Sept. 25, 2003 – While contractors and engineers bring marine transportation into a new era on the island of St. John, biologists are changing the landscape under the sea. Workers with the St. Croix company Bioimpact just spent six months transplanting between 30,000 and 40,000 individual corals in Turner Bay.
The company's president, Amy C. Dempsey, says the corals were moved to take them out of the planned path of a channel cut leading into Enighed Pond.
Construction is under way on the long-awaited cargo dock and terminal at Enighed Pond that are designed to relieve the congestion of maritime traffic in Cruz Bay Harbor and the Creek. Work on the project began in the spring with the removal of fringing mangroves and the fencing in of the construction site. Heavy equipment operators are filling in portions of the pond, creating berms, while other crews are creating the channel cut from the pond into Turner Bay.
On the other side of the channel cut, Dempsey and a team of divers removed the corals from the site of the dredging project. Dempsey says the work was laid out in the environmental impact report drawn up before the work at Enighed Pond began.
"There were several things that were required, one being this coral transplant," she said on Wednesday. Another is "the creation of a large wetland area which will be inside the pond, which will create a whole series of mangrove islands to replace the mangrove habitat around the edge of the pond that's going to be lost to the development of the marine port."
Environmentalists called for transplanting the corals into new marine gardens because large areas of once thriving coral are getting sick and dying around the world. Thanks to the transplanting, Dempsey said, the corals — which are sea animals, not plants — will have a chance to reproduce and continue the species. Such projects, she said, may become a critical factor as scientists and researchers seek ways of reversing their global decline.
From January to July, divers picked up individual corals and repositioned them in another part of the bay. Where the corals were attached to boulders, Dempsey said, heavy equipment was used to move them, rocks and all. Where the rock foundations were too big to lift, workers used tools to remove the corals and then applied environmentally friendly glues to cement them onto new hosts.
"We literally took the corals off with a hammer and chisel, and then we attached them to their new substrate — their new homes to the north and south — using a two-part underwater epoxy which is safe for use on the corals," Dempsey said. The epoxy, she said, is approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and "it's actually to be used in drinking water systems."
Now that the massive transplant project is completed, Bioimpact's next job is to monitor the relocated corals and make sure they are thriving. Because some of the substrate is volcanic rock, Dempsey said, it may take several attempts to get the epoxy to adhere. If corals start to show signs of bleaching — something that marine experts have identified as a sign of disease — Dempsey and her team relocate them again. If water quality around the new coral beds changes too much because of the nearby construction, the contractors will be asked to install extra siltation filters.
One of the things the divers have to keep an eye on is displacement of their corals by fish. "We have a problem with urchins and fish actually knocking the corals loose, especially right when you're moving them," Dempsey said. "It's one of the things that drives you crazy. You get the coral all situated, and here comes a large parrot fish or a large cow fish, and they'll knock your coral over to see if they can find anything to eat underneath it."
As for urchins, "that are burrowing organisms, and they like to get between the coral and the substrate, and they'll sometimes knock your coral loose," she said.
Monitoring is to continue for five years to ensure the success of the relocated coral colonies. Dempsey said one of the main objectives is to make sure the new undersea gardens survive all phases of construction while the Enighed project is under way.
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