I helped with the start-up of REEFolution Kenya back in 2015 and have since been involved with the project in an increasingly formal role: starting as a master student, growing as student assistant, continuing as a PhD candidate and now employed as researcher. As a researcher, I have been immersed in a culture of healthy scepticism and ingrained doubts. Naturally, then, I habitually question the effectiveness of coral reef restoration to validate our methods and raise their impact. Below, I would like to take you through a few long-standing questions of mine and show how the REEFolution Kenya project has helped me to shape topical answers to them.
It is crucial to stress that the root causes of coral decline should be addressed, for else reef restoration will not be successful in the long term. That said, dealing with global climate change will take time and this is where reef restoration can deliver tangible gains: (1) by improving reef resilience locally we can buy time for root causes to be addressed, (2) by keeping reefs functionally intact it can continue to support communities heavily dependent on them and (3) by investing in restoration research, we can apply restoration more effectively and on a larger scale when conditions become supportive again. For example, at the REEFolution project we focus on reef resilience by incorporating stress-resistant coral species from intertidal and mangrove areas, we train the community in restoration for current employment and future ecological benefits, and we investigate how facilitating herbivorous fish could enable upscaling of restoration efforts. Altogether, reef restoration thus provides both contemporary and future benefits to both man and nature, given that we manage to avoid further runaway greenhouse effects.
Wouldn’t it be more effective to invest in the prevention of reef decline?
Yes, also underwater prevention is better than cure. However, prevention in the past has unfortunately often proved too little and too late. Conventional coral reef conservation relied heavily on top-down management such as marine protected areas and other restrictions. Regrettably, due to a combination of both poor enforcement and compliance such measures have in many cases not been able to prevent reef decline. Many reef restoration projects like REEFolution work bottom-up and thereby nourishes a greater local responsibility for coral reefs. This way, community restored coral reefs are expected to benefit from increased local stewardship and greater compliance to other coral reef conservation measures. As such, restoration becomes the catalyst for prevention of additional damage and reinforces traditional conservation while simultaneously assisting reef recovery of past damage.
Degraded & dead coral
The decline of coral reefs has been well-documented, but failed to spark action. Isn’t this a problem of politics rather than science?
As scientists we are trained to report objectively, but passion is what drives us to do our profession. Indeed, given the grave state of most reefs, the ever-increasing treats and remarkably slow political progress, it has become vital to become more proactive. Recently there has been an increasingly louder call for scientists to speak up, whereas first this was perceived to reduce the scientific authority. I do strongly believe it is not only our task to advance science, but also make sure our message is heard by the broad public, which drives politics. Improved and diversification of communication is key, meaning we shouldn’t limit ourselves to publish scientific papers only, but also engage in other forms of outreach. At REEFolution Kenya social media platforms have been key, but equally important are articles in popular magazines or blogs on a website, for example.
In coral reef conservation there are many paths that can be taken, all striving for the same end goal: a healthy coral reef that provides benefits to those dependent on them and wonder to those who are lucky enough to swim above and observe them. I hope the above questions have shed some light on the strategic choices made by the REEFolution Kenya project. It illustrates that reef restoration is one aspect of conservation that does not stand alone (no project is an island): it is dependent on and reinforces the political landscape and traditional conservation measures. Given the continuous decline, the vast importance and, above all, the immeasurable beauty of coral reefs, I press for a holistic approach to conservation in which restoration, with its immediate benefits and future relevance is destined to help.