Reef Rescuers: Restoring coral reef ecosystem services

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Tying coral fragements on rope for the underwater coral nursery
© Nature Seychelles

Reef Rescuers implented the first-ever large scale reef restoration project using "coral gardening". It involved collecting over 40,000 small pieces of healthy coral from sites that survived a bleaching event, raising them in underwater nurseries and transplanting them to a 5,300sq meter degraded site at Cousin Island Special Reserve affected by coral bleaching. It aims to build resilience in coral reefs damaged by bleaching and improve associated fisheries, tourism and coastal protection.

Last update: 08 Feb 2023
Challenges addressed
Increasing temperatures
Ocean warming and acidification
Storm surges
Lack of access to long-term funding
Lack of technical capacity
impacts of climate change on coral reef ecosystems Death of coral reefs due to coral bleaching, storm surges and sea level rise are impacts of climate change that threaten the provision of coral reef ecosystem services. Without healthy coral reefs the vulnerability to climate-induced coastal risks and disasters increases and valuable income associated with tourism and fisheries is lost, thus increasing food insecurity.
Scale of implementation
Coral reef
Ecosystem services
Local actors
Republic of Seychelles
East and South Africa
Summary of the process
The vulnerability assessment and stakeholder involvement plan (building block 1) guide the planning of the project and detail feasibility, location and size of the project. The vulnerability assessment determined that the concept of the project was correct and that a reef restoration project would increase the resilience of the local communities. The reef restoration included capacity development measures (building block 2). Volunteers with certain skills worked with the core specialist team in the field learning as they went along. In a 6-week training program acquired field-tested knowledge and skills on coral nurseries, coral transplantation and project sustainability were taught. The program has also become a forum for networking and plays an important function in promoting and advancing reef restoration efforts. Experiences and learnings from this project are detailed in a toolkit (building block 3). It describes the information needed for a coral reef restoration project from start to finish using the coral reef gardening concept, explaining what is needed for the planning, appropriate design, logistics and human resources, execution and post project monitoring and research.
Building Blocks
Vulnerability assessment and stakeholder plan
The Vulnerability Assessment and Stakeholder Involvement plan is a prerequisite for action. It uses data and policies from the Seychelles National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA) and other country reports, as well as recently published scientific papers. Stakeholder survey and analysis was undertaken to identify, choose and engage the right stakeholders in the project.
Enabling factors
• Availability and access to existing data from national reports • Willingness of stakeholders to be surveyed • Existence of adequate numbers of relevant stakeholders for a successful project • Capacity of stakeholders
Lesson learned
Desk top studies are important. Field surveys are lengthy and costly and not always necessary because relevant data may exist in government and consultancy reports. Not all stakeholders are the ones to partner with. Some stakeholders may be skeptical about the feasibility of coral reef restoration or cannot be engaged. Those with the right attitude and adequate capacity are the ones to be brought on board otherwise time will be spent on solving stakeholder issues rather than implementing the project. Stakeholders are not always reliable. Stakeholders may not engage fully or may drop out due to various factors. In small countries like Seychelles missing even one or two individuals may make a difference if there was previous commitment.
Capacity development for coral reef restoration
The capacity development program was implemented in 2 phases: The first phase started with the implementation of the project and lasted till the last corals were planted and was based on the “learning by doing” concept for knowledge transfer. The second phase was a formal training program which was designed by Nature Seychelles and launched in 2015. This was a full time course which lasted 6 weeks and included classroom as well as field work. A paying program, it filled up on the first call with 8 international “students” completing it. More courses are planned.
Enabling factors
• It depended on attracting volunteers who were qualified up to master or scientific diver level and who would work under grueling conditions for free in exchange for a unique learning experience. • It was essential that the core staff were ready and able to work with volunteers from all parts of the world. • The project had free accommodation to provide to the volunteers and students.
Lesson learned
Volunteer procedures. These had to be put in place to keep the teams harmonious and working. Teaching skills. Staff had to be skilled-up to teach the coral reef restoration course and deal with paying students who were all mostly coral reef practitioners already. Two training programs were originally planned in 2015 but only one was implemented as the resources and time to roll out this “first in the world” program had been underestimated.
Coral reef restoration toolkit
The purpose of this Toolkit is to share the knowledge gained by the Reef Rescuers team. It aims to fill a void in the practical know-how of coral reef restoration By sharing what was learned and tested in the field, it is hoped that the success of others implementing similar projects elsewhere will be improved. It aims to be a companion for scientists, managers, practitioners and local communities who are facing a coral reef restoration challenge and need guidance using low-cost field tested methods, as well as how to fix problems encountered in field conditions. The team explains what they did in the coral reef restoration project and how they solved the problems encountered using low cost solutions and the limited resources found in a developing nation.
Enabling factors
• Feasibility and desirability of coral reef restoration in the specific site • Adequate project funding or private sector investment • Buy-in and collaboration of government, communities and NGOs • Coral reef practitioners/biologists working in the project
Lesson learned
• One size doesn’t fit all. The experimental methods which were used in the project didn’t all work and there was a lot of trial and error. The toolkit explains these. This is why the guide was not called “Best Practice”. • The toolkit doesn’t make you an instant expert. The toolkit cannot be used by amateurs and communities without the design and supervision by experienced coral reef scientists. Otherwise it becomes tinkering and more harm than good can be done. • It’s complicated. Potential users of the Toolkit need to keep in mind that reef restoration is complex , time consuming, costly, and not always recommended. In fact, as regards the latter the Toolkit presents a flowchart to decide whether or not reef restoration is necessary or even feasible in a given situation

