Future of saving coral: Legacy Reef Foundation teaming up and showcasing quest to regrow valuable ocean life force

  • Coral grows in tanks at the Legacy Reef Foundation at NELHA. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Legacy Reef Foundation Director of Operations Sandra Romer explains the non-profit's mission at their NELHA lab. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Legacy Reef Foundation Lab Manager Andrea Ehlers show how coral is grown in tanks at NELHA. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • As part of the lecture portion of the tour, Legacy Reef Foundation Lab Manager Andrea Ehlers explains how coral eats and reproduces. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Legacy Reef Foundation Director of Operations Sandra Romer, left and Lab Manager Andrea Ehlers show how coral is grown in tanks at NELHA. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii native Bill Coney and his partner Dr. Susanne Otero are on a mission to save the coral reefs in their home state and around the world.

Located at the end of Makako Bay Drive in the Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii Authority’s Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park, their nonprofit Legacy Reef Foundation has launched a project aimed at propagating coral and packaging the process for easy shipment and protocols to places such as Fiji and New Guinea.

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And they want to educate people to the importance of our reefs and how we can save them.

One of the ways they wish to teach others about the importance of our reefs is providing a tour including a lecture on coral, a visit to the coral nursery and dive to identify corals and their state of health.

“A few years ago, I realized that the reefs around Hawaii — where I grew up swimming, sailing and diving — were no longer as full of life as they had been just a few decades before,” Coney states on the foundation’s website. “To ensure that my grandchildren will enjoy what I experienced as a child, I dreamed of restoring some of the local reefs.”

That dream became a reality when he met Dr. Susanne Otero.

Together, they created the Legacy Reef Foundation, whose mission it is to restore and conserve coral reefs in Hawaii and around the world and to ensure critical food security for future generations.

That vision is taking giant leaps forward.

KNOWING WHAT’S AT STAKE

An important first step is understanding what they are.

At an educational lecture on Friday, Lab Manager Andrea Ehlers explained coral is an animal that needs other organisms to live within them and on them in order for all the organisms to survive.

Ehlers provided slides of different corals that are found in Hawaiian waters and explained their unique characteristics. Some common corals in Hawaii include cauliflower, pork chop, antler, popcorn, lobe, finger, rice and mushroom.

She explained that corals are both autotrophic, which means they produce their own food and heterotrophic, meaning they need to get their food from another source.

Algae that live on the coral photosynthesize and consume the carbon dioxide produced by the coral. The algae gives the coral sugars and oxygen.

“The algae gives coral about 90% of its energy, so it’s extremely important,” Ehlers said. “The photosynthesis is not enough to allow coral to grow so they do need to collect other food from external sources. They will eat organic matter such as fish and other coral, plankton, pretty much anything they can fit in their mouth, including plastics.”

But coral reefs are in danger because of bleaching events and stressing.

Coral bleaching is when the symbiotic algae leaves the coral. The coral expels it because it thinks it’s going to die because it is in water that is warmer than usual.

“In 2014 and 2015, we had two really bad bleaching events,” Ehlers said. “We lost about 50% of our coral in West Hawaii, and had almost 100% bleaching of pork chop and cauliflower coral. About half of the coral came back from those events, but another event this year led to more bleaching.”

The water surface temperature was higher this fall than the 2015 event, but the bleaching wasn’t as severe.

“It was more like a slow simmer, where the 2015 event was more like a boil, which led to more bleaching,” she said.

MINIMIZING STRESSORS

Ehlers said resilient corals have survived stressful events and are ideal for collection because it is known they are resistant to those events. They want to propagate their genetics and eventually put them back out on the reef.

Factors that stress coral are global and local.

“As we pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the world is getting warmer. Additionally the ocean is the biggest sink for carbon dioxide. So it’s taking everything we put into our atmosphere, absorbing it and then it is acidifying,” she explained.

Local stressors include coastal development, runoff and sedimentation.

When there’s not enough plants to hold the sentiment on the land, it will runoff into the ocean.

This creates a big problem in Hawaii, especially with the number of wild ungulates.

“We have a lot of goats here which are also removing the plants and causing the sedimentation to runoff into the ocean,” she said. “With the runoff, the corals cannot photosynthesize because the sentiment is blocking the light. When the runoff settles, the coral doesn’t have a place for the babies to settle because they need a hard surface.”

