Points of View by Dr. Bruce Carlson

I know you have been reading all the comments on Coral-List as Iʻm sure Walt and Deb too, regarding the efficacy of reef restoration projects.  I kind of think of it like a fallow field restored to its natural state through years of carefully planting the appropriate trees and other plants.  Then just as you start seeing all the birds and other animals returning, a climate-enhanced forest fire roars through.  Was the effort/money spent on restoration worth it?  Will it return on its own?  If so, how long will it take versus kick-starting it again with re-seeding, planting etc.?  What is the point anyway and could the money have been spent elsewhere for some other ecological purpose?

Personally I think corals are threatened everywhere, whether itʻs tomorrow or 20 years from now.  I think we cannot give up hope that environmental conditions that are causing these coals and reefs to die, will at some time in the future be controlled and stopped.  When that time comes, whoever is still around and concerned about corals and reefs should have resources to renew or continue restoration efforts.  That means that those of us with the experience and resources to grow corals should learn as much as we possibly can now while we still have vast genetic resources to tap.  Kind of like those who keep seed banks for the future.

I have no problem planting “coral gardens” today, which hopefully will grow into some form of a “natural” self-sustaining reef over time.  We learn by doing and by making mistakes.  By tracking the planted corals over time (a very important critical aspect!!) we will pass along to the next generation of coral reef conservation biologists our best knowledge and experience so they will not have to re-invent all this someday when itʻs even more critical (and perhaps when even less funding is available).

I also think, and have said this many times to my public aquarium colleagues, that field restoration projects should be coupled with programs to maintain a wide diversity of corals in captive land-based facilities.  One Cat-5 hurricane in Florida can/will wipe out everything underwater, but genetic diversity can be preserved in aquarium-systems on land – even in places far away from hurricanes like Georgia!  I am glad to know that this is exactly what is happening in response to the die-off of corals along the Florida Reef Tract.

One huge problem with all this is that we are only talking about corals, whereas reefs have a huge diversity of animals (and plants).  Can we expect a forest ecosystem to return if we only plant trees?  Much much more discussion needed on this.

I cannot evaluate whether putting money in restoration means less money for “more” important conservation issues, including reducing carbon emissions, pollution, etc.

Where is the money coming from?  And, over time, who will pick up the task of maintaining corals in the ocean and in land-based facilities?  Public aquariums have the financial resources to do this and have the continuity of generations of new aquarists coming on board, but other field projects may last only as long as one dedicated person is involved.  These efforts need to be “institutional” (public aquariums, conservation organizations, government agencies, etc.) to ensure long-term efforts are maintained.

All of this is in infancy stages right now.  I think the effort to learn best methods (and results) is worthwhile now but I also expect it will change dramatically over time depending on what we learn.  So, even though the future is somewhat unknown in regards to reef restoration efforts and environmental conditions, I am in favor of doing whatever we can now using best science-based methods and learn as much as we can while we still have time and genetic resources.