Building a legacy: New foundation seeks to replant, replenish coral reefs globally

  • Susanne Otero. (Facebook photo)

  • Coral reef, before and after bleaching event. (Legacy Reef Foundation/courtesy photo)

KAILUA-KONA — Seven years ago, Bill Coney came up with an idea.

Back then, the concept was simple. A business consultant and avid diver who’d grown up in Hawaii saw the coral reefs of his youth changing and disappearing around him and decided he couldn’t live with that. More so, he didn’t want his family to live with it.

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From his discontent, the Legacy Reef Foundation (LRF) was born. But it was about more than improving and preserving the underwater world for future generations — it was also about providing a tool to make sure that once restored, life beneath the surface remained intact.

“He realized his (grandchildren) were not going to see what he saw before,” said Susanne Otero, co-founder of LRF. “They’re not going to know the Hawaii that he knew underwater. He started having this idea he wanted to leave a legacy for his grandchildren to have something to restore the corals.”

‘ASSISTED EVOLUTION’ PROCESS

With the help of 93 volunteers, about a dozen permanent and the rest temporary, LRF opened its first coral nursery and restoration lab at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority in March of 2018.

The foundation developed a coral nursery system concept, which began with reef balls — what Otero described as concrete balls made of inert material that doesn’t damage the ocean. Holes are made in the reef balls to replicate a natural coral system. Fish are able to traverse throughout the reef ball and coral larvae begin to settle within, grafting to the concrete.

However, LRF found the process to be too slow. Otero said Coney had the idea to simply plant the coral inside the reef balls to create and build out new reefs faster rather than by way of the natural process, which takes about three times longer to occur.

Implementing a practice developed in Florida, LRF volunteers cut the corals on all four sides. New polyps grow just like skin to cover the area of a cut. Cutting pieces of coral in close proximity accelerates growth in all directions and creates a process of integration.

Repeating the process is possible either in the lab or under the surface at the coral site, followed by cementing the new coral to existing coral or even a rock surface, Otero said. Coral builds up and eventually spawns. The desired end result is an entirely new or fully restored reef that continues to self-populate and eventually survives on its own.

But replanting coral and accelerating the growth process aren’t the end of the challenges. Coral reefs are dying because they aren’t strong enough to withstand the environmental stressors wreaking havoc throughout earth’s oceans, most namely rising water temperatures.

Radine Coopersmith, media director for LRF, said the foundation is tackling the problem of resilience by studying mostly-dead reefs for the patches of coral that survived. They’ll take a sample of that coral to the nursery and allow it to merge with new coral being grown, transferring its resilient properties throughout the growing colony.

“We call it assisted evolution through using existing natural processes,” she said.

‘THE MOST DEVASTATED REEFS’

Otero, a former anesthesiologist with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in public health to complement her medical school education, became an avid diver in retirement. She volunteered in the field of coral restoration while living in Florida, but always intended to make her way to Hawaii.

She met Coney at a beach cleanup and the two were soon pursuing the concept of coral legacy together. It quickly became evident, however, their work would be about much more than aesthetic. Coral health is as much about food security as anything else, and ecosystems along with the human populations they support are threatened across the globe.

They decided to modify the protocols and make their program accessible to different coral systems worldwide, particularly those that need help most.

“We’re looking for the most devastated reefs with the least resources as our first targets,” Coopersmith explained. LRF plans to start in Fiji, hopefully inside of the next six months, and expand to places like the Solomon Islands and the Cook Islands.

LRF’s primary initiative has essentially evolved into creating a coral nursery and restoration lab on proverbial wheels.

“The idea is to put all that lab equipment in a shipping container, take it to the place that needs our help, put it on their beach, then you take it out (and assemble it) as if it were an IKEA (item),” Otero said. “This is not us doing it. This is us giving them the tools to do it themselves. That way it will be a sustainable and permanent solution.”

Satellite links and other communication equipment would be implemented so questions and problems users run into could be answered and addressed by LRF in Hawaii. Otero admitted logistics won’t be simple, as working with foreign governments, local leadership and a capable nonprofit will all be necessary.

Cost is likely to shift based on local leadership, but Otero projected it at roughly $150,000 per container. LRF has an annual budget of roughly $750,000 funded currently by private foundations as well as personally by herself and Coney. Professionals to develop fundraising avenues are soon to come aboard, she said, as the foundation won’t remain feasible long-term without significant outside investment.

IN HAWAII

As for reef restoration in Hawaii, LRF’s preferred method of replanting isn’t currently being implemented.

Otero explained that the present position of the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources is to minimize pollution and other factors contributing to deteriorating reef health and see how the natural process fares with regards to restoration.

Coral science is in its infancy, Otero said, and there are opinions that replanting can disrupt the natural process. While she conceded LRF’s vision would need to be implemented with care, she also noted that at some point humans may well have to intervene in the natural process to produce desired results before it’s too late.

She believes at some point, DAR may well allow LRF to start implementation in Hawaii waters. Until then, the foundation is working to build a coral bank to preserve the different types native to the area in case they are lost. DAR has a bank on Oahu, she said, but nothing of the sort exists on Hawaii Island.

LRF will also remain flexible and open to change, Otero explained. The foundation is confident in its idea and implementation, but is far from married to it.

“If next month, somebody shows there’s a better way of doing this than replanting, then we shuck the replanting and do it the other way,” she said. “We will use whatever good science is out there.”

The purpose of Legacy Reef Foundation isn’t just about leaving a legacy, it’s about preparing for a tumultuous future and avoiding inevitability.

“Are we at the point of no return? I don’t think so,” Otero said. “We never know what our ingenuity can do until we try. We know that what we’re doing works and at the very least, we’re going to make time for nature and us to come up with a solution.”

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LRF also has a local education arm, reaching out to island youth to start building a legacy now. As part of the program, the seventh grade class from Hilo Intermediate School will tour the LRF nursery and restoration lab at NELHA on April 26.

Other events are planned in coming months. Those who would like more information may contact Radine Coppersmith by phone at 329-8096 or by email at radinec@legacyreeffoundation.org.

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