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Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching

by Corals for Conservation
Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Massive Coral Bleaching

Image may contain: 3 people, including Austin Bowden-Kerby, people smiling, people sitting, outdoor, water and natureThe World Surf League provided flights for our own world-famous coral gardener, Dr. Austin Bowden-Kerby, in this week's effort to help a youth group restore a coral reef in French Polynesia.  Here's Austin (in the red scarf) with a group of surfers and the Moorea Coral Gardeners, having the time of his life on the most beautiful island, just being one of the kids helping to save the reef.

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, mountain, sky, cloud, outdoor and nature

World-class surfers, several in the photo above, love and respect coral reefs and they want to help.  Once the surfing community found out about Austin's scientific expertise in restoring damaged and threatened coral reefs, he was brought in to train this group of coral advocates in new methods.  Suffice it to say, it is many nautical miles from Fiji to Moorea via NZ and Tahiti.  Austin was able to send this field report & reflections while the coral cuts were fresh, and a few tears of gratitude still flowed.  Here's the newsflash from Sofitel Moorea la Ora Beach Resort:

I am leaving today by boat to Tahiti, to visit another group for training in coral gardening.  Then leave at 2 am tonight for Fiji via NZ.  The trip has been exhausting but incredible. The group gave me a beautiful black pearl that one of their parents had farmed as a going away present. 

Moorea is the most beautiful island I have ever been to. This group has amazing energy but had never been trained, and so were a bit limited in what they were doing with the corals, but very receptive to new ideas and methods.  Twenty or so mostly volunteer staff, over half indigenous, the others mostly French, and in their mid to early 20's and late teens. Among them several Internet whizzes and film makers to produce promotional materials. They get funded by tourism and their parents, they have a steady stream of paying visitors, and they sell t-shirts etc.   I am worn out from the work, pretty much all day in the water, and a hundred small coral cuts.   
The main outcome of the trip is that the group will now be focused on collecting bleaching resistant corals from the very hot pockets- the nearshore shallows- as there are still some of the now rare acropora corals but very few and far between. 
I showed them how to build A-frame nurseries, rope nurseries, and coral cookie nurseries. I also implemented a new and very exciting method for the table acropora species, "coral garland", which translates well into French- 'coral couran' not sure of the spelling.   It reinforces the local Pacific culture of making flower garlands for loved ones.  The method uses 1cm or even more tiny microfragments which trim off so easily from the edge of the colonies--and those are woven into thin polyfilament twine.  After several days the frags are very happy looking. The method is much less damaging on the source colony and I think growth should be amazing.  
Okay it is nearly dawn and I have ten 'mother' corals to cement to their bases, because I have to leave here at 8am.....  Thankfully, the Coral Gardeners headquarters is right on the ocean.  I will be back on the farm for five days and then off to Tuvalu, thanks to Global Giving donors.  Then back to Fiji for international workshop I am giving in Fiji, with trainees coming from Papua New Guinea, Samoa, New Caledonia, Australia, and Fiji.    
Yesterday was my last full day here on Moorea, so lots of time in the water.  I am beginning to suffer from coral cuts and tiredness, but the work needs to get done. We went to a sand bank where the tourists feed the stingrays and got very up close and personal with them, stroking them and they ate from our hands.  At one point I picked up a shell and a seabird {black-capped tern} thought it was food and bit my hand which started to bleed- then the sharks suddenly appeared - in came three of them to check out the blood.... a bit too close for comfort, but the photographers who were in the water were so stoked.  This will hopefully all be on the World Surf League website.  
Vinaka... loloma levu, Austin
Feature from Fiji Times Image may contain: 2 people
I invite you to click on links about coral gardening, World Surf League's PURE effort supporting coral work, and the United Nations Environment link backing community action to protect coral reefs worldwide.  Global Giving will be promoting our Corals for Conservation project and their other Climate Action Fund winning groups during the upcoming United Nations Climate week starting September 23rd. 
You all do so much for us with your commitment to protecting the reefs from the consequences of the quickening pace of climate change and other threats.  You do so much when you share your love through gifts and by your positive thinking-- to restore Austin's energy after a grueling fight for the reefs we love!
Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor, nature and water


Greetings to all of our supporters. 

