Researchers build new coral reef

Published on
March 30, 2021

Off the coast of Kenya, a one-thousand square metre coral reef was replaced over the last five years. By dragging their nets over the coral and even using explosives, fishers destroyed a large amount of coral in the past, which even caused it to disappear entirely in some areas. Wageningen University & Research scientists are collaborating successfully with the REEFolution foundation and the local community to reconstruct the reef.

Coral expert Roland Osinga and his students started literally collecting pieces of coral off the seabed off the coast at Shimoni village. They then grew the coral on an artificial structure. 'We now know that glass bottles embedded in concrete work well as a foundation', Osinga says. 'To me, seeing when a reef will grow and when not is very interesting.'

Slightly clean is clean enough

At the start of the project, students would dive down twice a week to clean the reconstructed coral with a toothbrush. 'Our research has now shown this is not necessary, says Professor of Marine Ecology Tinka Murk. 'Slightly clean is clean enough.'

The scientists expect it to take some two decades before the reef is fully grown and has developed its full biodiversity. A healthy reef has its own housekeeping: animals nibble the coral clean. Osinga: 'This is why having a properly developed biodiversity is so important. It makes the reef less vulnerable. If one species of fish falls ill, another species takes over the cleaning.' To boost the presence of fish, several types of smart reef structures, such as fish hotels, are placed. 

Future proof reef

Climate change elevates the water temperature, ultimately impacting the coral. Within biological parameters, scientists study the possibilities of constructing a future-proof reef. For example, they investigate whether placing the reef in the current or deeper to mitigate the effect of the sun may help.

Photo: Ewout Knoester​
Photo: Ewout Knoester​

REEFolution is not just interesting from a scientific perspective. In this project, scientists collaborate with the local community. Four local inhabitants have so far already been trained to conduct restorative work on the reef.

Alternative source of income

The collaboration goes even further. A healthy reef can improve the local community's livelihood in other ways than fishing alone. The area is awarded park status, which means it can be conserved, and entry fees may be collected from divers. Moreover, divers and other tourists can stay overnight in so-called stays and consume beverages made from locally grown seaweed.

Tourists also need to eat, which should not result in more fishing, and certainly not with trawl nets with an upright side. 'Turtles and dugongs (a type of manatee) can drown in them, and these are precisely the animals the tourists come to see', says Murk. The professor and her colleagues managed to convince the local fishers that a combination of closed areas and ecologically friendly fishing methods are best for all involved. ‚Äč