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A collaborative approach to managing coral disease in UK Overseas Territories: The Collaborative Coral Reef Working Group

Coral reef ecosystems contribute to making the Caribbean region a biodiversity hotspot and are relied upon for the valuable services they provide to society. The health of coral reefs across the Caribbean is severely threatened by human activity, coral disease, and climate change. In addition to existing pressures, the highly contagious stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) has reached the Caribbean region and is having a devastating effect on infected coral reefs.

To effectively respond to SCTLD, sharing knowledge and experiences of the disease is critical. This JNCC-led Darwin Plus (DPLUS147) project, Collaborative approach to managing coral disease in UK Overseas Territories, is supporting the response. The project fosters partnership between governments, NGOs, academic institutions, and wider stakeholders to coordinate effective coral reef management decisions through the platform of the Collaborative Coral Reef Working Group (CCRWG), which the project funds. The Darwin Plus 147 project is funded by the Darwin Initiative through UK Government funding.

Introduction

Coral reefs are highly valuable ecosystems that contribute to the economy, livelihoods, and cultural identity of the societies that live near to them. Across the Overseas Territories coral reefs are relied upon for their role in supporting tourism and fishing industries and for providing protection against tropical storms.

Coral reef cover in the Caribbean region has declined severely over the last three decades leaving these fragile ecosystems highly vulnerable to environmental change and additional pressures. The emergence of SCTLD, with its rapid rate of spread, high mortality rate, and large number of affected species, therefore, poses an urgent threat to coral reef ecosystems and the services they provide.

First reported in Florida in 2014, SCTLD has now spread to the Caribbean region and is decimating infected reefs. The cross-boundary nature of SCTLD has sparked regional collaboration to understand the disease and respond rapidly to limit its spread.

Pillar coral, Dendrogyra cylindricus, with white diseased section (Copyright: A.Z., Turks & Caicos Reef Fund)

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Project Overview

Establishment of the Collaborative Coral Reef Working Group (CCRWG)

The need for cross territory collaboration to protect the Caribbean’s coral reefs was highlighted by a UK Overseas Territories Coral Reef Initiative workshop hosted by Anguilla in 2019. The workshop brought together government representatives from the Caribbean Overseas Territories, national representatives of Defra, JNCC, and the Commonwealth Secretariat, as well as regional stakeholders, to discuss priority areas for coral reef conservation.

Based on recommendations from this workshop, the CCRWG was piloted with funding from the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) in late 2020. In 2021, the CCRWG was formally established by this project: Collaborative approach to managing coral disease in UK Overseas Territories, which will fund the CCRWG until March 2024.

DPLUS147 Project: Collaborative approach to managing coral disease in UK Overseas Territories

This Darwin Plus project is a partnership between the governments of the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, alongside Kalli de Meyer (CCRWG chairperson and director at Nature2) and Dr Greta Aeby (coral disease expert at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa). Recognising the broad scale of threats to coral reef ecosystems, the project shares knowledge and resources across the Overseas Territories, including Anguilla, Bermuda, and Montserrat through the CCRWG.

By providing an online platform for partnership, the CCRWG brings together representatives from governments, NGOs and key stakeholders from the Caribbean and Western Atlantic Overseas Territories, with JNCC providing the secretariat. Monthly virtual meetings and the use of a resource repository enable partners to share their experiences with SCTLD, collaborate with experts in the field, present results of treatment and management interventions, share outreach resources, and conduct topical trainings.

Coral monitoring by a diver underwater (Copyright: British Virgin Islands National Trust)

You can find out more about the work of the CCRWG in JNCCs Nature News article, Stony coral tissue loss disease in the UK overseas Territories (Page16-17).

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Objectives

The key objectives of the Collaborative approach to managing coral disease in UK Overseas Territories project are to:

  • Share knowledge, skills, resources, and tools that support evidence-based decision making to address the spread of SCTLD across all Overseas Territories.
  • Provide funding for and support the delivery of shared actions for the protection, restoration, and management of coral reefs in the three project partner Overseas Territories.
  • Develop an adaptive SCTLD treatment and management strategy, including SCTLD handbook, status report, and annual treatment monitoring and evaluation reports.
  • Develop a Conceptual Reef Resilience Model Framework to allow managers to understand how management interventions can impact coral reef health.
  • Develop a strategy for a lasting collaborative partnership to address the multiple threats facing coral reefs long-term.

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Outputs

Outputs to be delivered by the project include:

  • SCTLD Handbook (funded by Defra during the CCRWG pilot phase). 
  • SCTLD Status Report.
  • SCTLD Collaborative Treatment Strategy: outlining the SCTLD treatment goals of the CCRWG for the year and updated annually.
  • Annual treatment monitoring and evaluation reports: evaluating the effectiveness of treatment strategies and informing future management.
  • Conceptual Reef Resilience Model: providing a framework for managers to examine the effects of management scenarios on coral reef health across the region.
  • A SCTLD Adaptive Management Plan: outlining a long-term plan, informed by lessons learnt during the project, to tackle coral disease outbreaks and other pressures facing reefs.
  • Workshop reports from treatment trainings and adaptive management planning.

Project outputs will be made available when delivered.

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The CCRWG is also providing a platform for the Overseas Territories to discuss the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) funded programme: Building environmental resilience and security in a changing climate through biodiversity conservation in the Overseas Territories.

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Partners and Funders

Logos of the Darwin Initiative, Government of Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands, and UK Official Development Assistance (ODA).

The Darwin Plus 147 project is funded by the Darwin Initiative with UK aid from the UK government.

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