An amazing event happened in late May, that continues to affect the coral work even now.  We convinced Plantation Island Resort to sponsor an emergency response to the mass bleaching in the form of a training workshop. Thirty-three participants gathered: 14 resort staff, 17 NGO staff, two community representatives, and a Fiji Government Fisheries Department representative, all eager to learn how to do something about the mass bleaching affecting the Mamanuca Islands reefs.  The resort covered dorm accommodation, meals, venues, and boats. The community also provided a boat, helping make the event low cost and effective. It was an amazing gesture of dedication and service to the environment.  

Participants learned about coral restoration ecology, coral nursery methods, coral predator removal, as well as how to select bleaching resistant corals for the reef restoration work. A new 'super coral' nursery was established, and an A-frame method was introduced, a first for Fiji. The week was interesting, exciting, and a whole lot of fun for everyone. 

Participants even worked hard to produce and upload a short film of the workshop, link below.  Discussions were lively, and included the desire to work more closely together in our efforts in the coming years, to make the Mamanuca Islands a model coral reef adaptation site for bleaching resistance.  A follow up workshop and additional training is planned for September.  Participants from Australia, the Maldives, and Papua New Guinea have expressed interest in coming for the September training- so that we can spread this hopeful strategy even further.

I am off to Tuvalu next week for another coral workshop and to build another super coral nursery there, made possible by your generous donations. We have been able to do so much more than we had ever dreamed possible thanks to this outpouring of support. 

Blessings and light to you all,



Coral Gardeners building a
Coral Gardeners building a 'fish house' with guest

Coral bleaching has hit our Fiji sites. The hot Southern hemisphere summer is coming to an end, but it has taken a toll on our corals.  The ocean water temperature got to 33C (90F) in the nearshore reefs and 30C (87F) on the outer cooler reefs.  Many of the corals became badly stressed and lost their symbiotic algae and turned white, and some of those are now dead or dying, on both nearshore and outer reefs.  However, on the positive side many corals did not bleach at all- they have shown themselves to be bleaching resistant 'super corals'.  This is very encouraging.

Last year we trained 18 coral gardeners, two who are now employed full-time by Plantation Island Resort. These coral gardeners, Sera and Merekelini, were rather horrified by the bleaching, which was their first experience with so many corals dying.  Some of the corals they had established in the nurseries are now badly bleached, and some have died.  But I am thankful that this happened early on in their coral gardening careers, as they now know how important selection for heat tolerance really is!  The girls have been busy collecting newly-killed corals for use in an educational display, rather than having this sadness be for nothing.  And because the super corals are clearly identified now, we are making plans to sample as many of the unbleached corals as possible- to bring  bits of them into the nursery- to replace the dead and bleached corals.  The bleached corals that are still alive will be repanted to cooler water reefs to observe if they recover.

We have invited the resorts from around the Malolo district to send trainees for an emergency training on 13-17 May. Two scientists from the Australian NGO, People for Ocean, will be joining us as volunters and staying on for four months, and Sea Stewardship, a newly registered conservation NGO in Kiribati, who have a 70-foot sailboat that can sleep eleven, has also come on board. The resort has offered their 20-person dorm, plus free meals and boats for the workshop, and so we will be developing a major expansion of the coral work, to quickly collect as many samples from the super corals as possible and to establish them in resorts and communirty sites throughout the Mamanuca Islands.  We are using this bleaching as a warning call to push the coral work to a level yet unseen in the South Pacific.             

In addition to all the activity and stress caused by the bleaching, a team of four from Netherlands TV visited us in the site three days ago to film the bleaching and especially to record the super corals, and their footage includes our coral gardeners and the nurseries, we will be included in a four part series on climate change to be aired in Europe in four languages: Dutch, English, French, and German.  We are becoming a ray of light and hope in all of this darkness- and you are part of that.  

