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Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching

by Corals for Conservation
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Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching
Emergency Response to Mass Coral Bleaching
Oct 11, 2021

Unrelenting Emergency for Corals: Lessons Learned

Planting heat adapted corals for the nursery
Planting heat adapted corals for the nursery

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I begin with the powerful visual of NOAA graph which show we are further over the cliff than most of us realize. Kiritimati (Christmas Island) was the most intensive ocean temperatures of anywhere in history it seems, although only for ten months.  This is not surprising, since the area lies directly on the equator. Kiribati is now clearly the leading edge in what is predicted to be the collapse of coral reefs globally from climate change.  Kiribati is therefore the place to learn as many lessons as possible in our race to help prevent this mass die off of corals on other reefs globally. 
 
Thanks to all of our donors for bringing our shared concern for the health and the future of coral reefs to the forefront by donating your time and dollars.  In the news phrases appear like: the hottest July ever recorded, rain falling in Greenland where formerly snow only was seen, Antarctica's iceshelf rapidly melting--so much so that the fresh water is weakening ocean currents, and mention of an astounding heatwave in Siberia.  What's next?  Yes, some glimpses of the future stresses upon the earth are already visible, like receding glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas exposing bare ground and ultimately taking away the water resource for many peoples.
Yet corals are painted in a softer pallet and they lie beneath the surface where most people can't observe critical changes.  Formerly common corals have become rare and even locally extinct, depriving colorful reef fish of homes and impacting indigenous communities which survive by grace off the coral reef.  
Backstory of Corals Endangered from Bleaching
Over five years ago, I reached out to you in the face of an unpredented coral bleaching emergency.  Here we are years later with more coral gardeners toiling earnestly around the globe, but emergency is still in the title--the state of urgency has not been alleviated.
Searching for super corals among the dead corals
The story of Kiribati and the 2015-2016 mass bleaching is where we started, and where scientists are learning what the future might be and how to better preserve reef diversity.  The saddest part of the tale is had we only known the waters would be so hot as to cause fish die-offs, then we could have moved precious corals to cooler, deeper areas.  Now that lesson is learned, and with your help, the fight continues to do just that--acting the sooner the better to protect and preserve threatened coral beds.
With Larval Dispersal Compromised, Reefs need Help to Reproduce
Many species of Acropora corals have been lost from the Line Islands, Kiribati, since the 2016 severe ten-month mass bleaching event, the most intense bleaching event ever recorded in the NOAA data series.  With no reefs directly upcurrent, where larvae might recruit from, these locally
extinct species have little chance of returning unassisted- within my lifetime at least. Surviving remnants are so few and far apart that sexual reproduction has obviously failed. Could a similar problem be emerging for other reefs globally, especially at the fringes of present coral
distribution, and for reefs likewise isolated from upcurrent coral larval sources?
Of the Acropora species originally found on Kiritimati (Christmas) Atoll, after several years of searching, we have found a total of 5 acropora species persisting, out of 13 original species. Two of the Acropora species, *A. globiceps* and *A. retusa*, have in recent years been recognized and listed as threatened corals internationally.
Second Generation Fragments Replanted into Multi-Genetic Patches
We have collected samples of all the surviving Acropora species that could be found on the atoll, however only a few genotypes are available for some species.  Using the sampled fragments, we have created a coral nursery in a sheltered area with good water flow.  Adult colonies now are growing and likely spawning seasonally in the nursery, and second generation fragments have also been replanted into multi-genetic patches on the reef, in hopes of re-booting successful spawning and natural recovery processes. We predict that these survivors are more bleaching resistant than those corals which died. The Kiritimati case study is included as chapter 17 of the new book, "Active Coral Restoration, Techniques for a Changing Planet", edited
by Dr. David Vaughn.
Measure Success by Securing Diversity and Resilience
In the new climate change realities that we now face, I believe that coral reef restoration must become more focused on endangered species recovery and on nurturing bleaching resistance and disease resistance among diverse corals, as well as restoring sexual reproduction, so that natural adaptive
processes are encouraged. 
 Rather than "upscaling" restoration based on the numbers of fragments planted per square meter, I think we should measure success based on securing diversity and resilience within declining or threatened coral species, helping secure and restore reproductive and ecologically functioning coral populations, which in turn facilitate
natural recovery processes. We can not replant the whole reef, and we must ask ourselves if what we replant today will survive a rapidly warming world?  Are we imposing a technology on the reef system that will increase coral cover now, but that is ultimately doomed when mass bleaching hits, or are we working to increase bleaching resistance within the coral population that will hopefully spread, buying us precious time, while the world
struggles to bring climate change under control?
Lesson Learned:  Move Coral Samples to Cooler Waters Now
Most importantly, I think that we now need to invest energy into ensuring long term survival of our most resilient coral populations, which may already exist at the upper limit of thermal tolerance.  Unfortunately, Kiribati shows us that these most resistant corals are just as vulnerable
to mass bleaching events, as the shallow lagoon waters can become superheated and exceed the maximum heat threshold of all corals.  If we had only gotten to Kiritimati Atoll before the bleaching induced mass die-off in 2015-16, we might have saved multiple genotypes of the most resistant corals of the lagoon from local extinction- simply by moving coral samples
out to cooler waters near the passes and establishing them within 
nurseries.   But alas, the entire population of bleaching resistant corals died out when the water became so hot that even the fish died.  Just imagine a large lagoon covered in thickets of dead and standing staghorn and massive corals- all we could find alive after a day of searching was one small colony of foliose Montipora.
Race Against Time in Fiji:  Capitalize on Time-Sensitive Opportunity
Learning from this tragedy, in Fiji we now focus on identifying hot pockets on the reef and inshore that are near the upper limit of thermal tolerance, and sampling those corals, moving them out to cooler water nurseries where even in severe condition two bleaching, temperatures will never go above the threshold for these specific corals.  But this is a race against time, and ours is only a tiny effort when compared to the scale of the reefs and the numbers of nearshore and shallow lagoon hot pockets in Fiji, the region, and globally.  Unless this is recognized as a time sensitive opportunity, within a decade, most of these heat adapted coral populations will be gone.

