STONY CORAL OUTPLANTING 101
Today we are taking detailed look at our coral restoration process. When we return corals to the wild it is referred to as “outplanting”. This can be a confusing term because corals are animals and we do not think of planting animals but because they are sedentary the term fits the physical action of securing coral fragments to the reef with epoxy. This fall we have been incredibly successful with our outplanting efforts. In just the month of November, we were able to outplant 2172 corals. So how exactly do we get this many corals back onto the reef?
Freshly outplanted staghorn coral fragments marked by their genotype tag on Florida's Coral Reef. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
First stop on an outplanting day are one of our 3 coral production nurseries. The corals we return to the wild begin growing as small, finger sized fragments in our Coral Trees™ and after 6-9 months the corals are about the size of a basketball ready to be harvested and returned to the reef!
CRF™ cares for 7 open ocean coral nurseries, the largest of which covers 1.5 acres of seafloor. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
Our dive teams gather corals by carefully fragmenting them from our Coral Trees™. They take fragments about the size of a hand for staghorn and palm-size for elkhorn. Then, they make sure to sort them into clusters of 30-50 corals of one genotype. Corals of the same genotype are outplanted together so they can fuse into one giant colony as they grow!
Once we reach our restoration site it is go time. Our restoration associates and interns will often spend two or three dives outplanting! The process sounds simple but certainly takes training and skill. We use 2 slightly different outplanting methods for our Acroporid branching corals. To outplant staghorn corals, we clear 3 points of attachment on the existing coral structure. For elkhorn corals we only need to clear one point of attachment meaning we can typically outplant elkhorn corals faster than staghorn corals.
To outplant staghorn we need three points of attachment on the reef structure. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
To create these points of attachment we scrape algae off of the existing coral heads using the flat side of a hammer. This exposes the bare limestone skeleton where coral naturally adheres and grows. Then we grab our two-part marine epoxy, mix it together to activate it, and place Hershey kiss shaped mounds on each of the cleared attachment sites. Next, we gently push the coral into the epoxy, and the final, most crucial step is the wave test! We wave our hands over the coral creating a powerful direct wave to test that we’ve securely attached the coral to the reef. If a coral fails the wave test the process begins again until that coral passes!
Staghorn corals returned to Florida's Coral Reef by CRF™ ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
While most of the corals we outplant are Acroporids (staghorn and elkhorn), we also outplant 2 species of boulder corals! Outplanting boulder corals is a different process altogether. Instead of cutting down fragments from trees, we take boulder corals that are growing on limestone disks that are about 1 inch in diameter. Once at the reef, we clear the algae from a limestone boulder structure and secure all the coral fragments close together. Instead of waiting hundreds of years for a small plug to grow to the size of a large head the placement of hundreds of small fragments that can fuse together introduces living tissue on top of old coral skeletons in a matter of years.
CRF™ currently outplants 2 species of boulder coral, Orbicella annularis and Orbicella faveolata. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
Arguably, the most important part of our work comes after the outplanting has been completed. We need to monitor each coral! To do this we take an initial photomosaic the day the corals are outplanted, called our “time zero mosaic”. We will revisit each site at one month and one year to track coral growth, survivorship, fusion, and overall ecosystem health over time!
And there you have it, a beginner's guide to coral restoration! And you are in luck, if what we just described sounds like something you would be interested in trying out, you can join us for a public dive program where we bring our community into the water with us to learn about and participate in active coral restoration! We also published a series of white papers to share the lessons we have learned since our founding in 2007 and the standard operating procedures that we have in place. The hope is that this information will be useful to others, especially to those who seek to implement successful reef restoration programs at a large scale.
RESOURCES FOR YOU
In the absence of an in-person meeting in 2021, the Coral Restoration Consortium (CRC) is hosting this FREE two-part virtual gathering - Part 1 will launch on Tuesday, December 14, 2021 and Part 2 will launch on Thursday, December 16, 2021.
After a 2 year hiatus, Raise the Reef, the CRF™ annual gala, is back!
Our most glamorous night of the year is also our most important, join us on March 19th 2022 and #raisethereef
Tickets and sponsorship opportunities are now available!
"Bringing It Back" Editorial Interns
"Bringing it Back" Editorial Intern
Tom grew up in Palm Springs, CA and knew he wanted to be an environmentalist from an early age. His interest in the natural world was fueled by frequent trips to the beaches, deserts, and forests of the West Coast. Tom recently graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in Marine Biology and a minor in Conservation Biology. He entered the marine realm after taking his first conservation class and learning about how vulnerable coral reefs are to climate change. He started diving in the Channel Islands and became a scientific diver to research algae while on a quarter abroad in Mo’orea, French Polynesia. While abroad, he experienced the degradation of coral reefs firsthand. Tom is very excited to work with CRF™ to make a positive impact on coral reefs and inspire people to take action to tackle the upcoming climate crisis.
Madalen Howard is CRF's Marketing Associate. Madalen comes to CRF™ via a winding road from the Tennessee hills, to the South Carolina low country, ending here in Florida’s Coral Reef. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Marine Biology and a Minor in Environmental Studies from the College of Charleston in 2016. Her experience ranges from field research to education, and communications.
Madalen spent the last 4 years as a Field Instructor and Social Media Strategist for MarineLab Environmental Education Center. Here she was able to study and teach marine ecology, while snorkeling through mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs every day. While at MarineLab she combined her education and research background, entered the world of communications, and developed MarineLab’s social media department from the ground up.
Throughout her life Madalen has had a skill connecting people with nature. With CRF™, she is excited to bring people into the world of coral restoration, creating inclusive pathways to scientific discovery.