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Seychelles – Coral Restoration


Reef Rescuers: Coral Gardening as an MPA Management Tool

Location
Cousin Island Special Reserve, Seychelles

A coral transplantation site at Cousin Island Special Reserve. © Reef Rescuers

A coral transplantation site at Cousin Island Special Reserve. © Reef Rescuers

The Challenge
In 1998, the mass coral bleaching event, caused by the coupling of El Nino and the Indian Ocean Dipole, severely affected the reefs of the Seychelles Archipelago. The 1998 bleaching catastrophe decreased live coral cover by up to 97% in some areas and caused many reefs around the islands to collapse into rubble (which later became covered with algae). In the following decades, coral recovery has been extremely slow in the inner granitic islands of Seychelles. Despite the existence of numerous no-take Marine Protected Areas (MPA) – an effective tool to bolster coral reef recovery – it has taken almost 20 years to see coral cover at pre-1998 levels in most areas in the region. Due to continuous global threats, such as changes in climate and ocean chemistry, MPAs alone may not be enough to assist in the recovery of coral reefs in the Seychelles. Consequently, more active conservation strategies are needed to promote reef recovery and build reef resilience and to achieve the long-term conservation of coral reef ecosystem services.

Cleaning the coral nursery. © Reef Rescuers

Cleaning the coral nursery. © Reef Rescuers

Actions Taken
The slow post-bleaching recovery motivated active restoration efforts in the inner islands of the Seychelles archipelago to assist in natural recovery. In 2010, Nature Seychelles launched the Reef Rescuers Project on Praslin Island. Financially supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), this climate adaptation coral restoration project seeks to repair coral bleaching damage in selected sites around Praslin and Cousin Island Special Reserve, a no-take marine reserve.

Through this project we are piloting the first-ever large scale active reef restoration project in the region using ‘coral gardening,’ a technique that involves collecting small pieces of healthy coral, raising them in underwater nurseries and then transplanting them to degraded sites that have been affected by coral bleaching. Forty thousand fragments of coral from 10 different branching/tabular species (Acropora hyacinthus, A. cytherea, A. abrotanoides, A. appressa, Pocillopora damicornis, P. grandis – senior synonym of P. eydouxi, P. meandrina, P. verrucosa, Stylophora pistillata, S. subseriata; species identification after Veron 2000 and nomenclature after the World Register of Marine Species) have been raised in 13 underwater nurseries located inside the Cousin Island Special Reserve. Between November 2011 and June 2014, a total of 24,431 nursery-grown coral colonies were transplanted to 5,225 m2 (0.52 ha) of degraded reef within the Cousin Island Special Reserve.

Coral colonies self-attaching. © Reef Rescuers

Coral colonies self-attaching. © Reef Rescuers

With the onset of a weak-to-moderately strong El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event starting late summer to early fall 2014 and continuing through 2016, we had a unique opportunity to determine the effectiveness of the choice of coral reef species (initially chosen based on survival rates during the last seawater warming anomaly) and the restoration process itself in alleviating the impact of warmer ocean temperatures. We are using standardized protocols to monitor the survival, reproduction, recruitment and bleaching response of donor and transplanted colonies. We continue monitoring at the transplantation site and two control sites, representing a healthy and degraded coral reef. Such monitoring allows us to evaluate the effectiveness of the restoration effort. Additionally, we are assessing the costs of large-scale reef restoration via coral gardening and the life cycle of coral reef restoration technology.

Transporting coral fragments. © Reef Rescuers

Transporting coral fragments. © Reef Rescuers

How successful has it been?
The long-term “success” of this mass transplantation is still being monitored but the project has already had positive outcomes. Forty-one practitioners from 11 countries have been exposed to reef restoration techniques by “on the job” work as volunteers up to three months on site, and eight experts have to date been formally trained through a full-time six-week classroom and field based training program. Before-and-after comparisons in coral cover at the transplanted site showed that the restoration project resulted in a 700% increase in coral cover, from about 2% in 2012 to 16% by the end of 2014. Similarly, we have documented 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. We also found that our coral transplants responded better to stressful conditions resulting from increased sea temperatures and a harmful algal bloom. The transplanted corals appear to recover faster and better than corals at other sites. The response of the transplanted reef to thermal stress bleaching is still being monitored. The preliminary analysis of the costs of reef restoration via coral gardening and the life cycle of coral reef restoration technology together with the ecological results so far support the application of large-scale, science-based coral reef restoration projects with long timescales to assist the recovery of damaged reefs. A proposal to scale up the coral farms to a mariculture venture so as to reduce costs through economies of scale has been accepted by the Seychelles government and funding is currently being sought.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
A tool kit is currently being put together to highlight the lessons learned from the project. In summary, we have learned that:

