Monitoring Coral Reef Health in the Turks & Caicos Islands

Latest update August 8, 2019 Started on January 1, 2019
sea

The Turks & Caicos Islands are surrounded by one of the largest barrier reef systems in the Western Hemisphere and we will be exploring and monitoring the health of these reefs.

January 1, 2019
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In The Field

Finally got a good day to go out and do the first test dive with the new Trident Drone. Lake Champlain is not an ideal place to practice - visibility is poor and lots of weeds. So we went off one of the marina docks and stayed shallow to stay out of the weeds. Will take some more practice to get use to "flying" it, but it is very responsive and pretty easy to maneuver. Short video clip below -checking out the lines anchoring the dock and the dock floats.

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Preparation

It finally arrived. Our new Trident underwater drone. I added the 100 meter tether to the kit so we can do some deep water exploration on the walls of the Turks & Caicos Reefs. Stormy day today or I'd be out giving it a test dive in Lake Champlain while I am here in Vermont. Maybe tomorrow. Seems solidly built and appears to be relatively simple to operate with the wireless (wifi) controller. I'll post video from the first test dives in the next few days.

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I am excited to announce that the TCRF has been selected to receive a complimentary Trident Underwater Drone. This is in thanks to all of you who started to follow us on our OpenExplorer page. When the Trident drone arrives in Vermont, we will be conduction training dives in Lake Champlain to get a feel for the handling of the Trident. But the real work with the tool begins when we get it down to the Turks & Caicos Islands. There it will be used, at least initially, on three projects:


  1. Assessing the condition of dive boat mooring lines. Rather than sending a diver down to check on the condition of a mooring (usually a dive to 40-50 feet) we can send the drone down to evaluate what, if anything, needs to be done before we put a diver in the water. Increases safety of the operation as we won't have divers doing short bounce dives to 40-50 feet - not a healthy thing to be doing.

  2. Assessing the lionfish population at depths below 100 feet (33 meters). We have a theory that the larger lionfish have gone deeper on our reef walls - to areas not easily and safely accessible for scuba divers. With the Trident drone on a 100 meter tether, we can go deeper searching for lionfish. It won't eliminate them, but will tell us where we may want to focus a few deep removal dives.

  3. Monitoring the spread of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. This disease has been around the Florida Keys since 2014 and is causing a great deal of damage to the Keys' reefs. It has only recently been observed on some reefs around the Turks & Caicos Islands. Part of our plan to deal with this fast moving disease is to monitor sites with the disease and monitor nearby reef areas to map the spread. This eliminates putting divers in the water which may actually help to spread the disease which is suspected to be a bacteria-caused disease by being transferred from infected sites to uninfected sites on dive gear or equipment.

We are looking forward to receiving our new tool and putting it to good use in our efforts to protect the reefs of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

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In The Field

Virtually very thing the Turks &. Caicos Reef Fund does requires approval of the Turks & Caicos Islands Government's Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR). Consequently, we work hard to maintain a close working relationship with DECR.


One of our big projects that help to protect the reefs of the TCI is our moorings effort. Under a Memorandum of Understanding between the TCRF and DECR, TCRF has been designated as the lead NGO for the installation and maintenance of moorings. Since we started this effort, we have more than doubled the number of scuba moorings around the TCI, added over a dozen snorkel boat moorings where there were previously none and replace all the inappropriate sea floor anchors for moorings (e.g., chains wrapped around coral heads) with proper sea floor anchors.

In the video, two of our DECR helpers are drilling a hole in dead coral so a new rock pin anchor can be installed. In the photo, two other volunteers are finishing a mooring line hook-up to a newly installed rock pin anchor which has been epoxied into a hole drilled in the hard bottom.

One of the challenges we face in monitoring the health of our mooring lines is that to check on the condition of the sea floor anchor and the mooring line itself, we need to send a diver in the water. Since all of our scuba boat moorings are in 40-50 feet (or more) of water, the diver ends up doing a very short dive, essentially a bounce dive. Having an underwater drone to inspect the moorings would lead to increased safety for our volunteer divers as we would only have to put a diver in the water if there was a problem spotted from the drone footage.

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As part of our efforts to monitor the health of coral reefs in the TCI, we often have volunteer divers who, when working on other projects, keep an eye out for problems or concerns. Just recently, one of our volunteer divers, Alizee Zimmermann, was scouting a new area off the island of West Caicos for a possible Reef Ball reef and spotted some disconcerting looking corals. It did not look like bleaching, so she took some photos to identify potential newly diseased corals. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the dreaded Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. This a devastating coral disease that has been affecting reefs in Florida since 2014. Alizee's observation is the first that the disease has been found around West Caicos. It was also reported earlier near South Caicos by staff of the School for Field Studies, which is located there.


Despite this being bad news, we are seeing it in the earliest stages and hopefully with some interventions (e.g., banning divers from those areas, potentially treated diseased corals, etc.) we can limit the spread of the disease. TCRF is working with the local Department of Environment and Coastal Resources to put an action plan in place and we are in the process of applying for grant funding to support the intervention and monitoring plans.

With the aid of an underwater drone we will be able to more quickly assess and monitor the spread of the disease and help us target sites for intervention.

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Expedition Background

The Turks & Caicos Reef Fund is the only active environmental advocacy non-profit organization in the Turks & Caicos Islands. We work closely with the Government's Department of Environment and Coastal Resources to accomplish our mission of helping to protect the environment of the Turks & Caicos Islands. One of those efforts is to create a coral nursery for critically endangered elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) reef building corals so we can hopefully re-establish healthy reefs of these major reef building corals on the reefs around the Turks & Caicos Islands.

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