July 12, 2023
Ocean Cay is a former industrial island located 22 miles south of Bimini, The Bahamas, and 65 miles southeast of Miami, Florida. Since 2015, through multi-disciplinary and institutional collaborations, the MSC Foundation and MSC Group have restored the island to re-establish its ecological balance after years of destructive activities. The Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve has been recognized by the government of The Bahamas as an area of high biological productivity and biodiversity and as such, has been recommended for ‘Marine Protected Area’ status. The MSC Foundation and its partners are hopeful that their marine conservation work can take the recognition process over the finish line to achieve official protection.
International marine conservation nonprofit Mission Blue has declared Ocean Cay a Hope Spot and Pierfrancesco Vago, MSC Foundation Board Member and Chair of the Executive Committee – as the Hope Spot Champion in recognition of the Foundation and its partners’ programs to restore the area to its natural state to achieve a balanced ecology that can be maintained for generations to come.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, voices her support, “This recognizes the comprehensive restoration efforts and commitment to protecting marine biodiversity. Led by Pierfrancesco Vago, the restoration of Ocean Cay has been a multidisciplinary effort to re-establish the ecological balance in this limestone island and its surrounding marine estate.[ . . . ] Ocean Cay will inform thousands of people weekly about the crucial importance of growing and out-planting thermally tolerant corals for marine conservation, ocean health, and human wellbeing.”
Pierfrancesco Vago says, “Being designated a Hope Spot is an important recognition for Ocean Cay Marine Reserve and helps focus attention on how we all have an important duty as caretakers of our blue planet. That responsibility is why the scientific research and restoration efforts of our Super Coral Programme aim not just to create resilient coral reefs around Ocean Cay and in The Bahamas, but to simultaneously contribute to conservation knowledge and initiatives worldwide. I thank Dr. Sylvia Earle and Mission Blue for their tireless efforts, which inspire us all to cherish and safeguard the rich biodiversity of our oceans.”
The MSC Foundation is working with scientists, universities and other institutions to advance knowledge generation and dissemination aimed at protecting and nurturing the ocean. In the years to come, and with the support of the Bahamian authorities, they aim to develop and deliver one of the largest coral reef restoration programs in the region. This will hopefully contribute to other similar efforts in The Bahamas which in turn will lead to recognizing The Bahamas as a global leader in establishing proactive, science-based solutions to ‘future proof’ this valuable natural resource.
The Foundation and its partners are identifying coral genotypes that are expressing an evolved response and resilience to thermal stress in the wild. Through these partnerships, they are developing robust experimental approaches that will inform best practices to establish this restoration program and create an effective, science-based protocol to enhance the natural resilience of coral reefs by out-planting ‘super corals’ to establish hardier and more resilient reefs.
Dr. Owen O’Shea, Marine Programme & Research Manager of MSC Foundation on Ocean Cay, explains, “The global loss of coral reefs is alarming, with half of all Earth’s reefs lost over the last several decades, driven by anthropogenic pressure, disease, and changes to our climate”. There is an unprecedented urgency now more than ever to protect these reefs. Through the implementation of applied conservation research initiatives and restoration programs, efforts are being made to reverse this decline and shield against future ramifications of their loss.
In 2017, ecological assessments began in collaboration with local, national, and international institutions to create a baseline understanding of what will be needed to transform the area into a beacon of hope. After the peak of the pandemic, the Foundation’s work began.
Over the past year, its researchers have been focusing on coral larval dispersal and survival studies. Their coral nurseries currently host 94 fragments of critically endangered elkhorn, representing four distinct genotypes, but they are seeking to increase the number to 1,100 in the coming months and expand it in the next year. “It’s working”, explains Dr. O’Shea. “It’s very exciting. The corals get stronger over time and become acclimated to their fragmented state, allowing us to outplant more and more corals.”
Vulnerable and critically endangered coral species have been documented surrounding Ocean Cay including elkhorn (Acropora palmata) Agaricia lamarcki, pineapple coral (Dichocoenia stokesii) and a range of other vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered species, including: chupare stingray (Styracura schmardae), great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran), green turtle (Chelonia mydas), queen conch (Aliger gigas), hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta).
In 2020, Dr. O’Shea and his team began acoustically tagging sharks. They found that sharks and bluefin tuna had been tagged in Canada, demonstrating the important migratory patterns between The Bahamas and the eastern coast of the United States. Two juvenile whale sharks have also been found in Ocean Cay’s waters. “Ocean Cay is close to deep water. Sharks will gravitate towards areas of high productivity. Sharks help govern the health of the marine ecosystem,” Dr. O’Shea explains.
The MSC Foundation’s partners and associates include Nova Southeastern University, The Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Research at the University of Miami, The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), the Perry Institute of Marine Science (PIMS), the Bimini SCUBA Centre and The Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI).
About MSC Foundation
The non-profit MSC Foundation implements the MSC Group’s marine conservation, humanitarian and sustainable development commitments worldwide, utilizing MSC’s global reach and unique knowledge of the sea to protect and nurture our blue planet, its peoples and our shared cultural heritage.
Concentrating on four areas – the Environment, Community Support, Education and Emergency Relief – the Foundation promotes the protection and sustainable management of ecosystems, empowers vulnerable communities around the world to realize their full potential, supports equitable and inclusive quality education to foster enduring individual and collective development, and helps disaster-struck populations toward recovery.
The Foundation works to achieve this both independently and with dedicated partners: independently, by leveraging MSC Group engagement in designing and managing projects, connecting communities, raising awareness and mobilizing the financial support of thousands of people, and together with trusted partners selected for their strong innovative vision or track record for effective action.
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