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Restoring coral gardens in Fiji

by Lisa Benckhuysen / SV Harlequin 28 Oct 2019 10:12 UTC
Healthy hard corals may be brightly colored. © Lisa Benckhuysen

Conservation organizations are harnessing everything from tribal taboos to the world's largest fleet of satellites in order to save the ocean's most biodiverse habitat: coral reefs.

An ancient life form, responsible for building the largest biological features on Earth, corals are threatened by climate change as well as predation, destructive fishing practices and agricultural activity I visited the Coral Coast Conservation Center(CCCC) near Votua Village in Fiji and spent the day with marine biologist, Victor Bonito. As founder and director of nonprofit CCCC and Reef Explorer Fiji Limited, he conducts an integrated strategy of research, education, restoration and sustainable resource management. The goal is to monitor and document local coral reef health and condition and to inform local marine resource management initiatives.

Why do corals matter?

Corals cover only .1% of the planet, yet they provide habitat for over 25% of marine species and, directly or indirectly, support about 500 million people worldwide. In Fiji, the reefs are home to over 1500 fish species and also protect the land from storms and erosion. Covering over 10,000 square kilometers, roughly the same area as Fiji's biggest island, Viti Levu, the reefs support fishing and tourism, mainstays of the national economy. Subsistence accounts for about 80% of the inshore fishing in Fiji.

Coral Biology 101

Corals are colonial animals related to sea anemones and have been on Earth since before the dinosaurs. They live in shallow tropical waters and need clean water. Coral polyps may be as small as a few millimeters across or as large as 13 centimeters. Soft corals are flexible but the stony corals secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton. It is the hard corals that build reefs.

These ancient creatures reproduce asexually: a piece breaks off, attaches to a hard surface and forms a separate colony. They also reproduce sexually, many being hermaphrodites which produce both sperm and eggs. Victor showed me tiny pink eggs, each the size of a pinhead, waiting to be released from a branch of apricot-colored staghorn coral. Fertilized eggs develop into waterborne larvae which then settle on a hard surface. Through asexual budding, one polyp becomes a colony of genetically identical clones. Different species grow at different rates: branching Acropora species may grow as much as 10 cm in a year while slower growing boulder corals grow only 1 cm.

Hard corals grow in a fantastic array of shapes, sizes and colors. The common names staghorn, elkhorn, cabbage, encrusting, table, fan, brain, table and boulder suggest some of the many shapes. Usually the coral community is diverse, with different species growing side by side. Like anemones, some coral polyps have stinging cells, nematocysts, that help them catch plankton and small fish as well as compete with other coral species. Sometimes one species will cover a large area: purple or blue staghorn coral can spread out like a field of unruly French lavendar. There are about 400 identified species in Fiji alone, roughly half of the species identified worldwide. Victor Bonito is in the process of identifying seventy new corals from the Coral Coast reefs and there are likely more.

Most corals get most of their nutrition from symbiotic algae, zooxanthellae, which produce energy through photosynthesis. They need sunlight and usually grow within 60 metres of the surface. Different individuals of the same species growing side by side may be different colors! I saw green, violet and fawn colored individuals of the same species in 1 square meter. When the water temperature rises, corals become stressed and expell their zooxanthellae in an attempt to survive. The coral turns white: bleaching. The same or different algae can repopulate the coral over time but if the heat stress continues too long, the coral dies.

Threats to corals

Corals face natural predators, such as snails and crown of thorns starfish, as well as storm damage, and bleaching. The biggest threats to their survival are the results of human activity. In Fiji, destructive fishing practices such as dynamiting, breaking the reef with metal rods, harvesting coral rock for the aquarium trade, poisoning the water, overfishing, and taking under-size fish all had a negative impact in the past. Harvesting key herbivorous fish species such as blue and orangespine surgeonfish allows seaweed to grow unchecked. Runoff from agriculture can introduce fertilizer into the ocean and favor seaweed growth which overwhelms the corals.

Climate change, especially higher water temperature more often, puts yet more stress on the corals and leads to more frequent bleaching events. According to the Journal of Science, bleaching events have increased fivefold from 1980 to 2016. Over 25% of the world's coral reefs have already died and another 60% are threatened. This damage has happened in the last 40 years. At this rate, within 80 years, corals could be extinct along with all the marine life they support.

Local management: Fiji's community model

While the Fijian government has legal ownership of the seafloor, indigenous or iTaukei landowners have considerable control over local marine resource management under the Fisheries Act of 1942. There are approximately 410 traditional territories covering about 90 % of Fiji's land mass. Most of the territories also have a marine component, the qoliqoli or traditional communal fishing grounds, which extends from the hightide mark to the extent of the fringing reefs.

