Meet The Coral Gardeners Reviving Our Reefs

PHOTOS COURTESY CORAL GARDENERS

 

INTERVIEW BY LANDON PEOPLES

As coral reef ecosystems weaken due to mass bleaching events, ocean acidification, and other stressors, coral reef gardening (or outplanting) is being used to restore them. But the Coral Gardeners—a Mo’orea-based team whose mission is to “change the world, one coral reef at a time”—are raising awareness and funds for reef restoration projects like no one else, thanks to social media savvy, eponymous merch, and more.

INTERVIEW BY LANDON PEOPLES

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The Coral Gardeners, a group of coral conservationists based in Mo’orea, French Polynesia, work off a basic principle: that their relationship to our ocean(s) is reciprocal. Inspired by “Kumulipo“—a religious Hawaiian song about human creation—their belief is that their kuleana, or responsibility, is to preserve and protect all living organisms because we all come from the same place; that we were all born from corals. See: Acropora hyacinthus, Acropora pulchra, Pocillopora verrucosa, Napopora irregularis, Pavona cactus, and more.

 

Through uniform, captivating imagery (and a few influencer ambassadorships), they’ve amassed a following of more than 500,000—the most popular, and thus influential, coral conservation account on social media—and a brand all their own. We recently sat down with them to talk everything from their planting process to what makes a coral resilient to global warming—and, ultimately, what’s really needed to bring back the world’s reefs.

Photograph by Ryan Borne

Landon Peoples

So, what is the process of restoring coral—from start to finish?

Marie-Céline Piednoir

We collect coral fragments (that got broken by the waves or by human activities), find adequate substrate (usually dead “coral bommies”), remove any algal cover with a brush, settle fragment in the right spot, and wherever the fragment touches the substrate we put two or three small dots of marine concrete/cement to bind them together. We then perform a “rescue” the next day to make sure everything is holding nicely and then monitor every month.

Landon

What is a “regular coral” versus a “super coral”?

Marie-Céline

Super corals are individuals of any coral species who, for one reason or another, won’t bleach when all the others do. The reason for that is often a stronger genetic background, that allows them to endure warmer temperatures or longer periods of stress. You can find super corals in all species but we do not want to restore all species.

 

The issue behind climate change and coral bleaching is not simply the death of corals, after all Mo’orea is one of the most resilient reefs in the world. So far, it has always come back from mass bleaching events. The issue is that the reef never comes back the way it was before in terms of coral assemblages. We are witnessing a change in morphology that translates into a loss of functionality. Over the years we are losing branching, foliose, digitate corals to encrusting, submassive or massive species. We are losing the 3-D structure that provides shelter for fish, habitat for all benthic species, and a barrier against waves and erosion. Without this structure, the reef flattens and it’s the whole assemblage that shifts. This is what we’re trying to restore. We try to select super corals of three-dimensional species to encourage the recovery of the reef as an ecosystem—not just as a coral reef.

Photograph by Greg Gyselin
Photograph by Amir Zakeri

Landon

How do you handle or track bleaching events?

Marie-Céline

We cannot really “handle” bleaching events once they occur. We can act before end by raising awareness about corals and climate change and the need to act. We track bleaching events via monitoring when we go on the ground and can see the changes on a specific spot.

Landon

How do you use social media to convert to coral adoption?

Marie-Céline

We use social media to raise awareness. Our team is young: We are the generation of social media and we know the power it can have, in a positive and negative way. We want to use it to its fullest positive potential and reach as many people as we can in the world to let them know about corals, about climate change, and the necessity to act. We also want to give them the possibility to act—that’s why we created the adoption concept, so anyone in the world can support us. We create powerful videos and images to catch the attention and deliver our message.

Landon

Is social media our most powerful tool to combat climate change and save corals?

Marie-Céline

It is one of the most powerful tools but we still need politics, governments, and the biggest companies to act because they are the ones taking the decisions to a global scale.

Landon

How many new corals are needed to make a real impact on the ocean?

Marie-Céline

It cannot be quantified. A few colonies of Acropora spawning a lot and offering an ideal 3-D structure will bring back more functionality than many Porites (no hiding spot for fish to colonize, lack of diversity, etc.).

Landon

What are your current numbers like? In terms of how many you’ve planted, your goals for the next year, etc.

Marie-Céline

The goal is to bring back the functionality of the reef. It may take 10 colonies of super corals in one site and 50 in another one. Again, this cannot really be quantified with numbers of corals. It’s a whole. We need to make sure we have fish back, sea-urchins, crabs, sea cucumbers, sharks; the whole trophic chain basically.

Photograph by Ryan Borne

Landon

What is needed to adopt this to a larger, government-mandated scale? How can more people help?

Marie-Céline

Coral restoration shouldn’t be needed at a larger scale. What we need is to tackle climate change so all our efforts have a chance to pay [off] in the long run. People can change their diet, their habits, their lifestyle, and who they vote for. That’s the most effective way to protect coral.

Landon

Why isn’t coral planting needed at a larger scale if reports say the world’s corals will be gone by 2100?

Marie-Céline

It is needed at a larger scale in a sense that we need initiatives like ours all around the world, but indeed it is not needed if it means planting more and more corals at the same spot. The aim is not to rebuild on our own the reef, but to rebuild the ecosystem, so then the ecosystem can take back its functionalities and rebuild the reef. That’s why we focus on super corals: selecting super corals and outplanting them in damaged areas will improve the general resistance of the reef.

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