  • Survival of coral donor colonies is high.
  • Survival of nursery colonies is high for the selected species listed above.
  • There is a natural supply of corals (corals of opportunity) to be grown in the nurseries and that eliminate the need to re-fragment nursery-grown or donor colonies.
  • Nurseries become floating reef ecosystems.
  • Natural cleaning of coral nurseries and coral ropes reduces nursery maintenance and increases transplantation success.
  • There is a positive transplantation effect on settlement and recruitment of new corals, fish diversity and density.
  • The response of transplanted corals to bleaching causative events needs close monitoring to assess the effects of coral gardening on building bleaching resistance.
  • There is citizen science interest internationally in receiving training on coral reef restoration.
  • Partnerships with the tourism sector can be developed to establish coral gardens (seascaping) as a guest attraction and as a key part of the industry’s environmental management programs and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
  • Large-scale coral reef restoration needs to be considered as a cost-effective tool to include in the MPA manager’s toolbox.

Funding Summary
Until 2015, funds to support the Reef Rescuers Project have been sourced and provided by USAID. Further financial support was received under the Government of Seychelles-Global Environment Facility (GEF)-United Nations Development Project (UNDP) Protected Area Project in 2011.

Lead Organizations
Nature Seychelles

Partners
Global Environment Facilitaty (GEF)
USAID

Resources
About the Reef Rescuers project
Transplanted corals attach themselves in pioneering reef restoration project in the Seychelles
Reef Rescuers on CNN Inside Africa
US Oceans Envoy praises Nature Seychelles’ work
Saving the giant clams

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It’s not loo late for coral reefs

In a new article published today in the world’s leading academic journal, Science, Mark Spalding, Senior Marine Scientist for The Nature Conservancy looks at the broad issues surrounding the current situation of coral reefs and highlights points of hope.

“There is growing concern around coral reefs,” said Spalding. “For decades they have had to survive a growing array of human threats and now climate change has added to this. It’s the new threat on the block and it’s a deep worry, but it is too early to proclaim the end of reefs.”

Many corals are showing some degree of adaptive capacity to both warming and to acidification, more than some scientists were expecting. Spalding notes that such adaptive capacity, alongside the natural resilience of reefs can enable them to recover even from quite severe perturbations. For example, most reefs in the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Seychelles, which lost virturally all their coral in 1998 due to warm-water induced coral “bleaching”, showed good recovery within a decade. Read more.

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U.S. Virgin Islands – Disturbance Response


The U.S. Virgin Islands BleachWatch Program

Location
U.S. Virgin Islands

Bleaching Coral. Photo © TNC

Bleaching Coral. Photo © TNC

The Challenge
In 2005, coral reefs throughout the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean were severely impacted by a mass coral bleaching event triggered by prolonged exposure to above normal water temperatures. The bleaching observed in 2005 caused some direct mortality and was also followed by an increased incidence of disease outbreaks. Multiple studies reported this pathway of bleaching followed by increased incidence of disease, with corals varying in degree of mortality resulting from both stresses. This event caused resource managers to realize a formal plan was needed to better respond to coral bleaching events and communicate with stakeholders.

Actions Taken
The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) BleachWatch Program was developed to assess and monitor coral bleaching primarily from warm water events and document the distribution, severity and impacts of bleaching to reefs and reef communities. The program was developed by adopting and modifying strategies from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Florida’s successful BleachWatch programs.

BleachWatch BCD Tag

BleachWatch BCD Tag. Photo © TNC

Program Development
To guide the development of bleaching response efforts a steering committee was formed. The committee was composed of reef experts from local and federal government resource agencies, non-profit organizations, and academia. The Bleachwatch Program is one of five main components of the US Virgin Islands Reef Resilience Plan (VIRRP), a larger planning effort to conserve coral reefs in the USVI and promote coral reef resilience.

The VI Reef Resilience Plan and steering committee were necessary to generate and document agreed upon protocols between key stakeholders for the Bleachwatch Program. The Plan provides details on the purpose, response activities and triggers, monitoring protocols and community volunteer training. See further details of the plan below:

Assessment and Monitoring
NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch (CRW) Program, provides current reef environmental conditions to identify areas at risk for coral bleaching, and is used to prepare and respond to mass bleaching events. The following CRW products are monitored by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the USVI to provide a early warning system: Alert Areas, Hot Spots (current thermal stress), Degree Heating Week (DHW), Sea Surface Temperature (SST) and Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly (SSTA). These products are available free to researchers and stakeholders to understand and better manage coral bleaching in the region.

