explain variation in growth rates and stress response. For these reasons, current research emphasizes the importance of genotype identification and management of genotypic diversity as conservation priorities for these two species.

Genotyping the corals in the RIMS nursery will not only improve the efficacy of the restoration program, but it will allow for new opportunities in coral restoration research that depend upon this foundational genetic information. By working with individuals of known genotypes, RIMS will be able to improve their outplanting schemes to maximize genetic diversity in restored areas, which promotes adaptation to environmental change and improves population resilience to stressors such as disease, pollution, and climate change. Additionally, controlling for genotypes is necessary for replicable research projects, so this knowledge would allow RIMS to pursue new, previously unattainable research avenues and advance the existing body of coral restoration research, benefiting restoration programs worldwide.

Genotyping is the first step in enabling RIMS to become a regional leader in restoration research and will eventually allow it to serve as a model for effective, data-driven restoration efforts across the whole of Honduras. Using RIMS as a model, legislation can be proposed to create guidelines for and increase governmental support of reef restoration programs across the country. This type of ground-up program development is crucial in coral restoration efforts, which function best when they are tailored to the specific structure and needs of the local reef and community.

From experience to action: exploring the impact of reef experiences on public engagement with climate change.

A quasi-experimental design will explore whether experiences on the GBR, with or without the addition of climate-specific interpretation and educational content, can strengthen public awareness, concern, and willingness to act. The study will involve conducting 5-min surveys with visitors on tourist boats on the Great Barrier Reef. Some visitors will be exposed to climate-specific interpretation (e.g., flyers, signage, on-board education session) as part of their tourism experience, and others will have a tourism experience without climate-related interpretation, as per our quasi-experimental design. Evaluation surveys will include quantitative and qualitative components that explore support for climate mitigation initiatives and acceptability of different types of climate-related interpretation. Throughout the study, we will work closely with tourism and dive operators on the Great Barrier Reef, as well as marine educators, to ensure that project outcomes are beneficial to all stakeholders.

This study seeks to answer the overarching research questions: To what extent can people’s experiences of reef environments strengthen their engagement with climate change? More specifically:

  • To what extent can direct reef experiences, such as snorkelling or diving, influence greater engagement with climate change (including awareness, concern, and behaviour)?
  • What elements of these experiences are most associated with engagement (e.g., level of interaction, presence of marine life, group composition, factual learning)?
  • Does the effect depend on the presence of climate-specific interpretation? If so, what type of information is most effective?
  • Are there any negative effects associated with the presence of climate-specific interpretation on visitor experience?

Determining the effect of light pollution and temperature on the spawning synchrony of staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis.

Coral reefs are declining worldwide due to anthropogenic stressors. The ability of corals to persist relies on their ability to sexually reproduce. The production of larval and their dispersal enables reef replenishment and provides the genetic diversity to adapt to an ever-changing environment. To maximize fertilization, coral colonies of a species synchronize their annual release of eggs and sperm to the minute/hour. This synchronization is cued by the annual temperature cycle (month) and the sun and moon light cycles (day/hour). Abnormally high temperatures and light pollution can therefore disrupt it. Coral populations of Acropora cervicornis off Fort Lauderdale have been observed to spawn up to 2 weeks before the full moon, instead of the first week after the full moon as in the Florida Keys and throughout the Caribbean.

This study aims to accurately describe the asynchronous spawning of the populations of staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis off Fort Lauderdale, and to determine if these can be explained by light pollution and abnormally higher sea temperature. This reef-building species dominated  Florida’s Coral Reef and the Caribbean but is now critically endangered. I will compare gamete development and spawning synchrony across four reefs and an ex-situ nursery off Fort Lauderdale, which experience varying levels of light pollution and temperature. I will deploy temperature and light data loggers at all sites and sample corals for histology regularly to examine how temperature and light intensity impact gametogenesis and spawning synchrony. Determining if temperature and light pollution are contributing to this asynchrony will further inform how climate change may affect the persistence of corals, as well as assist reef managers in developing regulations to minimize light pollution as a way to protect the future of this endangered species. 

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