This is the largest gathering of coral reef scientists in the world, the Frankfurt Motor Show or the Paris Fashion Week for coral research.
I just returned from attending my first International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), held from June 19-24, 2016, in Honolulu, Hawai’i. This is the largest gathering of coral reef scientists in the world, the Frankfurt Motor Show or the Paris Fashion Week for coral research. ICRS brought together about 2,500 coral reef scientists, policymakers, and managers from 70 different nations who presented their latest research findings, case histories, and management activities and discussed the application of scientific knowledge to achieving coral reef sustainability.
I was asked to present my reef restoration work in Seychelles during my time as Scientific and Technical Officer for the USAID/UNDG-GEF/Nature Seychelles Reef Rescuers Project, the largest coral reef restoration project completed to date in the Indian Ocean. Within this project, we used “coral gardening” as an active conservation measure to support coral reef conservation in the no-take MPA Cousin Island Special Reserve, Republic of Seychelles. First, we harvested coral fragments from donor colonies or corals of opportunity (i.e. naturally detached fragments) in nearby areas and reared them in mid-water rope nurseries for about 1 year. Second, we transplanted the nursery-reared corals to a degraded reef site within the MPA. A total of 24,431 corals were transplanted to 0.52 ha of degraded reef site from December 2012 to April 2014, resulting in a 700% increase in coral cover by the end of the project. When we compared the fish and benthic community structures of a degraded control site and the transplanted site before-during-after transplantation, we observed a five-fold increase in fish species richness, a three-fold increase in fish density, and a two-fold increase in coral settlement and recruitment at the transplanted site. Our preliminary observations during the bleaching seasons in Seychelles, March to May, also suggest that our nursery-grown transplants recover better from temperature-driven bleaching than naturally-grown corals. But, we still need more data to support this statement. Watch this space for news on this. Consequently, our results support the application of large-scale, science-based coral reef restoration projects with long timescales to assist the recovery of damaged reefs.
I used the opportunity to propose my goal: to use large-scale reef restoration as a cost-effective tool to enhance reef recovery. This is an idea that I have started to promote heavily among scientists, reef practitioners, and the general public. I believe there are three key aspects of large-scale restoration that support this statement. First, large-scale reef restoration has a large reef recovery footprint as it increases coral cover, coral settlement and recruitment, and fish density. Second, it promotes adaptation when you propagate and transplant the winning combinations of genes and species, in other words, you let nature pick the winners and you propagate them. We did this in the Reef Rescuers Project and we observed a better response of transplanted corals to temperature- and harmful algal bloom-driven bleaching. Lastly, large-scale reef restoration is affordable, although not cheap. Economic analysis of reef restoration projects has shown that the costs of restoring one square meter of the degraded reef are decreasing, from US$15500 in 1994 to US$10 in 2015. That is because we passed the Research and Development phase, we already have the know-how for large-scale reef restoration; it is time we enter the Implementation and Adoption phases. Costs should also decrease by the benefits of economies of scale. I certainly believe these three key aspects highlight the need for embarking in large-scale reef restoration if we are to secure sustainable reefs that continue to provide us with their valuable ecosystem services.
I learned a few things from attending this ICRS and engaging in conversations with other coral reef scientists and reef practitioners. We are putting too much effort into the HOW and very little effort on the WHY to do reef restoration. There were four sessions under the reef restoration theme which included 59 orals and 21 posters presentations. Only seven (7) out of these 80 presentations showed information on the positive effects of coral reef restoration. Is this because reef restoration is not effective? I don´t think so. The presentations that assessed the effects of reef restoration agreed that this strategy enhances the recovery of reef ecosystem services such as tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection. I believe we are trapped in a “Paralysis by analysis” situation. We keep dwelling on the feasibility of the techniques rather than in the long-term benefits of them. In fact, there is a consensus that there is not a single best technique for reef restoration. Techniques that work in one part of the world do not work in others. Therefore, each restoration project has to be site-specific. I believe the benefits of reef restoration are global, the best technique to use is defined locally.
I left Hawai’i concerned about one thing. There are technological advances that could assist us in increasing the scale of reef restoration and speeding up coral adaptation. I am referring to the mass seeding of coral larvae from ex-situ reared coral colonies and artificial selection or enhancement of corals using genetics techniques. Although ex-situ or lab-culture of coral colonies is a good approach to secure large quantities of coral larvae, coral aquaculture will result in corals being acclimatized to unnatural conditions. Even if the laboratory provides the best conditions for corals to survive ex situ, the conditions at the transplanted site will be different posing the coral larvae to unnecessary stress. Regarding the idea of genetically modifying corals to make them resistant to bleaching, I find this approach very unsettling. We know that coral reefs are losing species and genetic diversity due to the ongoing coral degradation. We also know that by genetically modifying organisms we end up with many varieties of the same organism, something that clearly reduces genetic diversity. Therefore, we are fighting fire with fire, in a bad way. These techniques are good developments but I don´t think they are the best, most cost-effective way to ensure sustainable coral reefs. They go against our understanding of shifting ecosystems, natural selection, local adaptation, coral reproduction, and reef connectivity. The synergy among these five concepts are responsible for the reefs we have today, and they will continue to do so in the reefs of tomorrow.
I will leave this long post stressing out that conferences are a great opportunity for networking, for showcasing your work and finding out what others are doing. I came back with a great pool of contacts; I had the opportunity to promote large-scale reef restoration as a cost-effective tool to enhance reef recovery, complementary to area protection; and, became aware of the large amount of reef restoration work that is taking place around the world. From participating in ICRS, my focus has changed to promote large-scale reef restoration via coral gardening whereby naturally selected coral species and colonies are propagated and transplanted by local people within protected reef areas. What do you think?