USVI Bleachwatch response activities are directly based on advisories and alert levels received from NOAA along with local temperature data. When a Bleachwatch alert is received from CRW by TNC, volunteers are mobilized. They are the first eyes in the water, reporting basic observations such as presence or absence of bleaching. Volunteers are asked to collect data for any areas they visit and also asked to survey specific sites of interest such as coral nursery outplantings and sites assessed with high resilience. If a more severe event takes place, TNC alerts the steering committee and the scientific community. During this time, volunteers might continue to assist with monitoring, but data is more specific and collected at a finer scale to estimate of the percentage of coral reef affected.

Alerts are issued by NOAA only when a station experiences a change in thermal stress level. Table 1 presents a summary of the advisories/alert levels from NOAA monitored by TNC, definitions of the each levels and the response of the USVI Bleachwatch program to each advisory.

BleachWatch Table 1

Community Volunteer Training
Individual volunteers from the public are a main component of the USVI Bleachwatch Program and contribute to the assessment of coral bleaching. BleachWatch assessment methods are taught through in-person training sessions (Since 2013, 4 volunteer trainings have been conducted in St. Croix and St. Thomas). Training sessions are 1 hour in length and focus on the identification of corals reef, fishes, and other creatures. Differences between bleaching, disease and mortality are discussed. Each session also includes training on survey methods, materials, methodology and guidelines for submitting data. A USVI Bleachwatch website was developed to communicate with volunteers and the public. Volunteers have the option of submitting reports through an online datasheet, by email or mail.

USVI Bleachwatch Volunteer Survey Methodology
Conduct a 15 minute roving snorkel or dive pausing each 3 minutes to document a “survey station”. At each survey station:

  • Take a photo or record data for a 1 m2 surface area of the reef
  • Estimate percent coral coverage and percent bleaching of coral
  • Report observations of the absence of bleaching
  • Record other findings such as number and types of herbivorous fishes, number and types of invertebrates and types of diseases
  • Record your findings on the VIRRP BleachWatch Reef Assessment Data Sheet

Materials Needed

  • Diving or snorkeling equipment
  • Underwater clipboard or slate
  • Underwater datasheet and pencils
  • Coral Watch Bleaching Cards
  • Underwater digital camera or video camera – if available (optional)

How Successful Has it Been?
Since the launch of the USVI BleachWatch Program over 35 individuals on St. Croix and St. Thomas have been trained to identify and quantify the severity of bleaching. In 2014 the program protocols were tested for the first time. A Bleachwatch alert was sent out and volunteers were successfully mobilized to survey sites for bleaching. Over 30 reports were received and, fortunately, no bleaching was observed. The secondary response components of the program have been fully tested, as there has not been significant bleaching of corals in the territory since 2005.

The USVI Bleachwatch Program has resulted in increased support and capacity for resource managers to identify and respond to bleaching events. Volunteers are functioning as an early warning system for bleaching events. Managers and the scientific community have a clear plan for assessment and response to bleaching events to inform the proactive management of coral reefs during severe bleaching events.

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
The most important lesson learned is to be mindful that not all volunteers will collect data uniformly. In some instances volunteers are comfortable only sharing whether or not bleaching was observed, which is also important information. It is important to be mindful of volunteers’ time and welcome any level of information that they are willing to share.

Here are some additional recommendations to consider when developing a program:

  • Have a point person in place to keep program organized and lead communication with steering committee members and volunteers. During the development of the program it is critical to determine who can serve as point of contact for the program, this requires staff time for coordination. Consider where point of contact responsibilities can be integrated into existing or complementary efforts for example coral reef monitoring efforts.
  • Clearly defining benefits, incentives, and creating a feedback loop to the volunteers is important.
  • Be flexible and realistic about of the quality of data you hope to receive and the format in which you will receive it from the volunteers – some will fill out the entire form, some will just send an email.
  • Provide other alternatives and options for reporting such as a mapping tool to make it easier for people to report the event.
  • Group volunteer time effort – consider expanding the topics included in a training to include other issues affecting coral reef health that volunteers are interested in reporting for example; invasive species, grounding damages.

