A novel coral restoration concept – SECORE’s pilot project in Mexico (documentary)

My name is Anastazia Banaszak,
and I’m a researcher here at the Reef Systems Academic Unit of the National Autonomous University
of Mexico in Puerto Morelos. I’ve developed a coral reproduction and reef
restoration project. This project is basically about trying to
help in the restoration of coral reefs. Coral reefs are very important, especially
in the Mexican Caribbean, because they are a source of both protein for the local inhabitants, as well as sources of income for them
through the tourism potential that they generate and also because there are fishing
practices that go on here, so it’s an important source of income for the local community. As structures, they are also extremely important
for the environment. They provide a lot of habitat for many different
species. Coral reefs are very diverse, and one of the
reasons they can be diverse is because the corals provide a wonderful habitat where species can hide and can reproduce and be safe from predators. They also provide protection for the coast
because– especially there’s one species, Acropora palmata,
which is known as Elkhorn coral, which absorbs up to 99% of the energy that comes
from waves due to storms or hurricanes. By absorbing all that energy, it doesn’t reach the coast. That means they reduce beach erosion, and
also, obviously, protect hotels and houses that are along the shoreline. The success of this project is based on the
fact that we have many collaborations. For example, we have the collaboration with SECORE International. We have collaboration with many different
aquariums– Xcaret Aquarium, here in Mexico, as well as
many aquariums from the United States. We have a lot of students that come in to
learn about these techniques. We also have collaborations with government agencies,
such as the National Parks Authority. I’m María del Carmen García Rivas, director
of the Puerto Morelos Reef National Park assigned to CONANP. I’m a biologist, and my job is basically to
conserve and sustainably develop these reefs through the tourism and fishing activities
we have in the area. I’ve had the opportunity
to see the Puerto Morelos reefs. My first biology field trip was here. I monitored coral for 20 days. It was basically an aquarium — there were lots and lots of fish, wonderful colors. And yes, I’ve seen how, unfortunately,
these reefs have deteriorated. They have lost those colors that are, for
me, indicators of health. And I have also seen how the coast
has been developed abruptly. It is one of the places in the world where
there are major developments and immigrations of people. But I have also seen how people have
become more aware and more responsible for the care of the environment, and this is very important. I’m Dirk Petersen, the founder and Executive
Director of SECORE International. If corals get under stress, one of the first
things that happens is that they stop reproduction. They just don’t have the energy available
to produce all these gametes, eggs and sperm, because they try to survive. Restoration alone will not help corals to
survive, but restoration can be a very important tool to add to the toolbox of managing, conserving coral reefs So, if we give them a helping hand to
overcome these very first, initial, fragile life stages, we can help them to reproduce again. So far, most restoration attempts in the Caribbean have been done with asexual reproduction, which is fragmentation. So you simply break a piece off a coral,
glue it to a substrate, leave it in a nursery for some time to recover and grow, and then you transplant those asexual recruits or fragments to the reef. This has been an important step, initial step,
but in order to look into genetic diversity, to maintain genetic diversity, to prepare corals for the future climate scenario, we need to
look into a sexual reproduction. Genetic diversity, or sexual reproduction,
is essential for any species because only through genetical recombination a species, a population, is able to adapt to a changing environment. Spawning is a unique event. It happens only on one or two, or maybe three
nights a year, during the summer months, normally in August, and a few nights after
full moon. So we use the date of the full moon to then
calculate when we think coral spawning will occur. In branching species, like Acropora palmata
or the Elkhorn coral, they can fragment. When a storm goes through,
a coral can fragment into some pieces. But there’s also another way that they reproduce,
and that’s because they produce eggs and sperm which they release
into the water column in packets. These packets will float to the surface and
then break up, and then with other unrelated colonies, they’ll fertilize and produce embryos. These embryos will develop into larvae. The larvae float for awhile, along in the
current, and then they will start diving and looking for a substrate to settle on. And so once they settle, they go through a
process called metamorphosis. They metamorphose into a coral polyp, and
then they start producing a coral skeleton. And then slowly they’ll start dividing and
producing a coral colony. I’m Rodolfo Raygoza.
I’m in charge of Fauna at Xcaret Group. Inside of Xcaret is the aquarium, and in the
aquarium we have the coral project. The aquarium, since it was formed at the beginning
of Xcaret, since 1993, started with a program to have corals in artificial ponds,
and the work with corals began then. We started with soft corals, and in recent
years we’ve been working with hard corals, and especially now with Acropora palmata. We have the great advantage of having excellent
water quality, because we take it practically from the coast, and we have good
water quality there. Therefore, our system is very good for these
types of projects, and also people who have been trained for a long time in the management
of marine organisms, especially of corals — which from the beginning we started with work
on corals in the aquarium. My name is Ana Cerón. I work here in the Xcaret Park in the Department of Aquatic Ecology, part of the Experiences Xcaret Park Cooperative. One of the projects in which I’m directly
involved is the coral conservation project. We go out to sea for four nights to wait for
spawning, but while spawning occurs, before this, we also construct special traps. The traps are of a fabric that is very soft. We place some weights or weight on the edges,
and basically we place it on a colony and this buoy makes it float. In this part here we place plastic jars. The divers are responsible for doing all this
process when they start to see the setting, which is the preparation of the polyp
to expel the packet of gametes. Then they put the trap,
and the diver places the cup. The gametes float — they have many lipids, which means that they
pass through the funnel and they stay here in the top part, at the surface. It’s a process that they have to do quickly.
