Costa Rica’s Pacific coral reefs were planted with hundreds of fresh corals this month, as part of Coralmania, in an effort to highlight coral reef restoration as a positive way to improve their natural state.
Coral reefs have been severely degraded by threats such as unsustainable fishing practices and climate change. Coral reef restoration aims to speed up the natural process of reef recovery and at the same time allow people to nurture corals and other reef organisms and restore their own relationship with nature.
Reef restoration is similar to reforestation, but instead of cultivating and planting trees, it is the corals – which are animals rather than plants – that are cultivated and “planted” onto reefs. Most projects cultivate corals in underwater nurseries, but some use land-based facilities.
Several coral reef restoration projects have been established in Costa Rica, and this month they participated in Coralmania as part of an international effort amongst Costa Rica, Honduras and Dominican Republic to bring volunteers to their projects in a massive planting of corals on local reefs.
Coralmania is organized and funded by the German Development Cooperation, GIZ, along with donations and participation of numerous organizations. Over the past few weeks in Costa Rica, Coralmania events occurred in Bahia Culebra by Peninsula Papagayo and the University of Costa Rica, and in Golfo Dulce by Raising Coral Costa Rica. Through the rest of this week, a third Costa Rica event is scheduled in Samara (Asociación Proyecto Corales) as well as events in Honduras and Dominica Republic.
I participated with our Raising Coral Costa Rica (RCCR) team in Golfo Dulce. This was an opportunity to celebrate a year of working with the local community to develop a sustainable model for reef restoration, which was funded by a Fundecooperación and the UN Adapta2 program to support adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change.
The event provided an opportunity for RCCR’s “coral gardeners” – local persons who were trained in coral propagation and restoration – to practice their skills and guide the effort. Many local businesses and government officials also participated, including Alcalde Freiner Lara, the mayor of the Cantón of Golfito.
RCCR maintains a 1600-coral nursery near Golfito where small coral fragments from eight coral species are allowed to grow for 6-12 months. The most abundant coral in the nursery is the branching coral Pocillopora. This type of coral is no longer common in Golfo Dulce, and much of RCCRs effort has focused on developing methods to increase its population size.
For Coralmania, nearly 300 of the Pocillopora colonies were retrieved from the nursery and transported to three restoration sites. The planting was carried out by 24 volunteer divers with the support of an additional 11 divers. Care was taken to keep track of the colonies based on the “donor coral” from which the fragments were retrieved. This allows us to observe which corals are more resilient, as well as arrange the corals to encourage colony growth rather than competition.
These outplanting events can be difficult. Hauling a heavy crate of live corals to the boat is strenuous, and planting corals without damaging them can be tricky, particularly when there are currents. But the new corals bring instant gratification to people planting them, and kick start the recovery of a damaged reef.
Reef restoration is not a cure for the ongoing coral reef crisis, but when done strategically it can establish patches of reef with corals that will continue to reproduce naturally, produce offspring that are more resilient to climate change, and support the many other species that depend on them. One of those species is us (Homo sapiens)!
This is, in essence, the concept of the current “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration” declared by the United Nations Environment Program. Costa Rica is well positioned to be a leader in coral reef restoration, just as it has in forest restoration and conservation for which it recently receved the prestigious Earthshot prize.
The UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration: https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/
Joanie Kleypas is a scientist who studies marine ecosystems and climate change. She is also the director of Raising Coral Costa Rica.
Photo credits: Somos Pelagos (https://www.instagram.com/somospelagos)