So last month we talked about corals, what they are and why they are just so damn important to us. I thought this month we could talk about one of the things myself and the amazing team at New Heaven Reef Conservation Program do to help our wonderful corals, as they are facing many threats and stresses at the moment!
Something that sits very close to our hearts here at the program is the work we do with Artificial reefs. Nearly three years ago, when I first joined the program as a student I had absolutely no idea what an artificial reef was. I thought to myself; ‘Artificial reefs, is that a fake reef?! How is that going to help the pretty fishies?!’. As it turns out, that thought was entirely wrong and implementing an artificial reef is essentially attaching or ‘planting’ new corals onto solid man-made structures, to provide them with a stable base in order to grow into a new, larger coral colony.
I thought to myself; ‘Artificial reefs, is that a fake reef?!
How is that going to help the pretty fishies? As it turns out, that thought was entirely wrong
Implementing an artificial reef into the ocean involves of a few steps which I have simplified here:
- First we must build the artificial reef, often out of thick metal ‘rods’ that are bent into shapes appropriate for corals to grow from.
Structures built from concrete are also a stunning option that one of our staff members (Spencer Arnold) creates. He is certainly the artificial reef artist within our team and puts in many hours of work into creating structures that not only provide fantastic bases for new reefs, but are striking in themselves, and portray their own message about coral reefs.
- The second step is to get these structures into the water, which is always a team job usually involving loading them up onto our small barge and then dragging it to an appropriate area where we plan to build a new reef, before safely lowering them into the water.
- Once they are sitting on the substrate, we begin to transplant coral fragments onto the structures.
Corals are pretty sensitive little animals, and if there is ever a group of polyps (which we spoke about last month) which break off from a large colony, it is quite likely that the broken fragment will eventually die. These fragments are what we focus on rehabilitating onto our artificial reef sites. When we have a structure prepared and placed in the water ready to receive some coral restoration and lovin’, we search around the natural reef for these fragmented corals pieces which are still alive and bring them to our artificial site. Then, depending on the structure we have prepared we use either string, wire or epoxy (a substance that feels similar to play-dough but shortly sets to become as hard as concrete) to place corals onto the structure. When we do this we aim not to touch or interfere with the living coral tissue as much as possible, and ensure that it is set to our structure very securely- the less room there is for our coral to ‘jiggle’ around on the structure, the faster it will be able to encrust over our man-made item and begin to grow! Encrusting, by the way, is when the coral will grow new polyps over our string, wire or epoxy. After it does that it will begin to grow upward and out into a larger colony- it is a fantastic sign that our transplant has worked. This encrusting usually will take a few months to happen (remember, corals are very slow growing creatures!).
Artificial reef sites are so beneficial to reef ecosystems, and to humans for a number of reasons. Some of these include:
- Providing an alternative dive site to divers on our island and relieve diving pressure from natural reefs
- Providing more habitat for marine creatures, such as the juvenile butterfly fish who live amongst Acropora (branching) coral colonies for protection
- Expanding reef areas and increasing colonies, helping to make up those which are lost to coral predations, unskilled divers, anchors etc.
- Adding to coral reef ecosystems improves protection to local coastal communities as it provides protection from wild oceans, and also provides food for coastal communities that allow fishing
- Providing means of income to communities that rely on tourism for income
That points out some of the more obvious reasons why artificial reefs are so useful and helps us understand why they are such a popular method of reef conservation which is used globally. I hope you are now all as excited about artificial reefs as I am!
I will be spending the whole month of November back in Australia over Koh Tao’s monsoon season. So we are going to change up the topic a little bit and discuss sharks on a global scale, their threats, why they are so important to us and why we should care about them <3
Until then! xxx
All photography done by @ellehaskin