Greetings ELI friends and family. It was a busy November for me, and I do apologize for my irregular appearances on the Blog. “What’s been keeping you so busy Sam?” Well it’s funny you should ask, because I was planning to write about it. And the answer is our coral farming project.
If you’ve never heard about coral farming, the best way to think about is by imagining an underwater garden. Coral fragments, whether carefully collected from donor colonies or picked up off the sea floor, are reared in an underwater nursery. The style of nursery design ELI plans to use is known as a Fixed Rope Nursery (I’ve attached a drawing of one below to help you visualize it). Metal bar tables are secured into the sea bed, and ropes are strewn from one side to the other. The ropes are twisted and unwound enough to insert the coral fragment into the rope, which is then released and secures the fragment into place as it assumes its original tension. After growing for about 9 – 15 months (depending on the species of coral), the fragments are transplanted into the surrounding reef, becoming permanent fixtures in the aquatic ecosystem and helping to restore reef cover.
“Well this sounds pretty cool, Sam, but why do this?” One can always, of course, make the argument that our leaders should protect the environment for the sake of protecting the environment. But as an island-nation, the country and people of Mauritius truly depend on a sustained healthy environment. Coral reefs serve a critical role in the growth and stability of local aquatic ecosystems, providing habitats for a diverse range of biodiversity. These habitats in turn act as a key engine for socio-economic welfare. Healthy coral reefs in Mauritius significantly contribute to tourism, fisheries, and shoreline protection, all three of which are vital aspects of the country’s prosperity.
All this value is jeopardized by the loss of coral reef cover, which has significantly declined in recent decades worldwide due to a combination of pollution and acidification, coral blasting and dredging, sedimentation, overfishing, warming ocean temperatures, and mass bleaching events. A recent study by the World Resources Institute expects that, if current trends continue, 75% of global reefs are threatened with destruction, and Mauritius is no exception. In Mauritius, “the entire lagoon is considered as environmentally sensitive due to the vulnerability of coral reef, sea-grass, and algae beds.” However reefs in Mauritius have been the most seriously impacted due to recurring climate-induced bleaching, or when warming temperatures or acidity cause the coral to die. In recent years some lagoon reefs have even lost more than 50%-60% of their live coral cover. Such an unchecked loss in reef cover threatens to jeopardize the Mauritian industries and citizens that rely on their sustained health.
In recognition of these threats to human and environmental well-being, ELI Africa has decided to construct a coral nursery that nurtures coral fragments to facilitate the growth and expansion of coral cover in at-risk areas in Mauritius, specifically in the deeper part of the lagoon of Trou aux Biches.
Trou aux Biches is a popular tourist destination in Mauritius, and much of its revenue is derived from coastal eco-tourism, especially scuba diving. There is a significant population of artisanal fishermen from the local community, and many restaurants or roadside food stands rely on locally caught fish to populate their menus. Establishing a coral nursery here will promote sustainable fisheries and ecosystem health, protect local biodiversity, and sustain and improve the local economy and livelihoods. ELI Africa want the local community, much of whom is dependent on the reefs, to have greater economic and food security for the future. As well, the project plans to involve students from our education centers in the creation of the nurseries, and will use the project as an experiential teaching tool for our students to learn about marine ecosystems and society.
Ultimately, we expect to enhance the socio-economic well-being of the Trou aux Biches community by protecting and restoring the biodiversity of the local marine ecosystem. The creation and maintenance of a coral nursery will eventually enable the transplantation of up to 5,000 reared coral fragments into damaged and degraded local reefs. It’s important to note that coral farming, which is a form of “reef rehabilitation,” should really be considered a last resort by leaders and activists. It is critical the pollution and sedimentation be reduced, harmful fishing practices banned, and efforts be made to slow the warming of the oceans. These are the major factors causing reefs to die around the world, and likely soon with them the communities that depend upon them. If a dam is beginning to break, it is imperative the the cracks and holes be plugged and filled, but the best thing to do for the long haul is to build a new dam. We believe that our coral farming project can make a positive impact on the local ecosystem and community, but Mauritian leaders must take serious action to tackle the systemic root problems causing reef degradation.
And now that you understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how me mean to accomplish our goals, permit me to conclude by telling you who we are going to be collaborating with. Since I came to Mauritius, I have been meeting with stakeholders relevant to this project: Pamela Bapoo-Dundoo of the United Nations Development Programme, Dr. Ruby Moothien-Pillay of the Mauritius Oceanography Institute, Director Daroomalingum Mauree of the Ministry of Fisheries, Paul Latimer of the Mauritius Underwater Group, Vellin Burton of Atlantis Diving Center, Clifford Meunier, a local boat operator and fisherman in Trou aux Biches… everyone across the spectrum has been approached.
Not all of it was fun. Months of meetings, application drafts, site assessments, more application drafts, and of course the pleasures of developing-world government and bank bureaucracies. But it was absolutely worth it in the end…
I am proud to announce that ELI Africa has received a grant for $50,000 from the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme to fund our coral farming project until December 2014. Although still a bit stunned, it’s quite an amazing feeling to know that we are going to be able to make a true and meaningful impact on improving Mauritius’s environment and community well-being for the next two years (although as I am leaving in June 2013, please inform qualified candidates you know to get in touch with us about leading the project after my departure). And I am also thrilled to announce that we will be partnering with the Mauritius Oceanography Institute, the premier experts on any and everything aquatic in the country, throughout the entire project. They’ve been conducting coral farming projects for the past several years, and their scientific and technical knowledge ensures that our initiative in Trou aux Biches has the greatest chance for success. I can’t wait to update you all on this in the coming months. Sea you later.