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Reef Futures 2018: Lessons learned at a coral restoration and intervention-science symposium
The Coral Restoration Foundation hosted the 2018 Reef Futures conference December 10-14 at Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida. Presented by the Coral Restoration Consortium, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Australia's Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP), it marked the first-ever global conference dedicated specifically to coral reef restoration and intervention science.
The nations and scientists who participated in the 2018 International Year of the Reef spent the year promoting conservation and collaboration, while amplifying the plea of degrading coral reefs through media outlets and special events. Reef Futures proved to be the perfect finale to a year filled with ups and downs in the coral community, including XPRIZE Ocean Initiative’s announcement of the Saving Coral Reefs prize and the loss of visionary researcher and star of Chasing Coral, Dr. Ruth Gates.
“The future is not an inheritance. It is an opportunity and an obligation.” ~Sarah Fangman, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent
The week kicked off with a day of hands-on workshops, including reef restoration training, a seminar teaching effective techniques for science communications, and a tutorial on using drones to monitor reef health. Buki Rinkevich of Israel’s National Institute of Oceanography opened the plenary speaker session with a review of the last 20 years of coral restoration work. Coral “nurseries,” which are now a core component of many restoration projects, did not exist 25 years ago! In Israel’s Gulf of Eilat, Dr. Rinkevich’s experiments have found that mid-water floating nurseries in nutrient-rich areas are the most successful.
To bring a taste of terrestrial restoration ecology to the table, Dr. Reed Noss from the Florida Institute for Conservation Science presented multiple land-based lessons that can be applied to coral reef restoration. Many of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity hotspots are near coral reefs. Maintaining intact food webs with top-down and bottom-up regulatory processes and protecting climate refugia will be critical.
The conference sessions assured no ston(ey coral) was left unturned, and included topics ranging from coral spawning and assisted evolution to monitoring tools and community engagement in active restoration. At the molecular level, Dr. Iliana Baums from Penn State University stressed the importance of sourcing genetically and geographically diverse colonies for restoration activities. Although coral populations tend to develop very localized adaptations, any loss of genetic diversity within a population or species could decrease reef resilience as the ocean environment continues to change. Climate change affects marine ecosystems at multiple levels and angles, which is why heat tolerance and a myriad of other characteristics need to be leveraged in preserving genetic diversity. However, cuts in carbon emissions must accompany genetic variation in corals if reef restoration and overall preservation is going to succeed on a global scale.
“I worry about corals because it’s going to be tougher to be a coral. It’s going to be tougher to be people.” ~ Dr. Ken Anthony, Australia Institute of Marine Science
On the other side of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is struggling to survive amidst local stressors and global climate change. As Director of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) in Australia, David Mead utilizes his engineering background to address the colossal restoration challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef. With historic bleaching events in 2015 and 2016 killing nearly 50% of the corals in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian government declared a “national mission” to preserve the reef and committed the funds to do so. The government has pledged approximately $444 million Australian dollars to this cause, with $100 million specifically devoted to reef restoration and resilience.
In addition to meeting ecological needs, Mead emphasized that restoration needs to be affordable across the entire reef. His Australian colleague Dr. Line Bay also spoke to Australia’s priorities for restoration, including lowering costs and improving the efficiency of intervention efforts. Mead discussed a potential goal of producing 36 million corals in one year, which would mean outplanting 10-30 corals per second! Big goals need big solutions, and Mead envisions aquaculture facilities for rearing large numbers of corals, ships transporting them to the reefs, and automated devices for deploying corals to the sea floor. While the scale and technological demands of this plan shocked some in the audience, Mead asserted that such factors need to be considered at the very beginning. For a project this large, standardization, modularization, and automation just may do the trick.
Continuing with RRAP’s more innovative thinking, Daniel Harrison from the University of Sydney and Sydney Institute of Marine Science presented different bio-engineering solutions for large-scale restoration, including:
Surface films: The temporary, biodegradable films are made of naturally occurring molecules that can be applied to the ocean’s surface. The film is only as thick as a single molecule! They can reflect up to 30% of sunlight, which would lessen the heat stress on a reef. A surface film could be rushed out to protect a valuable reef in an emergency, but would not be a sustainable large-scale solution.
Cloud brightening: Adding more nano-sized sea salt particles to the atmosphere creates more opportunities for water vapor to condense and form clouds. This addition changes the macrophysical quality of the cloud, making it less likely to precipitate and more likely to remain in the area and reflect sunlight. Approximately 1,000 salt particle stations would be needed throughout the Great Barrier Reef. Since the salt particles only stay in the atmosphere for 1-2 days, the effects would be reversible.
Successful restoration of marine environments will depend on the support and resources available above the water. Many presentations addressed the social aspects of reef restoration and the importance of actively involving community members. Corales de Paz in Colombia has engaged 28 artisanal fishermen in their restoration projects, which has been critical in assuring that local citizens do not feel marginalized. In Australia, researchers have been studying public perceptions and risks associated with restoration. The socio-cultural benefits of coral reefs cannot be undervalued. Coastal communities have been intricately intertwined with corals for thousands of years. What will the next thousand years look like for reefs?
We have already lost 50% of the world’s corals. We need scaled-up restoration efforts if we are to stabilize populations with more resilient and diverse corals and maintain crucial ecosystem services. Despite the grim publicity surrounding coral reefs in recent years, the scientists and managers at this conference were filled with hope and determination. Reef Futures showcased the commitment among the international coral restoration community to innovate, collaborate, and create solutions to our ocean’s greatest challenges.
At the end of a long day, attendees gathered in the ballroom to honor the life of coral biology and conservation pioneer: Dr. Ruth Gates. Ruth passed away at age 56, less than two months before the conference in Key Largo. She served as the Director of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology and the head of the Gates Coral Lab at University of Hawai’i - Manoa, which remains devoted to researching and developing “super corals” that are more resilient to warming and acidifying ocean conditions. Gates dedicated her career to finding solutions for our reefs in crisis and mentoring the next generation of ocean stewards. With her contagious smile, charming wit, and British accent, she was also a sensational communicator and starred in the Emmy Award-winning documentary Chasing Coral. The ballroom filled with laughter and tears as people stepped on stage to share stories, jokes, and kind words that demonstrated how far-reaching her charisma and work truly was. Although corals lost a legendary advocate, her legacy undoubtedly lives on.