Coral Reef Arks: An In Situ Mesocosm and Toolkit for Assembling Reef Communities
Coral reefs thrive and provide maximal ecosystem services when they support a multilevel trophic structure and grow in favorable water quality conditions that include high light levels, rapid water flow, and low nutrient levels. Poor water quality and other anthropogenic stressors have caused coral mortality in recent decades, leading to trophic downgrading and the loss of biological complexity on many reefs. Solutions to reverse the causes of trophic downgrading remain elusive, in part because efforts to restore reefs are often attempted in the same diminished conditions that caused coral mortality in the first place. Coral Arks, positively buoyant, midwater structures, are designed to provide improved water quality conditions and supportive cryptic biodiversity for translocated and naturally recruited corals to assemble healthy reef mesocosms for use as longterm research platforms. Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), passive settlement devices, are used to translocate the cryptic reef biodiversity to the Coral Arks, thereby providing a "boost" to natural recruitment and contributing ecological support to the coral health. We modeled and experimentally tested two designs of Arks to evaluate the drag characteristics of the structures and assess their long-term stability in the midwater based on their response to hydrodynamic forces. We then installed two designs of Arks structures at two Caribbean reef sites and measured several water quality metrics associated with the Arks environment over time. At deployment and 6 months after, the Coral Arks displayed enhanced metrics of reef function, including higher flow, light, and dissolved oxygen, higher survival of translocated corals, and reduced sedimentation and microbialization relative to nearby seafloor sites at the same depth. This method provides researchers with an adaptable, long-term platform for building reef communities where local water quality conditions can be adjusted by altering deployment parameters such as the depth and site.