When they place the trap, they place the cup. And this cup they have it in a bag. They pass it quickly, and they put the other
cup, and this one is placed here, and this cup is passed to a snorkeler. We collect these egg and sperm bundles and
then we take them to the boat and enrich our fertilization in the boat– just basically mixing these bundles that come
from different colonies that are unrelated and we put them together. They’re the same species, but they’re unrelated.
We put them together in containers and basically promote the fertilization process just by
moving the whole mixture that we have. And so that basically promotes the encounter
between sperm and eggs. We bring that mixture into the lab and we
clean out all of the sperm and the predators that love to come and eat the eggs because it’s a delicious feast for them. We put the now developing embryos into culture. Once they develop into larvae, we give them
substrates that have been designed by SECORE International. We let these larvae settle down onto these
substrates. We need to have really high survival of the
cultures that we have growing right now, and a high rate of settlement onto the substrates which we pretty much get every year, so we’re
pretty good at knowing what conditions we need to have for that. And then we need to put them out onto reefs
that are degraded or in process of degradation and hope that they survive and start growing
into juvenile corals. My name is Sergio Guendulain. I work as a technician in a restoration project
with Dr. Anastazia Banaszak, within the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Also my work within the project involves support
in the collection of coral gametes. And it is also related to the production,
conditioning, settling of coral larvae on the substrates and the
reintroduction of these to the reef. This is a settlement substrate recently introduced
by SECORE, basically in a tetrapod form. This facilitates anchoring to the reef without
the need to use a glue or any type of cement. This greatly reduces the production costs
and the time that is required. These settlement bases are produced in the
laboratory with molds provided by SECORE, and after that they are introduced to a place near
the reef, in the sea, to condition them. Basically, what we need is for coralline algae
to grow on the bases, which makes these bases more attractive for the larvae. This has helped us a lot in the settlement
of the larvae. These substates, once they have settled larvae,
are carried to the reef in plastic containers with water, and while diving are introduced
manually, trying to place them within the natural structure of the reef,
in the nooks and crannies. They are introduced manually, at a density
of approximately four bases per square meter. Once we introduce the settlement substrates,
after the two months they are basically already covered with coralline algae, and
they integrate into the landscape of the reef — and if you’re not looking for them, it’s difficult
to recognize them. Using sexual reproduction in restoration may
have the great benefit that you can upscale restoration efforts which are urgently needed. So if you look at sexual reproduction, it
does not matter if you’re dealing with a hundred larvae or a thousand, or a million, or ten
million larvae, because once you know how a larva of a specific coral species settles, which conditions are needed, you can provide those
conditions and the larvae will settle by themselves. So in this way you can actually produce hundreds
of thousands, millions, of coral. So we are working on developing technology
to upscale restoration, to automize these processes. My name’s Aaron Jeskie. I am a zookeeper at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. I’m here for SECORE not only because I love
corals and conservation, but also because the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
has been a main supporter of SECORE since its inception. Behind me you see these large pools back here
to produce many more larvae and many more baby corals that can help put back onto
the reef and help in restoration efforts. So once we collect the gametes for the baby
corals and they’re fertilized and we actually have a baby coral, they’re normally put into
a much smaller bin where they’re cared for for about 48 to 72 hours. And then they start settling on tiles where
we can eventually put them back in the reef. On a small scale like that, we can only do
so many at a time. So we basically increased the size. We have a much larger volume,
but the idea is the same. We put a certain density of coral larvae in
these systems so they’re not too packed and they still have adequate water flow,
and eventually, once they get old enough, they’ll start
looking for a place to settle– and hopefully those are on our tiles that
we can put back into the ocean. We want to keep construction as simple as
possible. The idea is that these systems can be used
in very remote locations, with very little resources. So the systems behind us are made out of PVC
and other things that are readily available at hardware stores. These are designed to be deployed in the ocean,
deployed where there are very little resources, and that way we can help restoration
efforts anywhere in the world, technically. It takes many people with many different types
of expertise to do this — from engineers, through to coral biologists,
through to people who know about in vitro fertilization. So what we’ve been trying to do is to be a
center, here in Puerto Morelos, where people come and collaborate with us, and try to help
to restore coral reefs. So there’s a saying that to raise a child
it takes a village, and my belief is that to restore reefs it will take many villages. My vision is that in the future we will have
many people working to restore coral reefs, and using sexual coral reproduction to do so, to help have a high genetic diversity of corals and help them to survive all the climate change
conditions that they’re going to be receiving in the next coming decades. My vision is to teach as many people as possible. Originally, my dream was to have a national
program. It’s now developed into an international program. In the future I hope that we can include many
other people to work on this dream of restoring reefs and giving them a future. Viable, that enable us to have healthy reefs
in the future. We take care of reefs for the future. That’s why we give coral reefs a future. Let’s give coral reefs a future. And that’s how we try to give coral reefs a future. Yes, so I think collaborating with all of
the partners that we have we can give coral reefs a future. SECORE International aims at
giving coral reefs a future.

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