Coral in Context

So my first week following the New Heaven Conservation Program is over. While in the evening I grabbed dinner and drinks, or finally got back to reading for pleasure (Diaz! Hesse!), days were filled with lectures, diving, and interviews. Two Ecological Monitoring Program (EMP) transect surveys, an afternoon helping with turtle feeding and care (correct, I held baby sea turtles) and, most importantly, two coral conservation excursions. First we hitched coral fragments to spiral structures at a small scale, and on the next trip the Conservation Team descended en masse to attach fragments to artificial reef blocks donated by the DMCR.

Conservation team heads out for fragment collection
Conservation team heads out for fragment collection

Earlier this week I posted about the stakes of this conservation work within the framework provided by a comprehensive article on the impacts of global climate change by Rolling Stone magazine. The large scale impacts of global climate change – Hurricane Sandy, migrational pattern shifts and predator die-off, and rising global temperatures – are apparent, depressing as hell, and only the tip of the statistically-significant iceberg.  

Mauricio takes a break.
Mauricio takes a break.

Coral is a particularly sensitive species. Thousands of coral polyps are the individual organisms that make up the vast network of a coral reef, which provides shelter for fish, shoreline protection, and houses a majority of known marine biodiversity on the planet. (1) Coral are dependent on a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic plankton called zooxanthellae, which provide over 90% of the energy needed for coral to grow it’s CaCO3 skeleton. It’s these zooxanthellae living inside the polyps, united under the neural net that connects individual heads, that provide coral with it’s bright color and the energy necessary to grow. Changes to water temperature, quality, turbidity, and photosynthetically available radiation (PAR) can all induce coral bleaching, when coral expels the zooxanthellae (for a number of reasons I will get into if you ask). While coral has been known to operate within a range of temperatures, this range is limited and not generalizable to all coral species (See here for details).

Coral bleaching mechanism. Just because coral is bleached doesn't mean it's dead, but instead more susceptible to disease and slow growth without photosynthesizing zooxanthellae (isn't that a great word?!)
Coral bleaching mechanism, depicted above. Just because coral is bleached doesn’t mean it’s dead, but instead more susceptible to disease and slow growth without photosynthesizing zooxanthellae (isn’t that a great word?!)

Koh Tao has seen multiple bleaching events since the late 1990s, and the conservation work at New Heaven is meant to maintain the abundance, biodiversity, and overall health of coral reef ecologies. To that end, the staff engage with local policy makers as well as get in the water. The New Heaven Conservation and Restoration Program staff run surveys to establish a much of a baseline as possible, test out different types of coral restoration methods (rope trees, epoxied concrete, wire substrate, etc.), and collaborate with other dive shops across the island. 

Tools at 40 ft.
Tools at 40 ft.

The reason I’m here is because it’s crazy to me that this little group of humans swarms underwater structures to manufacture life. Questions of whether this practice helps or hinders coral growth, diversity, and survival are best answered by scientists with better statistical tools than I (for now) have. But how the hell do these worker bees do restoration given (perhaps because of) the immensity of global climate change?

Arnaud at work.
Arnaud at work.

Starting now, I’ll be posting interviews with people I meet along the course of this trip, my own experience, and both scientific and theoretical reviews. There is so much here and I am so excited. I hope this post clarified what I’m thinking about. Please let me know if you want more literature or additional posts on a subject. 



p.s. Who has two thumbs and just got her hands on a jar or Peanut Butter? Snacks for days.


(1) Here’s another interesting nugget: why coral? Coral conservation has its merits, hypothetically, for maintaining biodiversity and genetic diversity. Coral has human value (economic, personal, medical) – which is messy and personal and the whole reason I’m doing this project. Coral reefs provide some structural ecological benefits like shelter, which shouldn’t be conflated with fish abundance. As Bohnsack (1989) points out, coral reefs might act as fish aggregators for behavioral reasons (increasing abundance vs. aggregating existing stock), and protecting fish stocks requires a whole suite of management actions including fisheries regulation as much as coral conservation. On Koh Tao there are specific conservation pressures because the entire island economy relies on scuba tourism. Okay, clearly a lot to unpack here – another blog post, then.

2 thoughts on “Coral in Context

  1. My humanities brain hurts, but thanks for the explanation of the basis for your investigation, Ren. How might you compare the work you’re doing now with coral now to the resiliency work that NYC and NY State did with low lying communities in the Rockaways or Red Hook? Is what NHCP does the non-human analogue to what humans are trying to do for coastal neighborhoods post-Sandy?

  2. Hey Papa,

    Sorry, I just saw this! Very interesting question, and I’m not the most informed. I’m pretty cautious about comparing disenfranchised socioeconomic ethnic groups to cnidarians at a symbolic level, even if the comparison is tempting. I love cnidarians but not everyone would take the comparison as a compliment.

    I see the parallel you want to draw here. Both coral communities and the low-lying communities (LLCs for short, henceforth) were subject to devastating health, infrastructure, and resource loss because of climatological shifts associated with climate change; climate change, in turn, is in part the fuction of human greed/hubris/development/exploitation (environmental and social). The communities in Rockaways and Red Hook manifested there in part because of other larger discriminatory practices and the classist exclusion of poor communities for boroughs like Manhattan since the 1930s. You know the history better than I do. (And you know you know the history better than I do 😉 ) Conversely, coral reefs grow at a site over hundreds of years because conditions there are *ideal* for them. Do you see what I’m getting at?

    So my answer is, well, maybe. We can’t talk to coral about community resilience, but we can “raise their houses,” so to speak, by providing a structurally advantageous habitat in which they can live. I’m going to keep chewing on this one!


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