Elkhorn corals spawning in the U.S. Virgin Islands
U.S. Virgin Islands | Gametes from elkhorn corals, an important reef-building species that is listed as threatened, are collected during a night dive mission to create healthy new coral embryos. © Kemit-Amon Lewis/TNC

Stories in the Caribbean

A Coral Science Turning Point

On a first-of-its-kind mission in the Virgin Islands, we partnered with some of the world's best in coral science to create new elkhorn coral embryos.

For the first time in the Virgin Islands, The Nature Conservancy and partner SECORE International conducted a successful coral spawning expedition and used groundbreaking sexual reproduction techniques to grow healthy baby corals. The expedition was part of the TNC’s coral conservation initiative to restore reefs across the Caribbean by using cutting-edge science to grow and outplant at scales never before possible.

A team of scientists descended on St. Croix during the small window once a year when corals spawn and conducted underwater explorations through several nights, waiting for just the right moment to collect gametes, or bundles of eggs and sperm, from elkhorn corals. Elkhorn is an essential Caribbean reef-building species, along with staghorn coral—both are currently listed as threatened. The patience of the expedition team finally paid off when the corals began to spawn one night, and the team went to work collecting as many as they could. Their efforts resulted in 750,000 coral embryos growing in protected nurseries.

“This is a historic moment for us, both as scientists and conservationists,” Luis Solórzano, former Executive Director for TNC’s Caribbean Division, explains. “This is the first time within these islands in the Caribbean that humans have helped corals to reproduce via the natural sexual process, and that’s leading to a turning point for our work. Essentially, we are helping coral reefs heal themselves and we’re doing so on a broad scale using nature’s own power so there is meaningful impact. Working with SECORE—combining and applying our knowledge of the biology of corals and reaching milestones like this successful Virgin Islands expedition—we are moving closer to our goal of restoring reefs not only throughout the Caribbean but also advancing this work to other parts of the world.”

Another exciting development occurred during the expedition, when our coral science team witnessed spawning elkhorn corals that TNC had outplanted at Green Cay in St. Croix in 2012. In other words, these outplants had grown successfully and were now reproducing naturally on their own. This triumph embodies TNC's goal of restoring reefs in revolutionary ways that have continual, lasting impact on the future of coral in the Caribbean.

Diving for gametes A member of the coral spawn expedition team in the Virgin Islands collects elkhorn coral gametes during a night dive.

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