Feature Friday: Casey Harris

Hi, Casey Harris! Welcome to ReefBites.

Twitter: @caseirene23

Instagram: @caseirene

Casey is a recent Master of Science, Marine Biology and Ecology graduate from University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Casey’s work focuses on The Bahamas Coral Innovation Hub: upscaling and advancing coral restoration techniques to help restore Bahamian reefs. Read more about Casey’s work below! 

Give an elevator pitch of what your research/project is about.

Unfortunately, much like coral reefs worldwide, coral populations in The Bahamas are declining at alarming rates, making coral reef restoration more vital to preserve marine resources and local economies. The Bahamas Coral Innovation Hub located in Eleuthera, Bahamas is a collaboration between the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI), Perry Institute for Marine Science (PIMS), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The project aims to upscale and improve all aspects of coral reef restoration, such as nursery-reared coral fragments, coral microfragementation, larval propagation, and cutting-edge scientific research. Besides the main collaborators (CEI, PIMS, and TNC), we also work with other institutions, such as SECORE International, and the Shedd Aquarium. 

The coral team, based at CEI, is rearing Acropora cervicornis in offshore nurseries by utilizing the natural process of asexual reproduction through fragmentation. This method is successful with fast-growing branching species and can provide new coral colonies for population growth. In 2020, the Hub plans to expand our nurseries to include more corals, genotypes, and species of Acroporids. We are also experimenting with coral microfragmentation using slow-growing massive species. This process consists of cutting fragments of the same colony into small pieces, using a specialized saw. The clone fragments will recognize each other and fuse together, growing 25-50 times faster than normal. The team ran microfragmentation trials with three coral species in three different locations: in the lab, outplanted on the reef, and suspended in the nursery. In 2020, we plan to run pilot experiments on different coral species to document the most successful microfragmentation methods needed to upscale our efforts.

For the last two years, the Hub has experimented with larval seeding, which utilizes the sexual reproduction of corals. During summer 2019 spawning, the team collected coral gametes (egg- sperm bundles) and saw high rates of fertilization and settlement success, with over 5,000 Orbicella faveolata recruits settled on SECORE Seeding Units (concrete and ceramic tetrapods). We are allowing the recruits to grow in an offshore nursery tree and the team also outplanted more than 1,000 substrates with coral recruits onto the reef. The goal is to monitor the substrates to determine if coral survivorship is higher in the nursery than out on the reef. In 2020, our team plans to monitor coral spawning this summer to obtain more knowledge about precise dates and times various corals in The Bahamas reproduce sexually. Eventually, through genetic analysis, our lab plans to identify different species and genotypes best adapted or able to acclimatize to rising sea surface temperatures. We may be able to improve the long-term survival of our outplants by selecting for thermally resilient corals.

Why is this research/project important and timely?

The Bahamas are well known for its crystal-clear blue waters and vibrant coral reefs teeming with diverse marine life. Healthy coral reefs with high biodiversity are key to sustaining Bahamian livelihoods and contribute millions of dollars annually to the island nation through tourism, shoreline protection, and fisheries. Unfortunately, Bahamian coral populations are declining rapidly due to a number of both local and global stressors, including disease, climate change, nutrient pollution, coastal development, and overfishing. Average live coral cover in the Caribbean has reduced from approximately 35% in the 1970s to just 10-12% today and is projected to decline further. The majority of coral loss in The Bahamas has been attributed to mass bleaching events and consecutive disease outbreaks. 

Globally, marine scientists and conservationists are investigating various intervention strategies to save coral reefs, such as selectively breeding corals for thermally tolerant traits, altering symbiont communities, active coral restoration, and more. On South Eleuthera, we are privileged to live and work near some of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean and can use this to our advantage to upscale this project. The Bahamas Coral Innovation Hub will serve as a center for development, implementation, and dissemination of scalable techniques to counteract coral reef decline, creating a research facility that will host a network of integrative people, such as coral scientists, conservation managers, local stakeholders, students, and educators from around the world. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

The CEI/PIMS/TNC coral research team, Dr. Valeria Pizarro, Natalia Hurtado, and I, are working together with various collaborators to create the “The Bahamas Coral Innovation Hub.” Despite the damaged state of many coral reefs in The Bahamas, and the numerous threats impacting reef health, our team plans to take action to help reverse the decline of Bahamian reefs. The Bahamian government is devoted to protecting 20% of its nearshore areas by 2020. However, due to the ongoing threats to coral reefs, coral cover and recruitment remain low, and recovery requires additional help. Active coral restoration on degraded reefs is necessary to facilitate the recovery process. Our efforts will help to improve coral abundance and cover, increase structural complexity and connectivity on the reef, and maintain genetic diversity. We are still in the initial phases of this project but hope you will support our important work that aims to restore an ecosystem on the brink of extinction. 

How did you come to work in this field/project?

I grew up in a small, landlocked, southern town and knew very little about the ocean. My passion for marine science started in the spring of 2015 when I studied abroad with the School for Field Studies at the Center for Marine Resource Management on South Caicos. I immediately fell in love with SCUBA diving and was fascinated by the sheer amount of wildlife living under the waves. A few years later, I became interested in coral reef ecosystems while diving in Bonaire. I was mesmerized by all the different colors, sizes, and morphologies on the reef. While diving, I began to notice small details, such as tiny gobies dwelling on massive brain corals, and Montastraea cavernosa polyps fully extended to feed on zooplankton. I wanted to know more. When I got home from Bonaire, I started applying to graduate schools. 

In August 2017, I started studying for my master’s degree at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in Dr. Andrew Baker’s Coral Futures Lab. I completed my thesis research in Dr. Ruth Gates’ Coral Lab at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, where I investigated the effects of parental bleaching history on the success of Montipora capitata larvae exposed to thermal stress. It was an honor to work in Ruth’s lab while she was still with us on a project that supported her research vision. In May 2019, I graduated with an MSc in Marine Biology and Ecology and am currently working with CEI, PIMS, and TNC to help create The Bahamas Coral Innovation Hub. Truly a dream come true! 

What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?

At the beginning of graduate school, I was nervous to put myself out there and ask intelligent, high-powered people for opportunities. I would hide behind countless emails and my small friend group. I finally realized that I wouldn’t make any connections in this competitive field unless I was actively present. I can’t stress enough the importance of going after what you want with confidence. Go into that PI’s office and ask them face-to-face if you can work in their lab or go to networking events and meet new people. My other piece of advice is not to compare yourself to others. Everyone is following a different path in graduate school and after. Celebrate your achievements, no matter how big or small. You are smart enough, and you can do this. 

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

For any additional information about The Bahamas Coral Innovation Hub, please contact me at caseyharris@islandschool.org. Thank you for reading my post!

Photos taken by Caitlin Langwiser, Collin Love, Nina Bean, and Elyse Butler 

Casey Harris sets out nets at Reef 13 with the Gates Coral Lab for Montipora Capitata coral spawning in Kaneohe Bay on July 13, 2018.

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