Funding Summary
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Conservation Program

Lead Organizations
The Nature Conservancy

Partners
The Nature Conservancy
The University of the Virgin Islands Center for Marine and Environmental Studies

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Density-Dependent Effects On Initial Growth Of A Branching Coral Under Restoration

Coral reef restoration is a process by which key habitat-forming species are reestablished in threatened coral ecosystems to help them recover from severe declines. However, alternative possible outcomes may result from out-planting coral fragments individually or in larger aggregations. It has been suggested that out-plants within aggregations might suffer from either negative interactions with neighbors (e.g. competition for space) or may benefit from such interactions (e.g. buffering wave disturbances). Given these possible contrasting outcomes, experiments are required to determine how spatial configuration and density affects the success of out-planted species. This study evaluates whether coral fragments should be out-planted individually or in larger aggregations by experimentally testing how aggregation density influenced initial coral growth over 3 months. The study was conducted on a degraded reef in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, using out-plants of the critically endangered staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis.

Results showed that coral growth declined as a function of aggregation size. In addition, out-plants within larger aggregations had fewer and shorter secondary branches on average. These results indicate horizontal competition for space, suggesting that wide spacing of individuals will maximize the initial growth of out-planted branching corals. Researchers suggest explicit considerations of out-plant spatial arrangement and density in ongoing and future coral reef restoration projects.

Author: Griffin, J. N., E.C. Schrack, K.-A. Lewis, I.B. Baums, N. Soomdat, and B.R. Silliman
Year: 2015
View Abstract
Email for the full article: resilience@tnc.org

Restoration Ecology. doi: 10.1111/rec.12173

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The Nature Conservancy in Cuba: A major step in protecting Caribbean resources

Dr. Bob Steneck and Ramon Lloveras TNC Caribbean Program Trustees snorkeling off of Playa Girón, Cuba, viewing healthy endangered Elkhorn coral stands. © Alex Quintero, Director of Operations, North America Region.

Dr. Bob Steneck and Ramon Lloveras TNC Caribbean Program Trustees snorkeling off of Playa Girón, Cuba, viewing healthy endangered Elkhorn coral stands. © Alex Quintero, Director of Operations, North America Region.

Roughly the size of Florida, Cuba is the most ecologically diverse island in the Caribbean with more than 10,000 endemic plant and animal species. The country’s coral reefs span 1000 sq. miles and represent a third of all reefs in the insular Caribbean. Cuba’s healthy marine ecosystems are crucial for regional coral larvae dispersal and fisheries production that not only benefit the Caribbean region, but also the southeastern United States.

The Nature Conservancy has partnered with Cuban conservation agencies for more than 20 years, providing trainings such as protected area management and planning, GPS and GIS, coral reef monitoring, climate adaptation, and sustainable tourism that otherwise would not be available. During this time, the Conservancy has also mapped coral reefs, sea grasses, and mangrove forests within protected areas – these maps have been used to facilitate monitoring and targeted protection of these high-biodiversity locations. The Conservancy’s commitment to Cuba has made us one of the few organizations that have an excellent active working relationship with conservation agencies in Cuba. The Conservancy supports conservation agencies in Cuba by responding to their existing commitments and training government and NGO staff in skills necessary to advance marine and terrestrial conservation. Through funding from the China Global Conservation Fund and private donors there are currently plans to develop a comprehensive conservation blueprint for the island using new mapping techniques to improve existing data and refine it through expert knowledge. These products will be integrated within an information system to evaluate conservation and development scenarios—providing guidance about habitat protection, natural resource development and mitigation.

Dr. Luis Solórzano, Executive Director of the Caribbean Program, Mr. Raimundo Espinoza, Program Manager for Cuba, and Dr. Steve Schill, Senior Scientist for the Caribbean Program have all played integral roles in advancing collaborations and conservation efforts in Cuba. We asked them a few questions about The Nature Conservancy’s work in the country and here’s what they had to say:

RR: What do you see as the greatest challenges for Cubans working in coral reef conservation?
Mr. Raimundo Espinoza: Cuban conservationists are very passionate, creative, and have high academic standards. However, limitations with everyday technology, such as slow Internet speeds and restrictions on software needed for scientific analysis, are challenges they face on a daily basis. Specifically for coral reefs, Cuban reefs represent over one third of all reefs in the insular Caribbean presenting challenges for monitoring and management of such a vast area. Nonetheless, Cuba has some of the more pristine reef systems in the Caribbean. The lack of massive coastal development and low nutrient and sediment flows onto Cuban reefs provide a hypothesis as to why these systems have been able to maintain their integrity compared to many others degrading systems in the Caribbean.

