Monitoring the Reef Copy

As mentioned previously, to restore the reef, we must have a comprehensive understanding of the unique history and current forces at play for our location. We must understand the reef’s history to understand what is ‘normal’ for that area and the future trajectory for the sustainability and function of the ecosystem.

Often, we desire to restore the reef to its previous stable state, but how do we know what that state was? Furthermore, in the context of climate change, attempting to restore to a previous stable state might be impractical, as the changing conditions of the ocean may warrant restoring for future resilience rather than historical composition.

These are just some of the complications that come with conserving and restoring coral reefs, and the answers to these questions will be unique to each location. They will also change with each site at a particular location. So how to proceed?

It is vital to have a long-term coral monitoring program in place and to have been involved in the monitoring of reefs in your location for several years before implementing large-scale restoration programs.

You need to understand your reef deeply and on a large temporal; scale. Only then will you know what management interventions are needed and which restoration techniques to use other? Many effective techniques in one area may not be in another.

Every Reef is Different

For example, the goals and techniques used in the Caribbean are fundamentally different than many of those in the Indo-Pacific. In the Caribbean, Acropora corals have been put on the endangered species list, and most restoration programs focus on the species of Acropora corals present. They are primarily using asexual propagation in an attempt to save what is the last of the species.

This is done not out of concern for reef diversity and genetics but merely to do whatever is possible to prevent extinction.

However, when people see these techniques and try to replicate them in the Indo-Pacific they can be counterproductive for the reasons we covered earlier.

There is no reason to only focus on Acropora coral in the Indo-Pacific. On most reefs, there are enough naturally produced fragments that there is no need to introduce possible mechanisms for reproductive failure into the system by restricting genetic diversity through asexual propagation.

In short, we can learn from others, but we need to understand all of the nuances of our reef before beginning any intervention measures, as sometimes the best intentions can lead to more harm.

For our programs, we recommend the monitoring techniques found in the Conservation Diver Ecological Monitoring Program or EMP.

As you will recall, the EMP covers basic monitoring for the abundance and biodiversity of reef invertebrates, fish, and substrate types. Additionally, the EMP includes methods for collecting data on coral growth forms, genera, and health.  

However, if you are involved in restoration activities, you should have a deeper understanding than that, so we recommend that you achieve our Advanced EMP certification.

The EMP Manual includes a chapter on advanced survey techniques vital for reef managers.

After learning those basic techniques, you can start doing less frequent but more in-depth surveys to understand the population structure and recruitment rates on the reefs by assessing the coral size, fragment abundance, and recruitment.

Some of the additional monitoring methods that reef managers should be using include:

  • Coral Species Abundance/Diversity
  • Coral Diseases, Predation, Bleaching, and Compromised Health.
  • Recruitment Surveys
  • Coral Size Class Surveys
  • Photogrammetry

As you become proficient in these techniques and have established baseline data for your local reef, then the management interventions necessary for each site will become more apparent. Only then should you start implementing the restoration techniques in this course.

Achieving a Holistic Conservation Program

All the factors assessed during the EMP become important in a holistic conservation program.

From the fish and invertebrate surveys, you might identify specific predator or grazing species that are out of balance and understand how their ecological role affects other processes on the reef. Because all organisms are interconnected through their lifecycles and ecological roles, an increase or decrease in any species will have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem.

By tracking indicator species, you will understand the delicate and nuanced balances of the reef ecosystem and act to protect them. Although we focus on coral restoration, we need to take an ecological approach, restoring the corals because they are the foundation of the ecosystem, but not forgetting all other species that play an integral role in maintaining a healthy and functioning ecosystem.

Understanding the reef’s past and current health status will allow you to visualize its future trajectory and identify areas that require protection versus restoration.

Variation in the abundance of Drupella Snails (a) and Crown of Thorns Sea Stars (b) from 2006-2014, Koh Tao, Thailand. Full paper

Because you are working with limited manpower, funding, and resources, you will need to use triage-style thinking to decide where to focus your energy and attention when implementing active restoration projects.

As mentioned before, if your projects do not address the needs of the particular reef, they will, at best, fail and, at worst, lead to further degradation of the reef.

If the area does not have good water quality, then moving more corals into the area or building artificial reefs will not improve long-term coral abundance or reef resilience. If the reef is under multiple threats, then restoring to increase coral abundance may fail if diversity is not also increased. This is why the importance of ongoing and long-term monitoring cannot be overstated.

If a program is not doing long-term monitoring, then it should not be involved in any restoration activities.

Also important is to know if management interventions are achieving their desired goal. For this reason, it is imperative to implement long-term monitoring programs on the natural reefs and in every stage of your restoration work. When establishing your monitoring plan, ensure that you have reference sites similar to the restored area, against which results can be compared over time. Since you should already be familiar with reef monitoring through the EMP, the following sections will cover how to monitor corals in your nurseries, artificial reefs, and those transplanted to natural reef areas.