Featured Image Credit: Rice Coral Reefs Blog
By Jessica Kittel
El Niño is no friend to coral reefs. The most recent El Niño caused major coral bleaching around the world and this is not the first time we’ve seen this happen. According to Hakai Magazine, the 1998 El Niño killed off 16 percent of the world’s coral reefs. Certain areas of the globe fared better than others but the Seychelles weren’t one of the lucky ones. Ninety-seven percent of Seychelles’ corals perished.
Coral reefs are pretty important around the world. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that, globally, the benefit accrued from coral is $29.5 billion. There are also roughly 500 million people that rely on coral for food, livelihood, and defense against ocean conditions.
As described in Seychelles New Agency, the Seychelles is an archipelago made up of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean. This Island region absolutely relies on coral reefs. Not only does the reef act as a natural barrier against waves, erosion, sea-level rise, and property destruction, it is also an important provider of food and employment.
Mauinow.com describes corals as a little bit animal, a little bit plant, and a little bit mineral, all wrapped up into one tiny polyp. When the coral gets stressed out (usually from excessively warm water temperatures or bright sunlight) the animal part spits out the plant part. However, by using photosynthesis, the plant part was creating 80-90% of the food the coral relied on to survive. Shortly after expelling their main meal ticket, the animal part dies leaving only their white, calcium carbonate or limestone skeleton. And that my friends, is how we get coral bleaching.
Scientists in Seychelles aren’t taking this tragedy lying down. Instead of focusing on the fact that 97 percent of the coral in the area had died, they put their energy into cultivating the three percent that had survived. The scientists worked off the assumption that any coral that had survived such trying conditions must have some inherent resistance to warm conditions. They found that ten species had fared better than others and used these as the “donor colonies.”
The scientists took off small bits of coral fragments (aka nubbins) from these donors. They then had to “MacGyver [their] way through the project.” The nubbins were used to grow new coral by attaching them to rope and old fishing net, creating a floating coral nursery. A year later the nubbins had multiplied in size and were ready for transplant. Researchers and volunteers used marine cement to anchor 24,431 corals into place, creating one of the largest reef restoration projects ever.
The goal of the transplants was to create a site that would be attractive to spats (aka baby corals). For the next two years, researchers kept tabs on how may spats settled on the reef. They found that, compared to a damaged site, the transplant site had six times the number of spats. Even more encouraging, the transplant site did twice as well as a healthy site. As stated by researcher Sarah Frias-Torres, “those larvae found that our transplanted reef was attractive enough to go and settle and recruit there. It’s a sexy site.”