On a bright and dry Wednesday, Amelia and I journeyed down to Stuart Cove’s (one of the only dive outfits in the region) and assisted the lovely Eddy from The Nature Conservancy in the construction of coral propagation trees. Up early, we sped West and South, and set up shop on the wooden dock by Eddy’s small boat.
Some things to know here would be: what coral is, why we need to propagate it, how it’s propagated, and why the hell two people studying sustainable tourism were playing around with PVC pipes for a whole day instead of conducting interviews. Well, who’s to say we weren’t doing that too?
Coral is a warm-water marine organism that grows over calcium carbonate substrate, also building up that substrate, much like the way humans build bone. Coral share a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae (best word ever, besides crepuscular): small microbiotic algae that use sunlight and the polyp’s waste products to make oxygen and food. These substances leak into the surrounding tissues of the polyp and can provide up to 98% of the polyp’s dietary requirements.. This relationship is crucial – while both can survive briefly without the other, the amount of energy generated symbiotically provides long-term health and aids damage to the coral organism. It’s something like an economy of scale.
Coral and its symbiosis are delicate, and hazards are many. Not only is coral highly sensitives to pathogens, disease, sediment, and human touch, it is also highly responses to changes in ocean temperature. As such, climate change poses a particular threat. Keep in mind, too, that the zooxanthellae photosynthesize and need access to sunlight (most coral species are happiest at up to 60 meters), so algal growth is dangerous as well. Coral is critically endangered and under threat.
I should probably mention that coral is absolutely stunning, aesthetically and ecologically, and a particular object of care outside of family, friends and cheese. Occupying less than one quarter of 1% of the marine environment, coral reefs are home to more than 25% of all known marine fish species. Their biochemistry is under analysis in the pursuit of a cure for cancer. They are the architecture of marine metropoli.
So, being critically endangered and being something I (and many others) care about, conservationists around the world are looking for ways to grow (propagate) coral in a way akin to farming. Eddy from TNC is building ~20 ft trees of PVC pipe, with little nooses that suspend the Acropora cervicornis (Staghorn Coral) off to the side. Amelia and I hammered the nooses into place, glued the trees together, and tied their buoys. I finally mastered the Bowline knot – after totally not getting it after two years of trying my dweeby, middle school self is very proud. The coral grown on this tree is ultimately glued to a substrate, where it’s neural net will grow to slowly cover the surface. Way cool. And, so far for Eddy, way successful.
So what, I love coral. I was lucky enough to get near a dive shop, let alone work on a conservation project. At the same time, Amelia and I were given a chance to think about the conservation efforts that some larger developments take on to remedy the environmental damage their construction produces. One could build a mangrove snorkel tour as an educational activity, or have a snorkel-SCUBA site off the shore for tourists to visit while also laying claim to the philanthropic support of conservation. Atlantis retroactively provides some support for research on coral propagation for aquaria, but that is partially self-serving.
Okay, fine. But in the long run, if any development really gave a shit about the longevity of this at-risk species, they’d support conservation efforts for the ends of those efforts themselves, not their immedeate utility; they wouldn’t expose a sensitive coral tree to the grubby fingers of touring snorkelers floundering at the surface or the turbid habitats proximate to large developments. There is a fine between an educational activity and a playground.
It was a great trip out to Cove’s. More than anything, I was impressed by Eddy’s conviction that, since he has the knowledge, capacity, and care to do something about coral conservation, it is his responsibility to do something about it. So inspired, I’ll take a coral propagation course at the shop in July, which I can’t wait for. I will then be qualified to scrub PVC with a very firm toothbrush (under 30 ft of water, so pardon the sarcasm). It’s more complicated than I make it sound, I swear. After all, as Eddy shouted at me whenever I mis-tied by Bowlin knot, “Don’t worry, it’s only the future of a critically endangered species in your hands.”
A bit of hyperbole now and again certainly gets the job done.
*Not a comprehensive list.