The Fiji work is indeed progressing quickly, with most expenses now covered by the tourism industry, and with additional resorts now coming on board and hiring the university graduates that we have recently trained, expanding this amazing and important coral work.  However, we continue to rely on your donations through GlobalGiving for the vital Kiribati and Tuvalu work, coral reefs in grave trouble there.  Remember that Kiribati suffered the loss of 99% of their corals- the hot water that lasted for just 2-3 months in Fiji in 2018-19, lasted for 5-6 months in Kiribati and for four months in Tuvalu, and the hot water is expected to return to Kiribati in June/July.  In 2014-15 the bleaching lasted for 15 months straight in Kiribati- but even though these are the most impacted coral reefs on the planet, there has been no follow up or monitoring by anyone at all, except for us, meager though it be.  Now with the Sea Stewardship partnership and their large sailboat, we have the potential to visit each of the atolls of Kiribati and Tuvalu for assessment and to create gene bank nurseries in association with the communities. Anything that has survived will be the strongest of the strong. Thus-far we have projects on only two atolls out of the 42 atolls of Kiribati and Tuvalu. We will continue to look for more funding, and we have gotten one small grant in additon to the GG funds, and Tuvalu government has matched our funds there.

So we remain dependent on and greatly thankful to our donors, who keep the project alive, without which we would not have made any of this progress.  Expenses at C4C are low, as no one in or organization is on salary- and there is no overhead.  I am attaching the detailed report on our Kiribati coral nursery, updated from the December 2018 trip.  

In closing, we have just three days left (till 29th April) in a GlobalGiving climate change challenge. If you would consider giving another even small donation to the project, all donations are matched 50% during this period. Plus if we win the challenge (based on numbers of donors, not amount given), we will gain a significant award and will be promoted to the staff of some large companies, and will also appear prominently on the GG website. 

Vinaka vakalevu!   

Bleached corals and super corals in the nursery
Bleached corals and super corals in the nursery
Super corals in the nursery at one year.
Super corals in the nursery at one year.
Bleaching reef, but some corals are not bleached!
Bleaching reef, but some corals are not bleached!
Bleached coral with an unbleached super coral
Bleached coral with an unbleached super coral
Hot water testing site >35C- all but one bleached
Hot water testing site >35C- all but one bleached


Super Corals moved from hot pockets to cool water
Super Corals moved from hot pockets to cool water

The mass bleaching continues unabated for the Gilbert Island chain, Kiribati, with the deep ocean waters over 35C or 95F since September, and most of the corals will now likely have died.  But the sad thing is that no one has checked- there is no program- there is no plan.  This is a natural disaster hidden below the waves and out of sight.  We hope to do something, but are focusing on saving corals at this time, not on recording dead ones- it is so frustrating- like being a single medic in the midst of a massive battle. 

The Line Islands, also part of Kiribati, experienced a 14-month bleaching in 2015-16, and >95% of their corals died, and we are the only ones working to bring those corals back.  We last travelled there in December, on our fifth trip, and wonderful things are beginning to happen with the nursery work there.  I will report on that work next time, and perhaps some on the Fiji work as well, or maybe write some extra reports. But for this report, I report on something even more important.  

In September, I begin the coral adaptation work on Funafuti Atoll, funded by the government of Tuvalu.  Afterwards, in October, reports of bleaching began to come in.  However, the government budget was all spent, so they could not pay my way back so soon.  In November, funded by you through GlobalGiving, I travelled once more to Tuvalu, to the great surprise of government officials, who willingly provided boats and materials.  The Ministry of Fisheries and the traditional Kapule chiefs sent helpers for training, and it was a alot of fun.  Wonderful lunches were provided by the Ridge to Reef program, while GlobalGiving covered the airfare from Fiji and helped with accommodation costs.  Corals for Conservation, as always, provided the leadership and traing at no cost. 

The coral reefs are indeed badly stressed with hot water, with temperatures of 33C recorded for the main lagoon, but fortunately most corals remained in a state of less severe bleaching, with most only partially bleached. But the bleaching since November has gotten worse, as expected based on reports.  Local capacity has been built. 

The emergency work on Funafuti focused on identifying hot pockets of water in the shallowest parts of the lagoon, and collecting samples of each unbleached coral found there, for re-loaction to cooler water nurseries. 

Our experience on Christmas Island taught us that despite these corals located in the the hot pockets being the most bleaching resistant of all the corals, surviving in temperatures of 37-38 unbleached, the mass bleaching event can bring temperatures over 40C = 104F in the shallows, which is too hot for even the most resistant of the corals to survive.  So the trip was a coral rescue mission.  We were able to secure about 400 genotypes of branching corals in this manner.  

