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New Hope for Puerto Rico’s Coral Reefs

December 04, 2023

With $10.6 million in new funding through NOAA, our long-time Puerto Rico partner Institute for Socio-Ecological Research is poised to restore coral reefs on a massive scale

Coral reef in Tres Palmas, Puerto Rico (Photo: NOAA) Coral reef in Tres Palmas, Puerto Rico (Photo: NOAA)

Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth. They support a quarter of all marine life and provide communities with billions of dollars in economic value. In Puerto Rico, reef-related tourism generates nearly $2 billion annually (PDF, 7 pages). Local communities rely on coral reef fisheries for food and livelihoods. The island’s coral reefs also dissipate wave energy from hurricanes and tropical storms, averting an estimated $184 million in damage each year. 

Threats such as climate change, stony coral tissue loss disease, bleaching, and coral-killing algae have dramatically decreased coral cover in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. In response, NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation awarded nearly $40 million this year to its coral restoration partners in the region through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.

NOAA awarded $10.6 million to its longtime Puerto Rico partner, Institute for Socio-Ecological Research (ISER), to protect and restore reefs around the island. With past support from NOAA, ISER Co-Founder Dr. Stacey Williams and her team of local scientists have pioneered ways to increase the survival of coral in the Caribbean.

Now, after years solidifying the groundwork for this research, ISER is expanding its efforts on a massive scale. The award will allow the Institute and its partners to:

  • Restore six coral reefs around the island by outplanting more than 124,000 micro-fragments of massive, reef-building corals
  • Protect coral by releasing about 12,000 sea urchins and 6,400 crabs that eat coral-smothering algae
  • Expand and improve laboratory facilities and nurseries to produce and house more bleaching- and disease-resistant corals as well as sea urchins and crabs  
  • Provide more than 60 new jobs to Puerto Rican residents, including assistantships to students researching topics related to coral reef conservation

“We’re taking a holistic, ecosystem-based approach to restoration with this project,” says Williams. “We’re outplanting genetically diverse corals, releasing multiple species of herbivores, and varying our approach depending on the different conditions at each reef. This funding is also improving many people’s lives. A lot of young people leave the island due to a lack of jobs. This project is keeping local scientists and students here and enabling them to do what they love.”

Dr. Katie Flynn (left) and Dr. Stacey Williams (right) collecting one-month old Diadema settlement collector plates. (Photo: ISER)
Dr. Katie Flynn (left) and Dr. Stacey Williams (right) collecting one-month old Diadema settlement collector plates. (Photo: ISER)

Collaboration and Innovation Key to Coral Restoration

This project builds off more than a decade of collaboration between NOAA, Williams, and other coral restoration partners in the region such as Mote Marine Laboratory. Through her Ph.D. research, Williams figured out how to successfully rear Diadema antillarum, an herbivorous sea urchin that eats coral-killing algae. Her work removed a bottleneck that had stymied restoration practitioners for many years. 

Once plentiful on Caribbean reefs, Diadema experienced a mass die-off in the 1980s and have yet to recover. As a result, aggressive fleshy and encrusting algae spread across coral reefs, killing juvenile coral. Attempts to grow larval Diadema in labs proved exceptionally difficult. However, Williams found several hotspots on Puerto Rico reefs to collect Diadema “settlers.” Settlers are young sea urchins that have begun to adhere to surfaces after surviving their free-swimming larval stages. To protect the tiny settlers from predation, Williams and her collaborators collected thousands of baby urchins to rear in land-based nurseries. 

Coral micro fragments and laboratory-reared Diadema juveniles at ISER’s land based nurseries.  (Photo: ISER)
Coral micro fragments and laboratory-reared Diadema juveniles at ISER’s land based nurseries. (Photo: ISER)

So far the Institute has released 7,000 adult Diadema on algae-covered reefs. “Within a month of release, you can see direct impact on the reef,” says Williams. “As soon as you jump in the water you see cleaner substrate, which we hope will translate to an increase in abundance of coral.” 

