Can We Still ‘Rehabilitate’ Our Coral Reefs?

Illustration by  Carla Crespo

Illustration by Carla Crespo

 

Coral reefs take a long time to form, and a short time to damage.

 

Before we dive into how many millions of species coral reefs are home to, let’s get one thing straight: corals are animals too, and the marine scientists are sick of reminding you. More specifically, what we visually understand as a “coral” is made up of hundreds of thousands of tiny sessile animals called polyps. These polyps use tentacle-like arms to scoop in nutrition, and this need to feed is what majorly differentiates a coral from a plant. When you look very closely, you might see the polyps that have built the coral structure over thousands of years.

Coral reef systems exist because particular species of corals have calcified and created structures over millions of years. And yet it doesn’t end there: coral reef systems are also home to up to 25% of all marine life. The Philippines ranks third-largest in reef area and richest in number of coral species. Unfortunately, corals are incredibly fragile and vulnerable to change.

Just touching coral reefs can harm them—and while some have millions of years of history in them, it only takes a little bit of time to bring them down. There are rehabilitation programs in place, but corals take a very long time to grow back. As tourists, perhaps the best we can do is not to interrupt the process.

Reefs lead a boom-to-bust existence—and they bust easily.
— Dr. Charlie Veron, Coral Crisis presentation to Royal Society, London

In June 2017, a study was published in the Philippine Journal of Science by Ms. Ardea Licuanan and a team of scientists on the National Assessment of Coral Reefs Environments (NACRE). It is accessible for everyone to read. This is the first national assessment in 40 years, the previous one dating 1976 to 1981. Coral reefs are ranked according to the quality of their live coral cover: excellent, good, fair, or poor. The new study reports that—of the 166 stations of coral reefs randomly sampled across 33 provinces—none are ranked "excellent" anymore, and that over 90% are ranked poor or fair.

The study also proposes a better and more coordinated national reef monitoring system to keep us updated on the corals’ status.

 
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Some scientists advocate the “self-design” process—believing that minimal to zero human intervention will allow the reef to recover and restructure itself.

The debate on coral gardening

A.K.A coral farming or coral aquaculture

Coral gardening is a form of reef restoration that attaches live coral fragments to the cover of a damaged reef. It has risen in prominence in recent years, and many have lauded it as the answer to saving our denuded reefs, with numerous programs and organizations centered on it emerging around the world.

But this practice also stems from the belief that conservation biology is not enough. According to the hypothesis in “Coral Reef Restoration: The Rehabilitation of an Ecosystem under Siege,” anthropogenic manipulation “determines the positive outcome of a restoration project.” Supporters of this theory believe that the coral reefs’ slow pace of natural recovery has required human help.

The argument for coral gardening

Studies on coral gardening have shown positive results in small-scale scenarios. One published report stresses that findings remain “cautionary” and that only under certain conditions in Indo-Pacific nations. If these are met, “small-scale aquaculture of live coral reef organisms” can help alleviate the strain fishing puts on coral reefs. However, scientists have acknowledged that coral gardening or active reef restoration is still at its early stages, both in theory and in application, and still needs a lot work.

Dr. Baruch Rinkevich, an active supporter of coral gardening, writes in one of his Marine Pollution Bulletin articles, “Active reef restoration holds a number of challenging issues and uncertainties, such as the issues of predicting the scale of transplantation impacts, the responses of transplanted colonies in their new ‘homes’ and the suitability of these acts to combat reef degradation.”

Letting nature heal itself?

Alternatively, other scientists advocate the “self-design” process—believing that minimal to zero human intervention will allow the reef to recover and restructure itself.

In the local scene, Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan identifies himself as one of these advocates; he argues the best way is to remove the stressor and then let the coral reef heal itself. According to him, his best example of this is when a US war ship, USS Guardian, ran aground in Tubbataha in 2013. He recalls, “A lot of sectors were pushing, ‘Okay, let’s fix the reef.’ And I would say ‘No, leave it alone.’ The Tubbataha Management chose to leave it alone.” Indeed, the Tubbataha reefs are protected from additional stressors, such as pollution, fishing and maritime traffic. After 5 years, the damaged reefs are showing signs of recovery.

Coral gardening only works for a few species of coral, and we have more than 500 species in the world. The diversity of the current reef is not always restored and some people are tempted to break off a part of live, healthy corals in order to transplant them.

All in all, while coral gardening has applications (of varied success), its effectiveness and sustainability remain a hypothesis. Rather than “rehabilitate” a coral reef, many scientists would say that it is more important that we monitor our reefs and remove stressors that damage them.

 
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How else can we help?

Coral reefs withstood changes in their environment for millennia, the best thing to do is to leave them alone, protect them from human impact and serve as an extra set of eyes for scientists.

How? The Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch, for example, invites travelers to take photos of reefs that they visit and report their findings to their website. They have a handy form that you need to fill out with details, such as the location along with other observations. The data collected is sent to the regional DENR office.

Reef Check Philippines has a program in which they train certified scuba divers how to monitor reefs so that they can contribute their findings. They also organize coastal clean-ups. On that note, International Coastal Clean Up Philippines has some big plans for the upcoming month of September.




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