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By Amanda White
Header photo by David J. Fishman of outplanted Staghorn corals.
Coral colonies serve as the foundation of coral reef ecosystems, and their rapid decline could mean a loss of habitat for more than 25% of marine life that depends on them to survive. With coral bleaching and rising ocean temperatures becoming a headlining concern across the globe, what can be done to help save this critical ecosystem? Hope is not lost. We caught up with environmental scientist Francesca Virdis, the coordinator for Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire, a non-profit organization that is growing and replanting corals around the island of Bonaire, to find out how they are working to save the reefs.
InDepth: What is Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire (RRFB) doing to address the loss of coral reef habitat?
Francesca Virdis: We started in 2012. The first phase of the project was to collect coral samples from the reef from different strains, or genotypes, of two different coral species—staghorn and elkhorn corals. Once the most abundant coral species in the Caribbean region, their populations have now been reduced by over 90% and are currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List and in the Endangered Species Act. This is the most important reason why we chose to work on the restoration of the population of these two species. Furthermore, they are branching and fast-growing corals, so they are easy to propagate and can show visible results in a short time.
After the initial collection, we brought these 200 coral samples to the nursery, and from there on we started propagating thousands of corals every year.
What is the project’s ultimate goal?
The ultimate goal is to assist in the recovery of degraded coral reef areas using active coral restoration as a strategy to preserve and enhance the population of coral species.
It’s not just about placing more corals on the reefs to increase coral abundance but also about working in terms of diversity—adding different strains of coral colonies to the wild stocks. When we outplant corals back to the reef, we want to strategically promote genetic diversity. In fact, different coral strains have different strengths and different abilities. For example, some of them could better withstand diseases, be more heat tolerant, or grow faster.
Environmental conditions are changing, and they will change even more in the near future, so to give the reef a chance and increase its resilience, it’s critical to work on biodiversity.
How do these nurseries work?
Since 2012, RRFB has grown corals using a “tree” nursery design. It’s called that because the structure resembles an antenna or a Christmas tree. The nursery trees are made of PVC and fiberglass, anchored to the seafloor at a depth of 5-8 m/15-25 ft.
Each tree hosts between 100-160 corals of the same genotype. These are propagated from the same donor colonies that were collected originally in 2012 to populate the nursery. Corals hang on the trees and are suspended in mid-water. New fragments are cut from the growing colonies, using a technique known as “coral gardening,” creating new generations of corals. These corals are re-suspended back in the nursery, and the process begins again. Corals remain in the nurseries until they reach the proper size, and then RRFB selects them from the nurseries and outplants them onto the reef.
How many corals have you planted since 2012?
From the same parent colonies, we can produce thousands of corals every year. We have more than 110 trees underwater that hold a total of 13,000 corals that you can count at any given time in our nurseries. To date, we have outplanted back to the reef more than 25,000 corals.
When do you replant the corals outside of the nurseries?
Corals remain in the nurseries until they are reef-ready, meaning the overall health and size will give them a higher chance at survival when exposed to predators and other stressors outside of a nursery environment. Once ready, corals are selected from the nurseries to be outplanted onto restoration sites, which are degraded reef areas where these species of corals were in the past or are still present but in low density.
As a baseline, we use maps that show how the corals were distributed in Bonaire more than 30 years ago.
How does the replanting process work?
Based on the area size and bottom type, we choose the number of corals, strains, and outplanting techniques. RRFB uses different outplanting methods depending upon the substrate.
For hard rocky bottoms, we use marine epoxy to attach the corals directly to the substrate. When no hard substrate is available, we use elevated biodegradable bamboo structures that are built-in sand/rubble areas to provide a substrate to attach corals. Corals, which are tied to the structures using cable ties, eventually cover the entire structure and grow down toward the substrate.
How long does it take from the beginning of growing them to when they are replanted? What’s the timeline?
It depends on the coral species and the initial size of the fragments. On average it will take about 6 to 8 months max to get outplanted to the reef.
How do you manage to plant all of these?
With the help of many volunteer divers, tourists, residents, and local dive professionals who work for the four dive shops that are members of the Foundation and support this project. The Foundation at the moment has only two employees, therefore the dive shop support and the community involvement are extremely important for us.
How do you monitor the corals that you have replanted?