Also, she added, the runoff put lots of nitrates and phosphorus in the water, thereby creating algal blooms, which feed on all those nutrients.

When there is so much algae, she cautioned, then it all dies at once, and scores of bacteria come in, which consumes all the oxygen and leaves carbon dioxide instead, in which fish cannot survive.

“They need oxygen to breathe, which isn’t there in large algal blooms,” Ehlers said.

Another local stressor is pollution.

Ehlers said abandoned fishing gear comprises 46% of the ocean’s plastic. Once it is abandoned, it keeps on fishing and attaches to the coral. When a big storm comes it will rip the coral up and then use that coral to smash other corals.

When a coral is in contact with plastic they have an 83% chance of contracting disease whereas if they are not in contact with plastic they only have a 4% chance of contracting disease.

Chemical pollution, including sunscreen is another local stressor.

But she said there are things individuals can do to mitigate the harm to coral including using reef safe sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

“If sunscreen does’t have these two minerals, it’s not reef safe. The safest sunscreen is to cover up with a rash-guard, hat, and sunglasses,” she said.

TEAMING UP TO PROTECT INVALUABLE ASSET

Another way to be reef safe is to be conscious of where you buy your fish.

“The Monterey Aquarium has developed an app called seafood watch,” Ehlers said. “It divides all the fish into three categories, sustainable, kind of sustainable and not sustainable. You can type in your zip code and it will show all the fish in your area as well as all the restaurants and it will tell you what is the more sustainable choice for the fish you like to eat.”

She explained that besides the biological aspect of saving the coral reefs, they also provide Hawaii with an economic benefit.

A recent report by USGS stated Hawaii coral reefs are valued at $863 million per year.

Additionally, they provide a reef habitat for the adult fish people like to eat and wave protection for the shoreline. About 90% of a wave’s energy is absorbed by the reef, protecting the coastline. Corals are also used in medicine to treat things like cancer, heart disease, bacterial infections.

“Our mission here at Legacy Reef Foundation is to establish partnerships with coastal communities,” said Director of Operations Sandra Romer. “We would like to put everything you need to start a coral nursery in a container and send it off to islands in the Pacific that need reef restoration and then they would re-establish their own reefs and educate their community to keep the reefs from degrading further.

“We are trying to get a real simple system,” she added, “as cheap as you can get that you can put in shipping containers and take to places who don’t have as many resources. The minimum requirements to grow coral well without spending a fortune,” she said.

The first two places they would like to do this is Fiji and Palau.

“Last January we started collecting our corals. We fragmented them in March after they had a chance to acclimate to tank conditions and have been maintaining them ever since.”

TOUR SHOWS RESTORATION UP CLOSE

On the tour, tanks growing coral harvested with an educational permit from Department of Aquatic Resources are showcased. The coral was quarantined, fragmented and put on ceramic or clay tiles to grow.

In their lab, the foundation uses a process called micro-fragmentation meaning the parent colony is cut into small pieces — less than one centimeter square — and glued onto tiles. Since they are exact clones, they grow faster and fuse together when put next to each other. They are currently using this process on cauliflower, rice and cup coral.

The fragments are about one centimeter square when glued on. As they grow they fuse together.

Romer plans on lectures being held four times a week at the NEHLA Hale Iako building and is hoping to engage school groups as well as locals and visitors. Two of the weekly tours will include a dive off the coast to identify and observe local coral in various states of distress.

“To remain sustainable in the long-term, I believe funding for LRF will continue to be a mixture of all things but, of course, we would love the tours to take off in 2020 and provide a regular source of income to cover costs. Also, we will be launching Adopt-a-Coral on our website for $20 per month and also, I will be looking for sponsorship for more tanks in the lab,” said Romer.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The foundation welcomes supporters willing to volunteer time for the cause.

Volunteer routine consists of tank upkeep and cleaning. They scrub the tanks and test water quality, water temperature, salinity and pH.

“They also feed the corals and fish and help us with construction projects,” said Romer.

She said there is also corporate and individual sponsorship opportunities available.

“Coral is not the most engaging animal, it’s a little dull but it is absolutely critical,” said Romer. “Critical, critical keystone species in the marine environment. If we let it slip away everything else topples.”

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“It’s an intensive process to take care of them in this environment, but we are giving them the best shot at survival possible,” she said.

More information is available on their website: legacyreeffoundation.org.

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