How do you create closed-circuit conservation? That is, how can restoration projects not create waste and undue burden on the communities doing the work? Last week, I got a peek at how the TNC’s new restoration project in Sunny Bay systematically alters and aids local coral communities by relying on local communities and infrastructure.
Part of TNC’s program of coral restoration in Sunny Bay is addressing the large Crown of Thorns (Acanthaster planci) population in the bay. We’ve talked about COT before, and I expressed ambivalence about predator control. Whatever my scruples, the coral conservation community as a whole seems comfortable with aggressively targeting this corallivorous sea star. COT are large sea stars that take over reefs, munching on coral and causing intense bleaching and damage. A single female, bristling with toxic spines, can produce up to 100 million eggs a year, and its entire body surface is covered by sharp, conical, toxic spines that make it undesirable prey. There have been major outbreaks across the Pacific, hypothesized by Jon Brodie in the Marine Pollution Bulletin to be the result of increased nutrient runoff from the land feeding the larval starfish in the water by creating planktonic blooms. Armies of divers remove COTs from the Great Barrier Reef every weekend, and April 2016 marked the beginning of similar volunteer efforts in Sunny Bay.
In collaboration with the hotel dive shop and a local regatta sponsor, TNC led nine divers in the removal of 19 Crown of Thorn specimen. If you read Chinese, you can check out their WeChat story here. (I don’t, but it features some of my photos!) While the ever-present skeptic in me questions installing a nursery in a site with a COT outbreak, the event itself was educational, constructive, and a great way to engage the local dive community in an upcoming restoration project. Jun did an amazing job with the coordination, and the event went off without a hitch.
A novel aspect of this event, however, what where the COTs went after their removal. At previous sites, I’d seen COTs buried on the beach or tossed in the trash; this is a fine but rather bleak disposal. Instead, TNC Staffer Linda coordinated with a local hatchery research facility to turn COTs over to their own predators: Triton’s Trumpet snails.
We drove for an hour to the hatchery facility, a large ramshackle set of tanks, beakers, and whirring filters set against a dry breeze. The facility collaborates with some local universities and experiments with breeding techniques for valuable marine specimen like decorative Anemonefish and giant lobster. The Triton’s Trumpets are actually a pet project of the hatchery manager, who is more curious about their predation habits. These large mollusks moved surprisingly quickly when we deposited their weakened prey in the tank…which is still relatively slow. Human intervention on this small local reef stretches far past the installation of coral nurseries, into entire marine ecologies.
Who’s ready for a stretch? I’m deeply unfamiliar with any sort of Christian mythos, but the name “Crown of Thorns” is certainly apt. COT have become something of a symbol for the active and uncontrollable destruction of reefs through accelerated ecological interaction. Suffering that has to be dealt with, mocking the human impacts to ecological systems as a function of our anthropocentrism. Problems we make for ourselves, and the positive and negative capacity of human agency when it comes to ecological management…or something like that.
All photos, while taken by me, are currently the property of TNC. I’m working on it.