Over time, Fiji has evolved a balance between government and traditional community-based resource management. Indigenous chidren are registered at birth with subsistence rights to their clan's communal territory. Any commercial activity by anyone, regardless of clan affiliation, requires a permit from the Divisional Commissioner and a licence from the Department of Fisheries in consultation with the iTaukei community.

Since coastal villages depend upon fishing for dietary protein, they have a vested interest in healthy reefs and abundant fishstocks. The village communities are best placed to effectively manage the remote reef systems. When a given area within the qoliqoli becomes depleted, the village can place a traditional taboo to let fish populations recover. A pole with a coconut frond marks this type of "no fishing" zone. Community members traditionally have high respect for these measures. There are over 217 Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) in Fiji. At least 56 of them involve a partnership between a tour operator and a village. NGOs such as Reef Explorer are a vital part of the fabric of Fiji's marine management, providing assistance and expertise to support and inform community and tourism operators initiatives around FLMMAs.

Victor Bonito / reef explorer / coral coast alliance

"When the ocean is full of energy, the waves break at the office door," quips Bonito. The modest three room building between the shore road and the beach is the hub of Reef Explorer and CCCC research, aquaculture, education and community outreach. Apart from myself and two American tourists, Dawn and Danielle, there are two local staff working with Victor today. They introduce themselves as Junior and Wallai.

We pull on wetsuits, masks and fins and head into the water. The sky is overcast and the water is choppy even behind the reef. The tide is falling and we are in 1 to 2 m of water as we swim out to the nursery. Junior and Wallai are armed with four 10m lengths of three ply nylon rope, and four 20x20 cm plastic baskets suspended beneath a float. Victor carries a larger basket, chisel, hammer and wirecutters. While we set about tying one end of each rope with locking hitches to the steel frame of the nursery, Victor snorkels the reef collecting 10-15 cm pieces to go into the nursery. After 15 years here in the Coral Coast LMMAs, he knows which species and which individual corals are fast growing and heat resistant. I ask if he has a map or an inventory and he taps a forefinger on his neoprened skull.

Victor puts mixed batches of coral fragments in each of the four suspended baskets. We have one basket for each rope. Junior shows us how to untwist the three-ply, insert a piece of coral and then retwist the rope. He deftly secures a fragment every 7 inches, "close enough so we use all the space and far enough so they (the corals) don't fight"! When a rope is loaded, we secure the other end so all the fragments are about 30 cm off the bottom. This way they will not become a smorgasboard for hungry snails and Crown of Thorns starfish. Nor will they get covered by sand or sediment. Victor uses his hammer to dispatch four Crown of Thorns starfish today. The dying starfish emit a chemical that warns others of the same species to stay away.

In 7-9 months the fragments will be ready to transplant out onto the reef. These branching Acropora species grow about 10 cm a year are planted out with 2-4 per square meter to allow room for growth and proximity for reproduction. Reef Explorer does mixed plantings with varied species and varied genotypes within species. I toured the area near the nursery and saw a variety of healthy corals from previous years dotting the hard substrate. The 2016 bleaching event was an unexpected test of the coral restoration program here: over 80% of Reef Explorer's 7830 cultured corals survived the bleaching event while only 50% of "wild" corals survived on adjacent areas. So Reef Explorer's methods are clearly working here to assist reef resilience and recovery.

Spreading success

There is plenty of interest in coral planting in Fiji and the actual work is something anyone can do. Workers just need to be able-bodied and comfortable being in the water. Scuba skills are not necessary. Local resorts and hotels bring guests to CCCC for coral planting activities. A few resorts, such as Dive Academy Fiji, have invested in training for their staff and have developed successful planting and restoration programs of their own using community and international volunteers. High school students from Sigatoka come to CCCC for a week of conservation activities including coral propagation and planting. Coral Coast communities consult with Reef Explorer on reef and LMMA initiatives. Plans for the coming year at CCCC include 6 weeklong workshops for coral gardeners as well as 4 day programs for resort staff.

How you can help

  • Adopt a reef: corporate sponsorship of a reef in Fiji provides funding for a community to:
    • train community reef managers in coral propagation and reef restoration
    • provide the tools and materials for building nurseries. Contact Reef Explorer Fiji Ltd.
  • Contribute to CCCCs current coral gardening project on Nananu-i-ra
  • Follow local conservation practices: local communities create taboo areas to sustain their marine resources
  • Wherever you are, the following CCCC guidelines are helpful conservation practices:
    • Use sunscreen without oxybenzone, or better yet, Aussie style swimwear.
    • Be aware of how your trash is disposed.
    • Anchor in sand or use moorings so as not to damage coral.
  • Follow government fishing regulations: release underlimit sized fish and leave the largest fish as they are the most prolific breeders.
  • Reduce Reuse and Recycle
  • Drive less. Transportation produces about 30% of greenhouse gases.
  • Eat less meat. Domestic animals produce 20% of greenhouse gases.
  • Plant trees. They absorb CO2 and produce Oxygen
Useful links:

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