Even if we can solve the climate crisis with massive changes in production and consumption, unless coral restoration efforts can begin to visualize conditions 10-20 or even 30 years into the future, will they succeed? Based on clear trends, many of the Acropora species that we are working with now will likely be the first to go, becoming threatened species or locally extinct in our lifetimes.  Right now, we continue to have a range of species and genotypes with broad thermal and disease tolerances to work with.  But as the die-offs arrive, unless heat adapted corals that are
presently living near their upper thermal limits are secured, we stand to lose much of this diversity of resilience that is so important to long term coral reef survival.

Our team of volunteers, lead by Indigenous marine biologists, Sara Makutu and Merekeleni Tinai are in the field, at our Plantation Island Resort partnership site, working hard six days a week to carry forward the work to create a model coral reef adaptation for climate change site (recent photos attached).  We will welcome self-funded researchers and students to join us in our sites, once the planes start flying again in this region--maybe this November?  For those searching for a topic along the lines of ecological restoration or facilitated adaptation, we have a long list of research questions that might help pin down a research topic of global relevance.  
For all of you who labor and give to sustain corals, you merit the thanks of our shared planet,

Vinaka,

Austin
October team over a gene bank nursery
October team over a gene bank nursery
Overgrown nursery prior to trimming
Overgrown nursery prior to trimming
Nuku reef, our most pristine remaining site
Nuku reef, our most pristine remaining site
One of many new restoration sites
One of many new restoration sites
Trimmed heat-resistant corals for out-planting
Trimmed heat-resistant corals for out-planting
Our Fiji model site for coral reef adaptation!
Our Fiji model site for coral reef adaptation!
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Corals for Conservation

Location: Samabula - Fiji
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Project Leader:
Austin Bowden-Kerby
Samabula, Fiji
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