Reef Explorer Fiji Inspires Ridge-to-Reef Marine Conservation
I can hear the crash of the waves along the fringe reef far off in the distance, but the current here in the five-foot shallows is barely noticeable. With a deep breath, I flip upside-down wearing wetsuit, weight belt, mask and snorkel. With bristle brush in hand, I work quickly to scrub algae away from the ocean floor to create clean patches for coral transplants to grow. Victor has been busy in the nursery gathering coral colonies that he and Junior have been growing for the last 7-10 months. He swims over and places a basket full of young coral near us and disappears. Alice and Kaitlyn, my fellow volunteers, are nearby working in tandem. Junior mixes cement, plaster and sand in a big tub floating on a paddleboard and squeezes them into baseball sized clumps while I place coral pieces from the basket next to each scrubbed patch. Junior and I then collect one ball of the cement mixture in each hand, dive under the surface, place them on scrubbed patches below and nestle the coral pieces into them. Five of us "planted" over 800 corals this way onto the reef in two days.
In late March I received an email from Victor Bonito inviting me to participate in his coral out-planting program in Fiji. He had been following my blogs through Facebook and asked if I would be interested to learn about his operation. Invitations lead to the best experiences, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Reef Explorer Fiji grows coral at five nurseries located in four marine reserves within the Korolevu-i-wai Local Marine Management Area (LMMA), which is managed by some native clans that live on the Coral Coast. Fiji has a vast LMMA network spanning its 330 islands. The marine protected areas in the LMMA are either permanent or temporary no-take reserves, which means that fishing and other human harvest is prohibited.
“The marine protected areas (MPAs) have been set up as reserves in order to protect the stocks of marine life," said Victor. As he explained, since larvae from the fish, clams and coral in the MPAs are protected from local human impacts they can help to repopulate the surrounding reef outside the MPAs. “We hope that we are exporting a fair amount of heat tolerant coral larvae that will hopefully come to re-seed along other areas of the coast.”
Due to Victor’s extensive work getting grant awards to fund water quality, sedimentation management and other improvements in the local watersheds, he has built strong bonds with the local communities. Reef Explorer's restoration work in the LMMAs is one part of the larger, more holistic conservation approach which recognizes that what happens on land affects the entire watershed, including the reef. As Victor explained, "What we do on land affects what happens in the sea. It’s a connected system. So what ever gets done in the watershed affects what happens out on the reef.
Each year Reef Explorer grows 7-8,000 corals and gathers another 1-3,000 that have broken off in storms, and plants them on the area reefs in the marine protected areas. Most of the out-planting and nursery restocking work happens from May through September. An astute and detailed-oriented scientist with an otherwise laid back attitude that matches the pace of rural Fiji, Victor has been growing coral here for years. He strategically focuses on growing fragments from corals that have survived past bleaching events in an effort to expand heat tolerance on the reef. Reef Explorer works with a large diversity of coral: fifty different species, mainly from five genera.
"The corals that we work with are spawning corals, which means that only once per year they release egg and sperm in the water," explained Victor. "We’re working with a lot of heat tolerant corals...strains that we’ve identified during bleaching events that didn’t bleach. These coral colonies are usually spread very far apart from each other on the reef, because only a small select amount of corals show this kind of tolerance...only five to maximum ten percent in some species. What we try to do is propagate more of them and re-plant them on the reef, mixing these corals in close proximity, so when they do spawn they have a high likelihood of fertilizing each other."
When I arrived at the office in Votua Village, I was first greeted by Alice and Kaitlyn, my fellow volunteers who had already been there for a week. Alice Tamani, a native of Australia, married a Fijian seven years ago and is living the tribal lifestyle in Dawasamu on the northeast coast. After observing the poor, compacted condition of the tidepools near her home, she started tending them herself. She noticed that, after generations of locals walking over the coral to harvest food farther out, the tide pools were blocked and stagnating.
“Every tide I would see water wanting to go out, so I would flick out a few pieces of dead coral blocking it,” said Alice. “As I noticed a lot of changes, most excitingly a lot of coral growing back, it became an obsessive hobby. Many people don’t realize that its an animal not a plant. It is alive but it can’t move. Everything needs to be brought to it…its food, nutrients. It has to come by water. So what happens if the water is not flowing? The corals die. But once the water starts flowing. It's miraculous how quickly it comes back. And once it comes back fish are attracted to it.”
While she has already had some local successes re-establishing the flow and bringing the tidepool coral back to life, Alice was excited to be volunteering with Victor to learn his methods. In fact she is already testing out ways to apply his expertise to her reefs back home.
Kaitlyn Wagner is an Aquarist at Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, Canada, where she is responsible for the Seahorse, Venomous fish and Octopus exhibits. Among her duties, she is one of those scuba divers you may see cleaning the tanks when you visit your local aquarium. Her employer is a proud supporter of global conservation efforts and agreed to sponsor her two-week volunteer trip to Fiji. When I met her she was clearly in her happy place working in the sea.
“The last few days it’s been really cool because we have been restocking the nurseries,” Kaitlyn gushed with enthusiasm. “So you see these tiny fragments that he’s been cutting off of these massive coral colonies. They are no bigger than my pinky and that's how they start,” showing her little finger. “After 8-10 months the end result is coral colonies the size of my head. It’s amazing to see the growth.”
I asked her about what she observed as she swam on the reef each day. “There are lots of areas with just coral rubble…its pretty shocking to see that. But at the sites where Victor has done work you can see where they have been planted and you can see small coral colonies starting to grow. Even the smallest ones already have damselfish living in them. So colonies of fish are already using them and inhabiting them, which is pretty cool. And then his coral gardens grow and start to become a part of the reef so its neat to see that he‘s actually making a really big difference.”
As someone who has volunteered with a number of coral restoration programs around the world, I was surprised by our sheer productivity. As I swam from shore I regularly witnessed the colorful, fish-filled results of Victor’s many years of restoration work. In addition to spending a lot of time in the water, I loved being able to see my daily impact helping the reef to recover and thrive. If I wanted to see the alternative, a 100-meter swim outside the marine protected area was all I needed to find seaweed-smothered reefs without a fish in sight. There was a clear juxtaposition between healthy and sick, and I felt blessed to be a part of the local reef’s reincarnation. I am excited to return there next year to volunteer again and see how the corals I planted have grown.
“For the past few years we have been bringing a range of volunteers to assist with our coral restoration program," said Victor. "They help us to transplant corals from the nursery and re-stock, and in the process learn about how climate change is affecting the reefs."
If you are thinking of visiting the South Pacific this summer, why not incorporate a few days or more volunteering with Reef Explorer Fiji? I can guarantee you will return from your vacation feeling more fulfilled than when you arrived. Victor and Junior are enthusiastically seeking volunteers from May through September each year. If you are interested to learn more, contact Victor at firstname.lastname@example.org and find them on the Reef Explorer Fiji Ltd. Facebook page.