Little by little

Words by Martin Colognoli and Marina Palacios
Photography by Javier Sánchez
and Equilibrio Marino

We believe in the power of multiple small and locally managed marine conservation programmes. 

Protection is all the more effective when it is carried out by local people and by working all together. Our Coral Guardian pilot project around Hatamin Island in Indonesia is a success, with eight local people working full time for the project. Over 40,000 corals have been transplanted in the surrounding marine protected area, and we have noticed a return of 30 times more fish, and five times more species of fish in just four years. Located in the north-west of Flores, next to Komodo National Park, this area was officially declared an MPA in September 2019 by the Indonesian government.

This is why we launched our Blue Center programme, that aims to support any project leader in the world in developing their own coral restoration project. It’s a perfect example of the positive changes that humans can make by protecting the resources that they depend on for a living. And thanks to our Adopt a Coral programme, we have proven that everyone has a role to play in protecting and restoring coral reefs. The main idea of Coral Guardian when we launched was to protect coral ecosystems by involving the very people who depend on them for a living, and in the case of our pilot project in Indonesia, a community of traditional fishermen fighting for their food sovereignty. We like to experience the positive interaction between humans and the living world that surrounds them and to see the result. 

This is how we began supporting the local NGO, Equilibrio Marino, for their project S.O.S. Corales located around Punta de la Mona in Spain. The aim of the project is to clean the seabed from abandoned fishing nets and other pollution, restore corals in the area, and raise awareness locally by involving local communities such as fishermen, divers and universities.

S.O.S. Corales
S.O.S Corales
Mediterranean Corals

Many people think that coral reefs only exist in tropical areas. However, cold water reefs, especially in the Mediterranean, are very important because they form the basis of the ecosystem. Many species depend on them because they are the place where they shelter, where they get their food, and where they reproduce. And their survival depends directly on the state of the reef. These species are so important in the Mediterranean because they are bio-indicator species. Since they are sessile and very sensitive, they quickly reveal any changes linked to human pressures such as pollution, invasive species, sedimentation and climate change. This population is endangered because hundreds of ropes, lines, nets, and even tyres accumulate on the reef, covering, fragmenting and strangling the corals, and the fragments that fall to the bottom are buried, isolated. Little by little, they die.

At Punta de la Mona we have a unique population of chandelier corals in the Mediterranean Sea. The Dendrophyllia ramea coral, also called the chandelier coral, normally lives in very deep areas, but in this area, it lives at much shallower depths and in great abundance. And that is what makes it special. It is an emblematic species of Mediterranean hard corals that reaches large sizes but grows very slowly. That is why the colonies we have in this area are so interesting, because besides being very abundant, their size suggest they can be up to 200 years old. However, so far very little is known about this species and its growth rates, which is part of the research we want to carry out with our project S.O.S. Corales. 

Starfish Mediterranean Sea
Coral Garden Med

 I will never forget the first time I dived in the waters of the protected area of Punta de Mona in La Herradura. I was inevitably surprised by the beauty of the seabed and the great diversity. The colours, shapes and richness of species made me fall in love with this place forever. However, despite the great value of this area, it is in danger because year after year the impacts derived from human activities have threatened the species of the reef. A large amount of waste accumulates in the reef, endangering the survival of the Coral Garden and all its species. Facing this serious problem, we decided to launch the project S.O.S. Corales.

S.O.S. Corales is a pioneering marine conservation project that has five phases: the removal of all marine debris from the seabed, the transplantation of the coral colonies, the recovery of coral fragments that are broken onto coral nurseries and their reintroduction into their natural habitat. The final and transversal element is to raise awareness among local actors. The ultimate goal is to create an efficiently managed Marine Protected Area, so human activities are managed according to the ecological value of the area.  

Right now we are recovering the coral ecosystem in patches. We are going through different sectors to remove the fishing gear entangled in the corals, and to collect corals that are broken and transplant them back onto the seabed to give them a better chance of survival. So far in Spain, in 2021, we have transplanted 94 corals and collected 250 kg of marine debris from the seabed. As it is a totally unknown population of coral for science, we are carrying out different research studies. Amongst these, a genetic study of the population, the description of the environmental parameters (such as currents, food supply, temperature, solar incidence) on the development and growth of the corals, as well as a characterisation of the parasites that affect the corals. 

S.O.S Corales
S.O.S Corales reef analysis
coral restoration Spain

We can already see the results. Only a few days after transplanting corals back into their natural habitat, we can already see the polyps that were dead have since recovered and the fish come back immediately. The reef is rehabilitated in areas that were totally dead. And for us it is very important to give a coral that is hundreds of years old a chance to live again. It is very rewarding to see a recovered area, having seen it with broken corals that were almost dead and a lot of accumulated waste, and then once you have cleaned it up, that feeling is indescribable. Because you see life flowing again.

We’ve learned that humans are very often drawn to natural resources without providing any compensation for the damage they cause. The world and its ecosystems need brave people who stand up for what they believe in. When you are a kid, everyone asks you “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For both of us, it was clear: save coral reefs. There is no such thing as too big a dream when you are, by nature, a big dreamer.

Now, carrying out the S.O.S. Corales project, hand-in-hand with Equilibrio Marino, is a dream come true. We’re putting all of our strength and motivation into carry out this crucial work. We are moved by this vision and this mission, because we firmly believe in what we do. The oceans need committed people who fight for them, and that is why we are here.

To find out more about the S.O.S. Corales project, click here.

Photography by Javier Sánchez
and Equilibrio Marino

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