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Coral Restoration: How it works.

For the past year and half, I have had the incredible opportunity to work on a project that is literally a dream job. Sometimes when I am working underwater I actually think to myself, “How did I get so lucky to be getting paid to do this right now?!”. I honestly could not ask for more. I live on the small island (population <20k) called Bonaire in the south Caribbean sea not far from Aruba and Venezuela. The island is charming, unique and unlike anywhere else I have ever lived. If you have never heard of it, I’m not surprised. And we like it that way. Well known among the scuba diving community as a one of kind shore diving destination, we brag an insane 86+ dive sites that span the coast of Bonaire and Klein Bonaire (little island 800m from the main island). Our National Marine Park which encompasses both islands boasts some of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean and possibly the world. So why would we need to restore the coral? Although the coral species’ that we have in abundance is very healthy, we are lacking 2 critical reef building species of corals that once covered the shallow water areas between the sloping reef drop off and the shoreline. These two species, Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) and Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

Critically endangered is defined as “facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future“.

Why? Several factors have contributed to their decline in populations all over the world. Here in Bonaire, we had 2 major hurricanes that devastated these two types of corals all over the island leaving rubble skeletons everywhere and reef fishes without habitats. Other factors contributing to their decline include the mass mortality of long-spined black sea urchins which are slowly coming back after an unknown disease spread through the Caribbean in the 1980s, spread of white band disease that affects the branching corals, and coral bleaching events due to environmental stressors. Why not make a change? Restore the reefs to what they once were? In 2012, we got busy.

 

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The Coral Restoration Foundation began in  the USA (florida keys to be exact) and became a non profit in 2007. The founder, Ken Nedimyer, has always had a vision to spread the project as far and wide as possible. In 2012, CRF Bonaire was established with their help.

How do we do it?

We started by obtaining permits from the marine park to collect coral fragments from various places around the island. This resulted in 20 original samples that would become the parents of hundreds of generations of baby corals that, to this day, we continue to clone. We have never gone back out and collected any other corals since that first day. The corals are hung in what we call a nursery until they are mature enough to be transplanted back into the reef. The nursery is composed of structures that resemble a tree and can house 100 corals each. Life in the tree is wonderful for a coral. They hang in the water column away from predators with maximized sunlight and nutrient absorption. It’s like a 5 star hotel for a baby coral. They grow an astonishing 8 times faster in the nursery than what is documented by NOAA.

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Our Klein Bonaire nursery which has 33 trees. Along with pruning baby corals and hanging them in the tree to keep it full after grown corals get taken out, maintenance activities include checking the buoys, checking the anchor lines, cleaning the fire coral from encrusting the trunk and branches, scrubbing algae from the lines that the coral is hung with, and removing predators from the tree such as fireworms, which feed on coral tissue.

Once they are big enough and ready, they get selected to be transplanted! Now the real fun begins. The most rewarding part of the job is placing new corals on the reef and watching as immediately within seconds, even while you are still busy working, the reef fish come in and claim their new habitat. Perfect!

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Transplanting: the 2 methods we use are equally successful. The first way, we use marine epoxy to literally glue the coral to a hard substrate. The epoxy is a 2 component mixture that we mix underwater just before using it like clay to attach coral to the large rocks on the reef. The second way uses bamboo structures (9 sq. feet) since we are not lucky enough to have rocky substrate to glue all of the corals all the time. The structures allow us to transplant corals in sandy areas.

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A new, empty structure ready for Staghorn coral to be attached
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A new thicket filled with Staghorn coral

 

 

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Elkhorn corals transplanted at Carl’s Hill site using the epoxy method

 

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Staghorn coral transplanted by the epoxy method at Jeff Davis Memorial Site.

Once the coral is transplanted, it becomes a habitat immediately. The fish move in and use the space under and around the corals to call home and they will soon breed here and have shelter from larger reef predators. This is one of the main goals. Restore the habitat for the reef fish so their populations can remain healthy. The individual coral colonies fuse together and grow toward the sun creating large thickets. The staghorn grows pretty quickly and the elkhorn takes a bit more time to see larger growth due to their large solid base.

 

 

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The oceans require a state of balance. When that balance is offset by pollution, coral bleaching events, change in pH, rising temperatures, overfishing, you name it…they become sick. A sick ocean means trouble for the entire planet. 70% of the world’s oxygen comes from the oceans marine plants.

We need the oceans to be balanced and healthy in order to survive.

Here at CRF Bonaire, we are committed to doing everything we can do to restore the coral reefs around the island. We are only a small part of the world but we aim to inspire people all over the world to get involved and start restoring their reefs. A change is definitely possible. Right now, we have 76 trees in total on the island actively housing 100+ corals each. As of today, February 18 2017, we have transplanted 8,135 staghorn corals and 1,080 elkhorn since we started transplanting in 2013. We teach a PADI specialty dive course (Coral Restoration Diver) every week to locals and tourists alike and have trained more than 450 divers to be able to volunteer and help us work in the nursery. Community involvement is one of my favorite aspects of the project especially when we have high school kids eager to learn and help save the reef. Giving them knowledge to form the right attitude and motivation to conserve our beautiful oceans is what gives me hope for the future.

If you take nothing else away from this article, I beg you from the bottom of my heart to at least believe me when I say that our oceans are dying. They will not fix themselves. We are the cause and we need to be the solution now. It is our responsibility to make it a priority.

Thanks for reading and as always please feel free to reach out to me with questions. Visit our website crfbonaire.org for information and sign up for our newsletter to receive updates about how we are progressing with the project!

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