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Collaborative Coral Restoration Initiative in Ecuador’s Machalilla National Park

Published on May 13, 2024

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The El Sucre islet, in the waters of the Machalilla National Park. Photo: Courtesy: Conmar Foundation

The initiative will use artificial reefs made of clay and substrates that encourage coral growth.

Almost 70% of the coral reefs in Ecuadorian waters have been lost, according to Andrea Castillo Higgins, an environmental engineer and co-founder of the Ecuador Marine Conservation Foundation (Conmar).

That is why her organization, in collaboration with the Swiss initiative rrreefs and the coffee company Melitta, will begin a coral restoration project in the waters of the Machalilla National Park, near the El Sucre islet.

The initiative consists of installing a series of clay structures made by rrreefs with 3D printers. It will cover a total of 20 square meters and will be installed next Monday, May 13th.

In the last three years, rrreefs has installed artificial reefs in the British Virgin Islands, San Andres in Colombia, and Pujada Bay in the Philippines.

“Our seabed is now almost all sand, which does not allow the establishment of new corals,” says Castillo.

The clay platforms have an artificial substrate that encourages their settlement.

The fact that the platforms are made of clay, adds the expert, makes it “much more environmentally friendly” than other options such as iron. “Corals like this type of material.”

Example of the clay structures installed by rrreefs in Pujadas Bay, in the Philippines. 

Once the clay platforms are installed, the coral spores stick to the structures and grow. This, according to Castillo, would take two years.

However, it is also possible to assist restoration by gluing coral fragments to the clay with cement or epoxy resin. However, the environmental engineer points out, the ideal would be for corals to grow naturally.

Corals are critically endangered

The situation of corals in Ecuador is not isolated: scientists estimate that they will become extinct globally by the end of the century.

These cover about 384,000 square kilometers of sea floor around the world, relatively little in relation to the total extent of the oceans.

However, they perform essential tasks, such as flood mitigation, protection of fragile ecosystems such as mangroves and against waves, in addition to being important centers of marine biodiversity: in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, for example, there are more than 400 species of coral, 1,500 varieties of fish, 4,000 mollusks, and 6 types of sea turtles.

They also provide economic support to coastal communities around the world: the colorful reefs are great tourist attractions, generating millions of dollars for this industry each year.

Two of the biggest threats facing corals are high sea temperatures, intensified in part by climate change, and ocean acidification due to pollution.

The strong El Niño event of 1982 to 1983 wiped out 90% of the shallow-water corals in the Galapagos Islands, for example. That is why coral regeneration projects are also carried out in the archipelago.

An example of a species that is possibly very sensitive to high water temperatures is Rhizopsammia wellingtoni, the Wellington solitary coral, which used to be a very abundant endemic species in the Galapagos Islands, particularly in waters from 2 to 43 meters deep at sites in Isabela and Floreana.

However, since the El Niño phenomenon of the 1980s, its population was decimated: it has not been seen since 2000, although searches have been carried out to determine if its population survives.

According to the scale of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Rhizopsammia wellingtoni is listed as critically endangered and possibly extinct.

 The project in Machalilla involves the community

Castillo’s foundation, in turn, has been building coral nurseries since 2021. For their usual activities, they need research permits, but the clay platforms will remain in the water and will be part of the ecosystem, which is why they requested an environmental certificate from the Ministry of the Environment, Water, and Ecological Transition.

Since the structure is going to remain there, it was necessary to accompany the project with work with the community of Machalilla. “It is of no use to us to put this in the water and damage the structures with nets or anchors (…). We have a group of fishermen who are going to work with us, the idea is that they leave fishing aside and dedicate themselves to conservation, obviously they receive an economic incentive,” says Castillo.

So far, they have involved 15 people from 6 or 7 families, who receive training, although Castillo estimates that it would be ideal to have 20 or 25 people from the community.

After installation, a team of scientists will monitor the evolution and results of the project over three years. According to Ulrike Pfreundt, co-founder of rrreefs, it will be the first time that their artificial reef system will be installed in the Pacific Ocean.

1 Comment

  1. This is a wonderful initiative! Thank you!


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