• 5,300sq meters of new reef consisting 90 of 18 species of coral has been planted in the marine protected area of Cousin Island Special Reserve, completed in June 2014 and to date healthy, functioning and resilient to bleaching • 41 practitioners from 11 countries have been exposed to reef restoration techniques by “on the job” work as volunteers up to 3 months in situ, and 8 experts have to date been formally trained through a full-time 6 weeks classroom and field based Training Program. • Recent monitoring has shown 300% increase in fish species and 500% increase in numbers of fish in the new reef than in the degraded control site

dive operators and glass bottom boat operators, hotels and tourists and the general population, artisanal fishers
Transplanted corals fight back against harmful algae By Dr Phanor Montoya-Maya, Technical/Scientific Officer & Trainer at Nature Seychelles’ Reef Rescuer project On Friday October 23rd 2015 I received word from our Science Officer Cheryl Sanchez that on the beaches of Cousin Island Special Reserve, a Marine Protected Area where our coral transplantation site is located many dead fish were washing up and. that the waters had a dark green appearance. Dr Nirmal Shah, Nature Seychelles CEO, confirmed that a harmful algal bloom was taking place and directed us to immediately survey our sites We arranged a dive first thing the following morning to check any effects in and around the coral reef transplantation site as harmful algal blooms (HAB) are known to cause serious negative impacts to coral reef communities. At the transplantation site we conducted visual surveys of the transplanted, degraded and healthy reef sites. Despite a few dead fish at the bottom, the sites looked ok. Fish were still seen in good numbers and no corals were bleached. When the underwater observations did not reveal any conspicuous changes we were relieved. However, more surveys were needed to ascertain the true impact of the HAB. Ten days after the onset of the HAB, we dived again and on the first dive at the degraded site, we low fish numbers and recently dead corals with some branches clean white and a thin layer of algae On the second dive at the transplanted site our observations were mixed: reef fishes were also low in numbers but there were no recently dead or bleached corals. We then dived at the control site and saw effects of the HAB: many colonies were dead and fish numbers were lower than ever recorded in the past two years. Analysis of our data revealed that the algal bloom seemed to have caused extensive coral bleaching. We also found that our coral transplants responded better to the stressful conditions. No dead colonies were observed at the transplanted site. This finding is remarkable and an extraordinary response of our "engineered" site. We don't rule out bleaching at the transplanted site but for some unknown reason they appear to recover faster and better than corals at other sites. This is a very promising result that adds support to Nature Seychelles’ novel theory that transplanting bleaching resistant colonies enhances the resilience potential of coral reefs in the face of climate change.
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Nirmal Shah
Nature Seychelles