Conserving the Coral Reef Ecosystems Surrounding Little Cayman
The Cayman Islands are a dream destination for snorkelers and divers. Our sea is home to many fascinating aquatic creatures including vibrant corals, colorful parrotfish, and lionfish. When we spot these beauties underwater, we have the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) to thank. The nonprofit was founded in 1998 to protect coral reefs in the region. For over two decades they've worked tirelessly to conserve the coral reef ecosystems surrounding Little Cayman.
Dr. Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley, CCMI’s Director of Research and lead of the 2025 Reef Resilience and Restoration team, shared the progress of 20 years of reef monitoring during a recent virtual Reef Lecture. By documenting patterns and making regional comparisons the team’s findings have supported efforts to conserve the health of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Their efforts are being celebrated by Mission Blue which declared Little Cayman a Hope Spot.
Coral reefs are critical ecosystems for islands such as Little Cayman which rely on healthy reefs for tourism. Globally, coral reefs are threatened by human activities that impact the environment including pollution and overfishing. Dr. Goodbody-Gringley explained that increasing sea temperatures have led to coral bleaching.
“Today the average coral cover across the Caribbean is somewhere hovering around 10% which is a drastic decline from that initial 75% in the mid-1970s,” Dr. Goodbody-Gringley said. Her team does frequent surveys to assess the area’s coral and fish by using a 10-meter area of coral reef and counting and identifying every single coral and fish species in the area. They track each specimen's length, width, and height to assess health status.
Some things they’re looking out for are signs of disease, indications of bleaching, and parrotfish bites. The collected data shows there's been a rise and fall over the last two decades. The good news is that there hasn’t been a statistical decline in coral cover. “We started in 1999 at around 24% coral cover overall and we’re now hovering for the last five years around 20% coral cover,” Dr. Goodbody-Gringley said. There hasn’t been much change since 2013 meaning that the coral has been quite stable for the last seven years. There has been no change statistically in the amount of fish in the area.
Little Cayman’s reefs are resilient but not immune to the threats that have tormented other Caribbean reef ecosystems. Dr. Goodbody-Gringley reports that there has been a significant shift in the dominant species on the reef. In the early 2000s, the predominant coral species were large, massive corals. “Some of these coral colonies are the size of a VW bug,” Dr. Goodbody-Gringley said. “We’ve seen a major decline in the predominance of those types of corals towards smaller boulder corals.”
Currently, stony coral tissue loss disease is an issue at Little Cayman’s reefs and much of the northern Caribbean Sea. The disease first popped up in Florida in 2014 and rapidly spread down the Florida reef tract. It affects a variety of species and causes a loss of tissue making it appear as if the tissue is sloughing off the coral. The mortality rate is high. If you come across reefs that you may be impacted report it to the Department of Environmental Health. CCMI is working with them to track the outbreak and develop strategies.
To support CCMI’s efforts to preserve Cayman’s biodiversity may make donations here. While visiting the island you can be mindful of your plastic consumption, use reef-safe SPF, ask for reusable straws and swim out to reefs instead of using fueled boats where possible. Dr. Goodbody-Gringley said these little things make a difference.