CORAL REEF RESTORATION

Dead coral below the surface.

Dead coral below the surface.

Most of us are aware that reefs around the world, and the coral species which make them up, are in a pretty critical state right now (thanks Attenborough!). These remarkable animals are currently battling against ocean acidification, rising temperatures, pollution and high-impact tourism. Marine biologists, divers and ocean-lovers from around the world were therefore devastated when, in 2016, reefs were dealt another serious blow by one of the most extreme El Niños ever recorded.

You can be forgiven for not knowing what exactly an El Niño is: it’s pretty complicated stuff. But, in short, it’s a natural phenomenon which is linked to weather patterns and ocean currents across the southern Pacific. El Niños have widespread impacts across the globe, but the biggie for reefs is that they cause ocean temperatures to increase. Because of global warming, these events have become more extreme and now these increases are often going way above the limits many corals can survive in.

In 2016 the El Niño had devastating effects on reefs around the planet. The Maldives were no exception to this and, sadly, 73% of its shallow water corals bleached and died in 2016. Whilst it’s still a picture-perfect destination, when I arrived in 2017 I was greeted with grey, algae covered coral skeletons below the surface, and can only imagine how beautiful it was before!

 

Why give reefs a helping hand?

Corals are incredibly resilient animals and their ability to recover is honestly astounding. But they are literally being attacked from all angles right now. Coral restoration projects are not a new thing but efforts were definitely upped post-2016. Especially in the Maldives where resorts, who rely so heavily on their pristine oceans, can privately fund initiatives.

There are many methods for reef protection and restoration with scientists constantly coming up with innovative ways to help corals grow. Many places now run electric currents through their reefs as it can increase coral growth by 5 times, whilst another resort in the Maldives is experimenting with 3D printing reefs. By using corals that have survived these trying times, it is hoped that reefs actively restored will be made up of more resilient corals for the future.

 

Our Restoration Project

I was employed at a resort in the Maldives who had an underwater development going on. The surrounding reef had lost 95-98% of its corals during the El Niño. We had a year to develop a restoration programme, help improve the surrounding reef and protect it from any further damage. A year isn’t actually a long time when it comes to coral projects: given that many corals grow as little as 1cm a year and a feisty turtle can crunch up much more than that in mere minutes. Because of the time constraints, we stuck with tried-and-tested methods for our project.

Coral Frames

We used coral frames to create artificial reefs on sandy areas. Artificial reefs are really common, especially in diving destinations such as Thailand, as they give the corals something to grow on when there otherwise isn’t anything. We attached small fragments of coral to concrete-coated frames using cable ties. The corals really quickly attach and grow over the cable ties, and in a few years will have completely covered the frame. The inside of the structure then offers housing to reef animals and fishes.

Coral Nursery

A large part of our project was to create a coral nursery. This allowed us to really increase the amount of coral on the reef and it is amazing how fast the fish move in once the coral is there! Coral nurseries alone come in many shapes and sizes: ropes, pins, breeze blocks are common things to grow coral on. We grew ours on small concrete discs so we could easily transport them to the reef when construction had finished and it was safe to do so. We had about 500 of these with tiny fragments of coral glued on. Nearly all of our nursery was made of “corals of opportunity” (I love this term!). This means that we collect fragments of coral which have naturally broken off, usually because of a storm or predator, and if left rolling around on the reef would usually die. In this way we were giving them a second lease of life. This is how most projects will collect their coral because it doesn’t damage existing reefs!

Fresh, living coral nursery

Fresh, living coral nursery

Protecting Existing Corals

We also had to relocate what little coral did remain on the reef after the El Niño so that it wasn’t damaged from the construction. This relocation work is often done on developments around reefs; sadly more often than people would probably think. To relocate coral, you have to chisel it off the reef with one clean break – damaging as little tissue as possible. We then stored it out of harm’s way and attached it back onto the reef when it was safe to do so.

 

Restoration Efforts around the World

There are thousands of coral reef restoration projects going on around the world. Whilst ours was closely tied with the tourism industry, there are many conservation charities and organisations working hard to protect reefs. I think a really interesting one to watch right now is the coral project going on in Maya Bay, Thailand (home to ‘The Beach’). The area was completely decimated by crazy levels of tourism and it will be exciting to see how the new marine park will recover.

 

What can you do to save our reefs?

Coral Reefs are such delicate ecosystems and losing them is the equivalent of losing our rainforests. They provide us with the oxygen we breathe and more than 25% of marine life rely on coral networks in some way. As they are out of sight for so many, they are often out of mind but it shouldn’t be the case!

You don’t have to be a Marine Biologist or a diver to help protect our reefs. We can all take steps to help:

·       Be a mindful tourist! I can’t stress this one enough as it breaks my heart to see people standing on reefs. The Stay Wild Team have a blog to help you do this!

·       Cut down on your single use plastics. As well as smothering and snagging corals, it is even now believed that plastics can carry disease between reefs. Another plastic attack!

·       Most of all: watch your carbon footprint. I know this one can be hard but apps like Zero Carbon can help you monitor and reduce this. Tackling carbon emissions will stem ocean acidification and global warming and it is the best chance our reefs have of recovering.

Worrying statistics can lead us to think that too much damage has already been done. But reports have shown us we have around a decade to reverse this damage before it goes too far. Now is the time to try and no step is too small!

Transplanting coral

Transplanting coral



This post was contributed by Amy Martin. Amy has a background is in Marine Biology, having studied it at University and has recently returned from a year working on coral restoration in the Maldives. Since coming back to the UK she has started a role as an Environment and Sustainability Officer with NHS Wales and has also signed up as a community leader with Surfers Against Sewage

Grace Bayley