A potential threat of increased development will likely be a challenge in keeping Cuban coral reef systems healthy. We are currently working with Cuban conservation agencies to identify the best way to achieve coral reef conservation and work towards maximizing the ocean’s benefits to people, while maintaining healthy marine habitats.

RR: What is TNC doing to help address these challenges?
Mr. Raimundo Espinoza: We currently have two major efforts underway. The first is the Cuba Conservation Blueprint, which will be undertaken in collaboration with Cuban conservation agencies. The blueprint will guide efforts to focus conservation in areas of high ecological value, which will help Cuba make informed decisions about future development in ways that will promote sustainable use without sacrificing ecological integrity. In addition, the Conservancy will be building capacity for enhanced coral management and restoration in Cuba by establishing coral nurseries in partnership with the Cuban National Center for Protected Areas at the Elemento Natural Destacado- Sistema Espeleolacuste, a Protected Area within the Ciénega de Zapata ecosystem. We are also providing coral reef managers with current science, best practices, and tools necessary to establish and manage Cuba’s first coral nursery.

RR: What are the expected outcomes of the Cuba Conservation and Development Blueprint?
Dr. Steve Schill: The Cuba Conservation Blueprint will provide an improved and updated spatial database of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine habitats as well as socioeconomic activities throughout Cuba. These features will be consistently mapped at much greater accuracy than previous datasets that are outdated, inaccurate, or mapped at inadequate scales. Through this process, we will identify protection gaps that will ultimately lead to the design of an optimal protected area network that efficiently meets identified conservation goals for terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems.

This improved network of protected areas will help to preserve ecological function and long-term viability of these systems throughout Cuba. In addition, we will host a series of workshops and meetings to educate, raise awareness and build common consensus for a smart conservation agenda. This agenda will prioritize and guide conservation efforts, helping the government make informed and smarter choices about future development in ways that will promote sustainable use without sacrificing ecological integrity.

RR: How is The Nature Conservancy’s work in Cuba important for conservation efforts in the Caribbean Region?
Dr. Luis Solórzano: Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and one of the top 20 largest islands worldwide and therefore has one of the highest conservation values in the region. The island hosts high levels of endemic species, is important for migrations of birds from North America, and holds a healthy genetic bank of marine species for the region. In addition, Cuba is well preserved due to low-impact agriculture and development and low human population density.

With changes in the U.S.A. – Cuba diplomatic relations, a potential for increased economic activities could fuel changes in land-use in sectors such as agriculture, oil, mining, tourism, and immigration. The Conservancy is working to protect and conserve the Caribbean’s natural resources and so any regional conservation goal and strategy need to include Cuba to secure biological representation and biogeographical connectivity. We will work with Cuban partners to complete the conservation blueprint for the country, and support the design and implementation of a network of effectively managed protected areas. The goal of these efforts is to capture the biological richness of Cuba’s marine and terrestrial ecosystems and engage with different sectors to achieve development goals, while preserving the environmental integrity and the country’s natural richness. Cuba has the potential to become an example of true sustainable development in the 21st century, where human development needs and aspirations are met without eroding the life support systems that maintain us all.

Log on to the Network Forum to ask Mr. Raimundo Espinoza questions or share your comments about marine conservation efforts in Cuba.

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New and improved Network Forum

The Reef Resilience Network has launched a new and improved online discussion forum!

Now part of the Reef Resilience website, this interactive online community is a place where coral reef managers and practitioners from around the world can connect and share with others to better manage marine resources.

If you work to protect, manage, or promote coral reefs please join the conversation: www.reefresilience.org/network

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Experiment Mimics Fishing on Parrotfish: Insights on Coral Reef Recovery and Alternative Attractors

Alternative stable states and phase shifts of coral- to algae- dominated systems has been observed on Caribbean coral reefs with little or no signs of recovery. To better understand the mechanism by which depletion of herbivores leads to a loss of coral, large parrotfish were excluded from coral nursery habitat in two locations on the Belizean Barrier Reef, Glovers Reef and Carrie Bow Cay. Mimicking the removal of large fish by fishing, the authors used ‘parrotfish deterrents’ (PDs) around coral settlement plates and studied herbivory and macroalgae abundance. At both sites algae abundance was found to reduce coral recruitment. Porites coral failed to recruit at medium levels of algae and was more negatively impacted than Agaricia coral. These finding along with other studies suggest that algal abundance is a proximate driver of coral recruitment and thus recovery of Caribbean coral reefs.

Author: Steneck, R.S., S.N. Arnold, and P.J. Mumby
Year: 2014
View Full Article

Marine Ecology Progress Series 506: 115–127. doi: 10.3354/meps10764

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