Fortunately there are no Crown of Thorns starfish to worry about on these atolls, only some coral-eating Drupella snails, which can not reach the nursery ropes.

A second objective of the trip was to trial iron treatments- as a way of raising bleaching thresholds, as atoll environments are extremely low in iron, which weakens the corals.  Two sections of reef were treated with slow-release iron chelate. The corals brought in to the nurseries were also treated in an iron chelate solution for an hour, as recommended by aquarium experts as a means of lessening bleaching caused by the stress of moving the corals during a period of warm waters and high uv.  

The government has refilled their coffers and have now promiosed to pay my way back to Tuvalu in March for two weeks of follow up on Funafuti and expanding the nurseries to three additional atolls.  I am eager to get back and to see how the nurseries are faring in the bleaching, and if the iron treatments have helped reduce coral mortality. 

It is obvious that we greatly need traing in these countries for monitoring and coral adaptation programs, as well as a well funded multi-decade coral focused adaptation program.  If these waters were USA or French territories, I can imagine that at the very least, monitoring would be taking place, and the seriousness of the bleaching and mass coral death would be reported.  

But on the positive side, I was on BBC radio last week, and also on ABC TV Australia and Radio Australia- speaking about this work and the seriousness of the bleaching- and all in one week!   I have added the links below. 

The mass bleaching is now predicted to hit Samoa and Fiji by late March and April, and it is frustrating and scary, and I am feeling far too alone.  But please know this: what we are doing is paving the way- proving methods and strategies that will one day benefit the coral reefs everywhere.  I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your assistance. 


Cooler water nursery filled with super corals
Cooler water nursery filled with super corals
Tuvalu's first 'super coral' nursery
Big staghorn coral thickets beginning to bleach
Big staghorn coral thickets beginning to bleach
Bright blue colors, a sign of bleaching
Bright blue colors, a sign of bleaching


Dear Friends,

Yet another mass coral bleaching emergency has emerged on the equator north of Fiji, and has already hit the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, and is now moving south into Tuvalu.  By February the severe coral bleaching will likely reach PNG, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, and other islands and reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia as well as man of Indonesia's reefs. 

This is the third major Pacific-wide mass bleachig event in the past four years.  It seems that we have entered new territory- over a tipping point for coral reefs.  An animated graphic of the bleaching forcast can be found at this link. 

Despite two severe mass bleaching events back to back, and two proposals I have submitted to begin the coral work on the Great Barrier Reef, the funding needed to assist that area has not yet been found. The donors decided instead to fund 3-D printed artificial reefs, giant fans to cool the waters, cloud brightening, and robots to spread coral larvae around, rather than coral restoration methods proven to work, focusing on protecting and propagating the few bleaching resistant coral survivors.

However we refuse to be discouraged, and in a new development, the Government of Tuvalu recently funded our project.  In September, a new coral nursery was established on Funafuti Atoll, and filled with bleaching resistant corals taken from hot pockets in lagoons and extreme shalow areas of the reef.  Staff from the Fisheries and Environment ministries were trained and the work continues even in my absence.  I have offered to return next month to assist Tuvalu, and I have already purchased tickets to Christmas Island Kiribati to prepare our coral nursery there for the approaching bleaching, and to rescure corals from vulnerable reef flats that we expect might will get far too hot for anything to survive by January. 

We are also trialing a new technque which shows great promise in actually preventing bleaching- treating the corals with Iron Chelate- which helps prevent the formation of toxic oxygen in the cells during the hot water event.  Hopefully the resuts will come in early enough to share the technique to prepare corals on the Great Barrier Reef and Fiji etc for the forcast Februray/March mass bleaching. 

Your donations help make this work possible..... and so we thank you from the bottom of our hearts!   Hopefully we will get the support we need from grants by next year- but in the mean time- it has been YOU who have been so critical in saving the coral reefs. 

Vinaka Vakalevu


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Corals for Conservation

Location: Samabula - Fiji
Facebook: Facebook Page
Project Leader:
Austin Bowden-Kerby
Samabula, Fiji
$44,995 raised of $75,000 goal
443 donations
$30,005 to go
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