Before we plant, we do a photomosaic of the reef area we want to restore. Photogrammetry allows us to compare how the site looked before and after our work. Then, using image analysis, we can pull out different metrics to evaluate the performance of different strains that have been planted. We do in-water surveys as well to monitor survival and evaluate potential stressors such as diseases, predation, etc. We come back to the restoration sites and monitor their development on a yearly basis.
What are the major threats facing the coral reefs in Bonaire?
I would say one of the major threats is water quality. We do have a sewer system, but only the buildings in town and within 100 m/328 ft from shore are connected to it. The rest of the buildings have very old septic tanks, which often leak. Untreated water means more nutrients flowing to the ocean, which leads not only to more algae growing on the reef but also the presence of more bacteria and viruses, which potentially can lead to more diseases. Furthermore, in town, there is an increased number of moored boats, which are not required to have their wastewater treated. Because Bonaire is located outside of the hurricane belt, many boats visit us for several months a year and their wastewater gets discharged straight to the ocean.
Another factor that is affecting the water quality is sedimentation. Bonaire is a dry island with free-roaming goats eating the vegetation; this negatively affects the retainment of sediment. When it rains, a large amount of sediment gets washed away into the sea, contaminating the water and suffocating the corals. In addition, we are witnessing unsustainable coastal development. Often, because of the lack of regulation and enforcement, we have buildings too close to the ocean or artificial beaches with imported sand. If not properly handled, the majority of the sand gets blown into the ocean during or right after the construction process.
Are the corals you are replanting more likely to survive the water quality?
Reducing stressors is definitely paramount for the success of the project. The Bonaire National Marine Park, together with the government and stakeholders, is working toward improving water quality on the island, educating tourists, and protecting the reefs. We have been successful in the majority of our restoration sites. However, having a long-term water quality monitoring program could help us to better understand why corals are affected more in some areas than in others. Our outplanted corals are also used as bio-indicators of environmental conditions. A lower survival rate after outplanting can help draw attention and actions to preserve degraded reef areas.
Do you think it’s possible to restore coral reefs on a large scale?
Although it’s crucial to protect what we have by reducing the stressors that are affecting the reefs, restoring coral populations is a tool to buy time, and it’s faster than what people imagine. It depends on the coral species, but some of them are fast-growing, and we have been able to repopulate several sites, some as large as 3000 m2 /32292 ft2in just a couple of years, by outplanting no more than 2500 corals. In Bonaire, we are currently working on a “midscale” but we are looking forward to improving our efficiency and expanding in the future.
Bonaire Reef Renewal partners with Project Baseline, how does that fit with your mission?
The idea behind the Project Baseline partnership is to promote coral reef awareness and to show people that a positive change is possible. Sadly, most of the Project Baseline projects are currently showing negative trends, which reflects the reality of nature preservation around the world. Through our project, we want to give a message of hope and show people that something can actually be done. Often when witnessing nature degradation, we feel powerless and don’t know what to do. With our work, we want to empower people and show what each of us can do to make a change.
What are your future plans?
We want to scale-up the restoration effort in Bonaire and support other locations to help them to develop successful restoration projects.
We recently started working on three additional boulder coral species—star corals in this case. We have been working on a new nursery design that is able to host these species of corals because they grow in a completely different way than the branching corals we currently work with. We recently obtained the permit to set up the nursery and, within the next two years, we are planning to produce at least 6,000 corals per year of these massive corals.
We have also recently established a new partnership that allows us to bring an innovative restoration technique, known as larval propagation, to Bonaire. This technique is based on collecting reproductive material during coral spawning, fertilizing the eggs on land, and outplanting recently settled larvae back to the reef. The larval propagation technique uses the corals’ sexual reproduction as restoration method, and, more importantly, gives us the ability to dramatically scale up the number of coral outplants, work with numerous coral species and morphologies, and increase the genetic diversity of corals on reefs.
How can people get involved?
The dive shops that are supporting the foundation are responsible for the training of our volunteers, who are tourists or resident divers. Sometimes people are not interested in volunteering, but they still want to learn about it and support the project, so part of the class fee goes to the foundation as a donation. With the help from our supporting dive shops, so far we have trained more than 1,000 people as coral restoration divers.
Non-divers can also show their support by donating. One of the options is to purchase material from our online wish list and bring it with them when they visit Bonaire. Most of the material is affordable, but it is expensive for us to have it shipped. We invite everybody planning to visit Bonaire to check the wish list on our website.
Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Preserving Florida’s Springs: The Bottled Spring Water Problem
There’s no doubt that Florida’s Springs are imperiled. Most are flowing 30% to 50% less now than their historical average and are suffering from eutrophication. However, as veteran hydrologist Todd Kincaid explains, the problem is not spring water bottlers like Nestlé, in fact they could be allies in the fight to preserve the springs.
By Dr. Todd Kincaid
Header photo by Florida DEP of Wakulla Springs in April 2008.
Florida’s Springs are imperiled. Most are flowing 30% to 50% less now than their historical average. Some don’t flow at all except after big storms or abnormally wet periods. Nearly all have become overwhelmed with algae and bacteria (eutrophied) due to excessive nutrient pollution. The causes are straightforward and increasingly hard to ignore: groundwater over pumping, the overuse of fertilizers by agribusiness and homeowners, and insufficiently treated wastewater. Solutions exist, can be widely implemented, and would significantly improve spring water flows and spring water quality, but they require major investments and diversions from status quo: caps on groundwater extractions, tiered fees for groundwater usage applied to all users, tiered taxation on fertilizer usage, advanced wastewater treatment, transition away from septic systems, etc.
Existing policies have failed to even bend the steep downward trajectory of Florida’s springs. “Minimum Flows and Levels” (MFLs) appear to protect spring flows but, in reality, they open the door to continued declines while people argue over the difference between natural and human causes. “Best Management Practices” (BMPs) pretend to reduce nutrient loading, yet are not only unproven and unenforceable, but not even conceptually capable of the needed nutrient reductions. Even as more and more attention and resources are directed at the condition of Florida’s springs, most continue to degrade: less and less flow, more and more nitrate and algae.
In the face of these declines, it’s easy to become disheartened and jaded. It’s even easier to become focused on reactionary measures aimed at what we don’t want and be rooted more in emotion than in facts. This is, I believe, epitomized by the highly publicized reactions to a permit renewal application filed with the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) by the Seven Springs Water Company for a bottled spring water plant down the road from Ginnie Springs.
The application requests that the SRWMD renew a standing permit that was first issued in the 1980s for the extraction of 5 million gallons per day (MGD) of groundwater from the Floridan aquifer to support spring water bottling. This same permit was voluntarily reduced to 1.1 MGD by the property owners to prevent the possibility that it could be incorporated into one of the many groundwater pipeline schemes that are persistently proposed to transport water from relatively rural north Florida to the substantially more populous cities in central and south Florida. Through the years, several different companies have leased the property and had access to the water, one of which was the Coca-Cola Company, and the most recent being Nestlé.
My perspective on this issue is a product of 30 years of work on karst hydrogeology in Florida, more specifically from my work for Coca-Cola on mapping groundwater flow paths. Specifically, we mapped the pathways to the springs on the western Santa Fe River, including Ginnie Springs, and identified the threats to the quality and quantity of flow to the springs. Even more, my perspective reflects the evolution of my understanding of what it’s going to take to sustainably manage groundwater (synonymous with spring flow) in Florida.
The problems facing Florida’s springs are not technical and not a consequence of any one particular use or user. The real problems are instead failures of the established policies to take the necessary steps to put concrete limits on groundwater consumption and pollution. If we are to achieve sustainable spring flows, limits on groundwater consumption must be established and enforced and, in reality, must be lower than current levels.
From a quantity perspective, who gets the water is irrelevant. All that matters is how much is taken. At present, not only is too much being taken, but there are no established limits. Conservation measures enacted by one user simply opens the door for new or larger allocations to other users. This is accomplished when users of the water claim a “beneficial use”. So, while we can and should be proud of those engaged in conservation, the reality is that spring flows will continue to decline.
If we are to restore and preserve spring water quality, nutrient pollution, specifically the input of nitrate and phosphorous into Florida’s groundwater that stimulate the explosive algae growth in Florida’s springs, rivers, lakes, and estuaries that nobody wants, must be dramatically reduced from current levels. Some experts state that nutrient discharge levels will need to be cut across the board by 70% or more in order to meet water quality targets for Florida’s natural waters. That would mean 70% less nutrient loading from agriculture, 70% less nutrient loading from households, and 70% less nutrient loading from wastewater treatment and disposal.
At present, and for the foreseeable future, there is insufficient political will to achieve any of these needed changes given resistance from corporate and special interests. Year after year, proposed legislation calling for the types of sweeping changes needed fails to receive sufficient public support for passage. While the political efforts that would result in real and positive change continue to fail due to lack of support, the public’s attention focuses on perceived impacts from individual users without regard to the actual impacts those users and uses have on the springs.
