A review of coral reef restoration techniques
In this review the following three reef restoration techniques are discussed: 1. Coral gardening, 2. Larval seeding, and 3. Reef balls. These techniques are commonly used in the Caribbean and have widely different approaches. Coral gardening utilize the natural process of asexual reproduction through fragmentation to provide new coral clones for population growth. Healthy wild colonies are once clipped/fragmented and further grown (and cloned multiple times) in an underwater nursery and ultimately transplanted to the reef.
In contrast, larval seeding is based on the sexual reproduction of corals, where large amounts of coral eggs and sperm are collected in the field with subsequent fertilization in the lab. The coral recruits are then made to settle and grown in aquaria until a certain size, after which they are transplanted to the reef. Reef balls are artificial concrete structures designed to provide shoreline protection and sometimes shelter for fish, while at the same time providing substrate for natural recruitment and attachment of benthic organisms such as corals.
A general introduction to coral reproduction is provided to show how life history characteristics are used in restoration efforts and how these can affect the genetic variation within coral populations. The three approaches are compared based on:
1. Survival of fragments and larvae before transplantation to the reef.
2. Survival of transplants at the restoration site.
3. Introduction of exogenous material.
4. Indirect effects of coral restoration on the reef.
5. Genetic diversity.
6. Feasibility and effectiveness.
The main advantages of the production of colonies from fragments are that it bypasses the early larval stages where mortality is high and that new colonies can be grown completely in the field. Generally, the asexual reproduction technique demands less advanced expertise and the public outreach of this method is high because volunteers can easily be incorporated into the program. Furthermore, results become apparent relatively soon since the used species are relatively fast growing. However, there is the risk of creating populations with little genetic variability and the method is only applicable to branching coral species. Presently the method is mainly used for one single species, namely staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis).
Larval seeding (sexual reproduction) is arguably the best method since it ensures natural genetic diversity and can be used with many species. The disadvantage with this method is that it demands a reasonably high level of expertise and takes more time than the asexual production of new colonies by fragmentation. Also a high percentage of new colonies is lost during the early stages. It is still mostly in the development phase.
Reef balls may increase fish biomass and protect shorelines, but their potential for coral reef restoration is judged to be limited due to the generally low levels of natural recruitment to these structures.
The restoration techniques suffer presently from a lack of independent scientific publications with good data to validate survival, regeneration, and growth rates of colonies in the different phases of the restoration program.
Different populations of the branching Acropora species can differ fundamentally in reproductive characteristics and may respond differently to environmental change. Their difference in strategy may also be a result of adaptation to local environmental factors. All studies and protocols thus stress the necessity to adapt methods to specific locations and environments.
Consideration of genetic factors is essential because the long-term success of restoration efforts (depending on resilience of the populations) may be influenced by genetic diversity of restored coral populations. The use of molecular tools may aid managers in the selection of appropriate propagule sources, guide spatial arrangement of transplants, and help in assessing the success of coral restoration projects by tracking the performance of transplants, thereby generating important data for future coral reef conservation and restoration projects.
It is proposed to study genetic variation in the natural populations around the islands of the Dutch Caribbean and within the various restoration projects in progress. Additionally, it is recommended to assess survival, growth and regeneration of fragments ánd mother colonies in the field. We recommend to combine characteristics of the two main coral restoration techniques (fragmentation and larval rearing) to create a new hybrid approach to increase survival of sexually derived colonies and genetic diversity. In addition, the cost-effectiveness of the larval seeding method should be ascertained and compared with the fragmentation method.
We conclude by pointing out that reef restoration can only be successful if environmental conditions are adequate for survival and growth of coral colonies. This will mean that presently the selection of restoration sites with good environmental conditions is crucial. Thus, active management of anthropogenic stressors is a prerequisite for reef restoration — if a reef is not effectively managed and chronic stressors persist or develop, restoration will ultimately fail. Reef restoration must only be considered as complementary to management tools that address the wider causes of reef degradation.