The organization also grows multiple Endangered Species Act-listed corals in land- and ocean-based nurseries. ISER collaborator Dr. Ernesto Weil, Director of the Department of Marine Sciences at University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, has monitored local coral colonies for decades. He and his students track and tag corals that have survived ocean warming events and other threats. Based on this data, Williams and her student researchers selectively rear some of these corals that demonstrate resistance to bleaching and disease. Last year ISER and partners HJR Reefscaping and Sea Venture Marine Response Unit outplanted 18,000 corals.

Scaling Up to Respond to Current and Future Threats

Late this summer, a widespread bleaching event began in Florida and moved to Caribbean waters. NOAA staff, ISER, its partners, and their newly augmented workforce rescued outplanted corals and brought them to nurseries on land. “The rescued corals are recovering right now and gaining some of their color back,” says Williams. “In the meantime, we are scouting locations where colonies are withstanding this bleaching. We’re marking those and will hopefully collect some live tissue to plant out in the future.”

ISER team, with Manuel Olmeda Saldaña at the right, collecting Diadema settlers off collection plates on Isla Magueyes UPRM-Department of Marine Sciences facilities (Photo: ISER)
ISER team, with Manuel Olmeda Saldaña at the right, collecting Diadema settlers off collection plates on Isla Magueyes UPRM-Department of Marine Sciences facilities (Photo: ISER)

Recently hired scientists, technicians, and student assistants—all from Puerto Rico—are helping upgrade and expand ISER’s land-based facilities while continuing critical research. “ISER went from an organization that had three employees to 30,” says Williams. Williams mentored many ISER employees when they were studying marine science at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

Manuel Olmeda Saldaña, whose graduate research supported the successful outplanting of Diadema, recently began working as ISER’s new Herbivore Manager. He oversees a team of scientists and technicians building tanks to grow more Diadema, two additional species of algae-eating sea urchins, and Caribbean King crabs. With Diadema still vulnerable to die offs, releasing multiple species of herbivores will bolster the chances of long-term success. 

“Before I met Dr. Williams, I planned to move to the U.S. mainland for economic reasons,” says Saldaña. “Growing up in Puerto Rico, adults ground into my head, ‘you have to leave, you have to leave—Puerto Rico is where you vacation.’ Working with Dr. Williams for my master’s degree opened my eyes. What bigger satisfaction for me than to restore my home and help local people? There are a lot of people who are very passionate about their home in Puerto Rico. Getting them involved creates a more sustainable future.”

ISER is expanding its two land-based coral nurseries and, when water temperatures cool, will add more ocean-based nurseries. They will also collect genetic material from their monitored coral colonies. The Coral Restoration Foundation, another NOAA grantee, will use these samples to create a catalog of bleaching- and disease-resistant corals.

Culturing microalgae to feed Tripneustes ventricosus sea urchin larvae. (Photo: ISER)
Culturing microalgae to feed Tripneustes ventricosus sea urchin larvae. (Photo: ISER)

Young Puerto Ricans Bring Hope for the Future

Student researchers like Noel Carrera, an ISER staff biologist, are investigating how to improve the survivorship of outplanted coral fragments. “A lot of older people have told me the coral reefs here are beautiful but they’re not what they used to be,” says Carrera. “I want to avoid that happening to other generations. That drives me to keep going despite the challenges.”

Carrera also does outreach and education work with the local community. “The most important part to me is to serve as inspiration to others. I feel like this network around me inspires me and hopefully I inspire them. I feel like I’m at a huge round table of beautiful, brilliant minds trying to all reach the same goal.”

Williams says she hopes to begin out-planting corals again in early spring when ocean conditions stabilize. “What maintains my hope is seeing all the people around me still pushing to improve coral reefs, whether it’s people taking climate change actions, doing restoration, or creating management plans. We’re not alone.”

Partners include: 

  • Isla Mar Research Expeditions
  • Sea Ventures Marine Response Unit
  • HJR Reefscaping
  • University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez
  • PR Sea Grant
  • Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 
  • Unidad Académica de Sistemas Arrecifales Puerto Morelos
  • Hawai'i's Division of Aquatic Resources
  • Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources
  • Mote Marine Laboratory
  • PR Surfrider