Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Key To Coral Recovery

Latticework that supports growing coral at the Foundation's nursery near Key Largo.  It is the biggest coral nursery in the world.
When Ken Nedimyer collected fish for a living he learned a few things about keeping sea life alive and healthy.  He would go out and sustainably harvest fish for people's aquariums around the world from the reefs around the Florida Keys.  He would keep the fish safe and alive, even growing some species larger to fetch a higher price.  But over the decades, he realized that the fish were disappearing, even species that used to be plentiful.  He suspected that it was not the few collectors operating, but the degradation of the thousands of square kilometers of coral reefs where the fish lived and bred.

Ken Nedimyer photographs a group of corals to be transplanted from the nursery to the reef.  By cataloging what genotypes of coral he and his team plant and using digital photography to reference them, he is able to keep track of the thousands of corals they are planting in Florida's Keys.

Ken Nedimyer, left, talks in hand signs with Biologist Stephanie Roach, the Science and Education Director at the Coral Restoration Foundation.

Mira Dutschke snorkels onto a dead coral reef head on Molasses Reef.  According to researchers only 7% of the coral reefs in the Florida Keys are still alive and healthy.

A partially healthy head of coral on Molasses reef, with fish.
Where ever the reef is alive, fish crowd into it. 

He was witness to a catastrophic drop in reef ecology.

The Keys drip down off the tip of Florida in a broad arc and are the third largest tropical barrier reef in the world.  According to specialists like Dr. Brian Lapointe from Florida Atlantic University, only 7% of reefs in the Keys are still healthy.  There is a large argument about whether the reef die off is a result of a bacteria that killed the sea urchins that were sort of custodians of the reef, or if it is a result of what scientists like Dr. Lapointe call "non-point water pollution".  Essentially he and many others blame fertilizers from big, government supported agribusinesses like the sugar industry, as well as regular people using fertilizer on their lawns.  These effluents often flow from the islands and mainland Florida strait out into the sea and cause algae blooms that then use up all the available oxygen in the water, leaving none for the corals and the fish that depend upon them.

As Nedimyer watched the reef die, not only did his way of life come under threat, but he felt a pang of loss for what he watched these islands lose.  Unlike many people who use the reefs from outside  the water he has been diving here for years and as he says "I kept wondering what who was going to do something to stop this decline?  Then I realized no one was going to do anything".  He stares out across the water to the slipway where he puts his project boat into the water, pausing in his own slow island drawl. "After a while I thought, well…why don't I do something?".

Ken Nedimyer believes that there is a host of reasons for reef die off, and many of the arguments are right, probably a combination of them.  He feels that if everyone could stop arguing about the particular causes and fixed all the possible ways this tragedy could have happened, then it would be easier to get on with rebuilding the reef.  This is incredible considering that many people believe there is no way to rebuild a reef.  Conventional wisdom once said that when it is broken it is gone forever.

So this independent man started using his skills in catching and growing fish to create a Foundation who's sole aim is to breathe the life back into the reefs around Key Largo.  Today the Coral Restoration Foundation has a huge coral nursery, the largest in the world, and is working across the Caribbean to help save and restore coral reef systems.

"We have quite a few species that exist only in our nursery, they are extinct in the wild as far as we know".  Nedimyer has corals growing in the largest coral nursery in the world that may hold the key to creating climate change resistant coral, oil resistant coral, even people-resistant coral.  "We often find a large dead area with one small coral head, and this represents the only survivor of what was a huge die-off…how did it survive, why was it not affected like the other corals?  I am convinced that the answers to the future of coral reef survival are tied up in the these survivors".

He grows small coral pieces a few centimeters across on large wooden latices.  After a year they are branched out coral, healthy and strong enough to be transplanted onto the reef.  He and his tiny team have special permission through the Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission to go out day after day, "replanting" these coral seedlings into like Molasses Reef that have seen huge die-offs.

We had a chance to join him on an average day, when he and his small  crew went out to the huge nursery to collect dozens of mature coral seedlings and followed them as they took them to a badly degraded reef and stuck the seedlings back onto it.

In a world without sound they worked together using hand signals with the efficiency of a quiet military unit.  Biologist Stephanie Roach worked at choosing which corals would be replanted, moving up and down the lattice system, cutting them off and letting them float to the clean sandy floor of the sea, while volunteer biologist Ben Rakov and Ori Galili went along and collected them and got them ready in small bunches to replant, their bubbles bouncing off the tall stacks of corals growing above them.

Biologist Stephanie Roach, the science and education director at the Coral Restoration Foundation, places coral pieces to be "reseeded" into the reef. The ferns in the background are signs of an unhealthy ecosystem.

Ken Nedimyer "replants" coral on a degraded wall at Molasses Reef.

Nedimyer and his team replant the corals in these little bunches with as much genetic diversity as possible, making a rough circle on the rocks that contains all the different genotypes he has been able to collect.  This ensures that there is no inbreeding, and these geographically fixed species can enjoy a mixed genome that hopefully makes them more resistant to attack from many different threats. The corals take to their new homes with gusto, growing rapidly enough that in just a few years a real change is obvious. 

Beneath the waves, the damaged reef looks all right at first glance, but only when healthy staghorn coral looms does the real tragedy of the reef collapse become clear.  These tiny little islands of biodiversity stand like small monuments to what this area once looked like.  Like devotees, the fish crowd around these isolated outcrops, refusing to even enter water that hangs above the dead coral outcrops.  "They do not want to be around the dead coral, they simply will not live near it". 

By contrast the bare sand of the seabed never hosted reef fish, but above it in the nearby nursery corals are growing and a host of fish trail in the current behind these newly growing "trees" created by Nedimyer and his team.  Here is the hope for the future.   These islands are dependent upon fishermen and visitors who are here to see the reef or to catch a memory-giving fish that calls these places home.  The whole economy of this little line of barrier islands is completely reliant on the coral reefs.  Ken Nedimyer and his team may have discovered how to give this whole area's economy a new lease on life. 

This is not a touchy-feely story above how we should embrace coral, but a wake up call that we can all be part of the solution to its disastrous loss. The Coral Restoration Foundation needs everyone's help.  Concerned people can adopt a coral for a small fee, watching it grow throughout the year and then tracking it as it is transplanted onto a reef.  People around the world can volunteer their time, the project needs lawyers, accountants and marketing people, and yes even hands-on folks can come down here and help rebuild reefs.  Everyone can be part of this solution, just contact them. The Foundation is happy to share knowledge and help others set up their own reef restoration projects.  Already they have another project in the southern Caribbean in Bonaire, but the main purpose is help people everywhere reverse coral reef destruction before we have lost our ocean economies, people's ways of life, and the ecology that supports our very existence. 

Stephanie Roach, the science and education director at the Coral Restoration Foundation chisels into the dead reef to create an area of hardness to anchor a new living reef piece.

A Healthy piece of reef with fish, amongst a larger area with no living reef.

Biologist Stephanie Roach, the science and education director at the Coral Restoration Foundation working in the coral nursery.  Nedimyer believes that some corals are capable of withstanding temperature and water quality problems much better than others, and hopes to help corals adapt to these changes.