Coral Nurseries: What's All The Fuss About?

BY MICHAELA FARNHAM

Coral nurseries and coral restoration projects litter the internet as a ways to conserve and protect our reefs. But do they really work? What are their purpose? And what hope do they provide for our struggling reef systems? This week we spoke with two experienced coral nursery advocates, to hear their opinions on the importance of these projects for reef conservation.

Tree silhouettes - Photo Liv Williamson ( @liv_in_the_moment )

Tree silhouettes - Photo Liv Williamson (@liv_in_the_moment)

Hey girls! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your coral restoration/nursery experience!

Hey everyone! I am a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of Miami. My research focuses on building resilience in coral recruits of various important Caribbean reef-building species. I work with several organizations (including SECORE International, the Perry Institute for Marine Science, and NOAA) that raise and out-plant sexually-produced coral recruits, seeding damaged reefs with new individuals and new genetic diversity. Recruits are settled onto 3D substrates designed to self-stabilize on the reef. The goal of my research is to improve the survival and fitness of these out-planted juveniles so that they might withstand the stressors driving reef degradation. I have also assisted the University of Miami’s Rescue a Reef program with maintaining their in-water nurseries of staghorn corals and out-planting nursery-grown corals to reefs off the coast of south Florida. - Liv Williamson (@liv_in_the_moment)

Hey! I’m Mariah and in June/July this year I travelled to Cambodia with Reach Out Volunteers to help in their marine conservation program where we built metal coral pods and cement feet in order to rehabilitate the reef in the area. Koh Rong Island has been devastated by trawling and over-fishing as the community there was unaware of the impacts, but those practices have now been ceased. We deployed over 40 coral pods in the two weeks I was on Koh Rong Island, adding to over 150 that are already in place, contributing to the largest man-made reef in the world. You can swim past all the other pods that have been deployed by other volunteers, already attracting coral growth. As soon as you place the pods down you can already see them starting to attract fish. - Mariah Appleby (@mappleby_)

Staghorn Coral - Photo Liv Williamson ( @liv_in_the_moment )

Staghorn Coral - Photo Liv Williamson (@liv_in_the_moment)

Why do you think coral nurseries and restoration projects are so important?

Coral are such an important ecosystem in our oceans. They cover only 1% of the ocean floor but are home to 25% of marine species found in the oceans. That’s a lot for such a small area! With reefs being under threat due to climate change and coral bleaching, as well as trawling and over-fishing, it’s imperative we utilize these coral nursery/restoration projects in order to rehabilitate and maintain the reefs so that they can continue to allow ocean species to thrive. - Mariah Appleby

Coral reefs worldwide are threatened by numerous local and global stressors including ocean warming, ocean acidification, disease, and pollution. Coral cover is declining rapidly, and it is unlikely that coral populations will be able to recover through natural processes of reproduction and evolution. Thus, if we are to preserve the ecosystem services that coral reefs provide for human communities and the marine environment, we need to take action. Growing corals in nurseries and out-planting them to degraded reefs are critical steps for bolstering decimated populations of reef-building corals. Coral nurseries that make a priority of raising and propagating many diverse species or genotypes of corals are especially important for maintaining the genetic diversity needed to keep restored coral populations robust and adaptable in the face of environmental stress.  - Liv Williamson

Corals being out-planted - Photo Liv Williamson ( @liv_in_the_moment )

Corals being out-planted - Photo Liv Williamson (@liv_in_the_moment)

The latest IPCC report has shown some scary outlooks for coral reefs in the very near future… For someone who believes coral nurseries and restoration projects are somewhat ‘futile’ in preserving coral reefs, what would you say to them?

I would say they clearly have no idea what they’re talking about haha! Coral reefs are undeniably the most important ecosystem in the ocean and without these restoration projects and nurseries, they could very well all be destroyed if we don’t do something about climate change, trawling and over-fishing. While we tackle those big issues, restoration is key to maintaining their well being as so many species rely on healthy corals. - Mariah Appleby

Coral reefs provide essential ecosystem services to marine environments and coastal communities, so it is in our best interest to try every strategy to preserve these important ecosystems despite the “bleak” prospects ahead. Though scientists and stakeholders are testing many types of interventions, reef restoration with coral nurseries has been one of the most widespread, scalable methods so far. The success of coral nurseries is a huge reason for hope and optimism that we can make a positive difference amidst all the damage. Going forward, it will be critical to combine such restoration efforts with “assisted evolution” – research that may help corals adapt more quickly and survive in the face of climate change – for the long-term efficacy of reef conservation. Our restoration efforts need to not only out-plant corals, but out-plant corals that can resist the stress of a rapidly changing climate.  - Liv Williamson

Coral fragments - Photo Liv Williamson ( @liv_in_the_moment )

Coral fragments - Photo Liv Williamson (@liv_in_the_moment)

In a few words, describe how you would feel in a world without coral reefs.

A world without coral reefs would not harbor healthy fish, shark, or invertebrate populations and without all of those species, diving would sure as hell be pretty boring! - Mariah Appleby

I would feel vulnerable. I live on the coast of South Florida, where we frequently experience major storms and will soon become ground zero for sea level rise. We rely heavily on coral reefs for protection from erosion and storm surge. Without them, our safety and our property will be in jeopardy.

I would feel concerned for the livelihoods of millions of people around the world, because coral reefs support many types of fish and invertebrates that sustain fisheries and feed families worldwide.

Finally, I would feel deeply saddened because I believe there is intrinsic value to coral reefs, regardless of the many services they provide to humans. To me, corals are among the most elegant of nature’s creations. They appear simple but are deceivingly complex: part animal, part vegetable, and part mineral all at once. Their individual polyps are so tiny and unassuming, but together they form colonies that build vast reef structures, the largest of which are visible from space. These structures serve as nurseries, hunting grounds, and homes for countless other marine organisms. Without them, our oceans and our planet would lose some of our most fascinating, beautiful, and impactful natural features. - Liv Williamson

Coral restoration is IMPORTANT! It’s girls and boys like these who are working hard and trying to make a difference! - Photo Mariah Appleby ( @mappleby_ )

Coral restoration is IMPORTANT! It’s girls and boys like these who are working hard and trying to make a difference! - Photo Mariah Appleby (@mappleby_)