Bottled spring water is only one example. Though the entire industry uses only around 1/100th of 1% of the groundwater extracted from the Floridan aquifer and produces absolutely none of the toxic nutrient loading that is killing the springs, it holds a disproportionate grip on the public’s attention to usage, impacts, and solutions. If tomorrow the entire bottled water industry in Florida were to shut down, there would be effectively zero improvement at the springs in terms of either flows or quality. The little amount of water gained would very likely be quickly and quietly allocated to other users.
If, on the other hand, the roughly 400 bottles of water needed to produce a single bottle of milk were put to better use, say returned to the springs, and the associated nutrient loading to groundwater due the fertilizers used to grow the feed, were thereby eliminated, there would be a near immediate improvement in both flow and quality of water at the springs. Milk production uses far more water and produces drastically more nutrient pollution than the production of water. The water saved by eliminating milk production would, therefore, take longer to re-allocate to new users and eliminate a huge portion of the nutrient pollution that is killing the springs as well.
Far more water is used for that purpose, and much more nutrient pollution is caused.
Eliminating the production of milk, for example, would also require more time to re-allocate to new users and would eliminate a substantial portion of the nutrient pollution that is killing the springs.
Nearly every drop of water extracted from the Floridan aquifer and not returned reduces spring flows by an equal amount. Certainly from the entirety of the state north of Orlando and Tampa, and regardless of what it’s used for, from water from household taps, watering lawns and golf courses, car washes, crop irrigation, production of milk, soda, energy drinks, and bottled water. Similarly, all the nutrient loading to groundwater west of central Orlando and Gainesville and south of Tallahassee flows to the springs and contributes to the explosive algae infestations, which no one wants to see become normal.
The problems plaguing Florida’s springs stem from these realities, regardless of whether the springs are enshrined as State Parks or privately owned. Florida’s springs need allies not rhetoric—allies who help to build the public support necessary to achieve the only actions that will restore and preserve spring flows and spring water quality: caps on groundwater consumption and dramatic reductions in nutrient loading.
Regardless of corporate culture, spring water bottlers’ economic self-interest is directly aligned with springs protection. Spring water cannot be treated and cannot be captured if there are no more springs. Spring water bottlers, therefore, rely on access to sustainable, high-quality spring water. It then follows that they, along with other like-minded entities, can be strong allies for springs protection. It’s time for Floridians to stop focusing on rhetoric that fails to yield even as little as a diminished rate of springs degradation. It’s time to start working toward real solutions anchored in the realities of water and nutrient budgets. The bottled water industry is not sucking Florida dry, but denial and political inaction are.
As an organization focused on sustaining the environmental quality and required to support healthy underwater ecosystems, our task must be to confront environmental problems from a perspective grounded in the realities of what will be needed to achieve our goal. We must work for what we know we want rather than against what we think we don’t want. And to be successful, we’re going to need as many allies as we can muster.
At Project Baseline, we should and will seek to engage with the people and organizations who share our goals, even if doing so is not palatable to some of our fellow conservationists. We should work with those entities and use our voices, our votes, and our wallets to foster the policies and the actions that are needed to restore and preserve the type of underwater world we want to dive in, be awed by, and pass along to the next generation of underwater explorers.
Project Baseline is a nonprofit organization that leverages their unique capacity to see how rapidly the underwater world is changing to advance restoration and protection efforts in the local environments we explore and love. Since 2009, Project Baseline has been systematically documenting changes in the underwater world to facilitate scientific studies and establish protection for these critical underwater environments.
Todd is a groundwater scientist, underwater explorer, and advocate for science-based conservation of water resources and aquatic environments. He holds BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in geology and hydrogeology, and is the founder of GeoHydros, a consulting firm specializing in the development of computer models that simulate groundwater flow through complex hydrogeologic environments. He has been an avid scuba diver since 1980, having explored, mapped, and documented caves, reefs, and wrecks across much of the world. Todd was instrumental in the founding of Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) in 1999 and served on its Board of Directors and as its Associate Director from its inception to 2018. Within the scientific and diving communities, Todd advanced the use of volunteer technical divers and the data they can collect in endeavors aimed at understanding, restoring, and protecting underwater environments and water resources. He started Project Baseline with GUE in 2009 and has been the organization’s Executive Director from its beginning. More on Todd at: LinkedIn and ResearchGate
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