Researching the Coral Reef, scientists found that its bleaching may be easing after three years of high ocean temperatures, the longest such period since the 1980s,

Researching the Coral Reef, scientists found that its bleaching may be easing after three years of high ocean temperatures, the longest such period since the 1980s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday. Its experts said satellite data and other analysis showed widespread bleaching was no longer occurring in all three ocean basins — Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian — “indicating a likely end to the global bleaching event.”

But, along with the specter of global warming and ocean acidification, decades of dynamite fishing, the use of chemicals, sewage and agricultural run-off, plastic debris and poor or inactive governance are decimating coral reefs within the world’s epicenter of marine biodiversity known as the Coral Triangle. The wholesale destruction of these delicate ecosystems within the broad tropical marine region of Indonesia, parts of Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and the Solomon Islands, is also threatening the survival of hundreds of thousands of coastal communities who rely heavily on coral reefs for both food and income.

But now the fishing village on Seraya Besar, a tiny island off the west coast of Flores in Indonesia, is reclaiming their heritage. In partnership with Coral Guardian, a French nonprofit organization dedicated to coral reef conservation and community empowerment, they have embarked on a small-scale coral reef restoration program – and it’s proving remarkably successful.

Not only is a part of the marine environment being reclaimed – with attendant fish stocks boosted – the micro-scale initiative is beginning to have an impact on the well-being of the ecosystem and human livelihood for a much wider area, including a potential positive repercussion on the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Komodo National Park.

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Regenerating Lost Biodiversity

With the help and expertise of Coral Guardian, they have embarked on a program to regenerate the lost biodiversity of their marine ecosystems. This is achieved by repopulating damaged reefs through an uncomplicated and cost-effective artificial coral reef restoration project.

Martin Colognoli, one of the founders of Coral Guardian, explains that it’s a three-phase project. First, a preliminary study by his team of biologists must evaluate the state of the area to determine the optimal location of reef rehabilitation as well as its environmental impact. The site selection takes into account “marine data including surface winds, weather conditions, prevailing currents, turbidity as well as substrate and water qualities, the local bathymetry and biodiversity, and finally the surrounding water and sediment discharges and coastal installations.”

Then comes the phase of design, manufacture and disposal of structures. This phase is done almost entirely by the fishermen of Seraya Basar. Concrete-iron-cage structures six by three feet in length are welded at the village then transported by boat and lowered in grids. Broken live coral fragments, collected from recently destroyed reefs, either through indiscriminate anchoring or blasting, are then attached to the cages with ties, and simply left to grow.

Lastly, it’s the ecological and social survey phases. Every month, locals supported by biologists assess the rates of coral growth and organisms re-colonisation over the different restoration areas. They also undertake overviews of marine fishery resources. A dozen or so fishermen are questioned every month on the size and nature of their catches. The success of the project depends entirely on the villager’s constant monitoring and preventing fishing during the restoration process as well as boats from anchoring.

The results have been astounding. Within a year the reef grew significantly, with hundreds of new polyps emerging from the transplanted corals. Reports have shown an increase in the number of fish species of up to 114 percent, and in some areas of the reef there is as much as 300 percent of new individuals per 100 m2. The fish-life, mostly small “pioneer” species such as schools of brightly colored Anthiadinae, have colonized the artificial reefs in greater abundance than before since the cages provide a safe-haven for juveniles and breeding adults.

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After two years, corals have bulked and almost look like a normal reef with the steel struts of the cages barely visible. The fish-life is more diverse with bigger fish like groupers, trigger and butterflyfish taking occupancy — all this for the price of a few bits of steel and salaries for the Indonesian team of reef restorers.

“It’s is probably one of the most efficient conservation programs around,” says Sutopo, the program’s manager who supervises the local team of reef restorers.

And surprisingly, the restored reef areas seem to have developed a greater thermal tolerance to the ravages of global warming compared with neighboring coral colonies that have been greatly damaged by the last bleaching event.

Coral Reef Alliance joins the effort

Evolutionary biology tells us that adaptation is more successful when there is a lot of diversity, like the diversity found within the many types of reefs, habitats, species, and genes on coral reefs. In this case, more diversity means more evolutionary options for the future. Researchers have discovered that diversity also affects ecological systems, which are less prone to boom and bust cycles when they are diverse. By combing these ideas in an Adaptive Reefscape program, running by Coral Reef Alliance, that safeguards a diversity of habitats, species, and genes, corals will be better able to adapt to global environmental changes and survive for centuries to come.

Adaptive Reefscape strategy is already applied to the Mesoamerican Reef, which spans the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. In this region alone, there are over 60 species of coral. Two sites in this region are showing promising signs of adaptation. Corals in Tela Bay on the mainland of Honduras are thriving in murky waters. Off the coast of nearby Roatán, there are unusually lush stands of staghorn coral, which has declined almost everywhere else in the Caribbean. When corals surprise us by doing particularly well in unexpected places, it suggests that they may have already adapted to some of the threats that are facing coral reefs. Adaptive Reefscapes are designed to protect a diversity of reefs and corals so that special corals—like those in Tela and Roatán—can be the source of baby corals that will thrive in the future.
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