A Deep Dive into Reefs: Why Protecting Corals Advocates for Human Survival

A Deep Dive into Reefs: Why Protecting Corals Advocates for Human Survival

Pavona gigantea - Corals of Costa Rica

Coral reefs in Peril

Coral reefs, polar bears, pandas and sea turtles are adored across cultures and known as the poster children of climate change. While each of these organisms has a difficult journey of survival ahead, the ancient coral reefs have arguably been suffering degradation since the 70’s. Coral reefs have been around for some 50 million years, outliving the dinosaurs and witnessing the birth of all other forms of complex life. These organisms represent the beauty and interconnectivity of our world. They are the foundations of coastal ecosystems, their rainbow collages attracting a diverse interaction of plants and animals. Yet the recent decline and death of coral reefs sends a shocking message at what we risk to lose if business continues as usual.

Oceans Heating Up

It is common knowledge that ocean temperatures are heating up, and although this represents one of the many threats to these delicate structures it is far from being the only one. Corals are also affected by the pollutants that find their way into rivers and streams from pesticides used to maximize crop yield. In addition to these silent killers polluting the water cycle, habitat destruction from coastal construction and the overly extractive fishing industry threatens the health of reefs. Finally, maybe the most dangerous of all is our addiction to fossil fuel consumption and the smoky trail of carbon dioxide we humans leave in our backwash.

Although the ocean is able to absorb a quarter of carbon dioxide emitted, there are still consequences to our incessant gobbling. In this simmering hotbed our corals are surviving in, their first stress response is to dispel their food source, the algae. As they lose these plants and subsequently their coloration, the surrounding organisms also feel the loss as their food source depletes. The stressed corals turn a skeletal white, and as the bleaching continues, they eventually turn as gray as tombstones. 

bleached coral
coastal development

Pressure on the reefs

Though reefs thrive in coastal paradises where conditions are idyllic and picturesque, the beauty of these habitats is a double-edged sword. As demand for these utopias increases, so does the pollution and runoff from development and tourism. As more people develop in and around the tropics, the pollution which comes with development and human consumption also grows. With this logic, it is no surprise that coastal communities are among the first to feel the effects of climate change

While the climate crisis often-times feels like a looming catastrophe, protecting coral reefs would trigger a chain reaction in sustaining the local ecosystems both above and beneath the ocean.  The urgency needed to preserve the remaining survivors can be grasped by painting a stark picture of what our world risks to lose with the extinction of coral reefs. A coral-less future would mean 6 million reef fishers without work; a net loss of $9.6 billion dollars to the tourism industry; 1 million marine species with no place to live, spawn, or feed; coastal communities with no natural protection against storms, tsunamis, flooding, and erosion; not to mention the incalculable loss of potentially life-saving medicines researchers discover in these underwater medicine cabinets (Basic Information About Coral Reefs). In short, our world without corals is hardly even a world at all. What are we without the very life that supports our human existence? 

coral bleaching
dead coral reefs

Dark situation

With less than 50% of coral reefs already dead, these submerged skeletons serve as a foreboding message: to save the coral reefs is to save ourselves.We are at a crucial moment in history, and our response to  the climate crisis is pivotal, but passivity is the most dangerous option of all. 

Although our current situation may feel dark, resilience is our silver lining. Coral restoration projects are underway across the globe helping to stabilize reefs. Restoration efforts assist in maintaining the base populations of coral species, giving more time for corals to adapt to changing conditions. This type of recovery work, however, will not restore reefs to their pristine state. Instead it buys time for the corals to adapt. That being said, restoration is most effective in conjunction with fishing quotas, Marine Protected Areas, and individual actions. 

coral internship

So what can you do?

That being said, there is a wide range of behaviors you can do that can reduce your negative impact on our planet. The following list includes suggested actions that the coral reefs, polar bears, pandas, and sea turtles need from all of us:

 

  1. Participate in Coral Restoration

– Take part in a Coral Internship 

– Enhance your knowledge of marine life with a Coral Reef Research Certification

  1. Be a conscious tourist

– Use Reef Friendly sunscreen 

– Be a Responsible Snorkeler and Scuba Diver: Never touch or harm corals/marine life 

  1. Support environmentally friendly companies 

–  Purchase organic products 

– Buy from sustainable fisheries (or avoid eating animal products altogether!) 

  1. Measure and manage your impact

Calculate your carbon footprint

– Practice zero waste living and stop using plastic bags!

  1. Raise awareness 

– Talk with your family, friends, and coworkers about the climate crisis

– Establish sustainability action groups in your school/work and come up with solutions in your own communities

 

Written by Anna Patton

Anna Love is a writer, biologist, advocate, massage therapist, and scuba diver. She writes about environmental movement, healing work, and science fiction. When she is not playing sand volleyball or reading, you can likely find her practicing handstands or meditating. —
Anna Lovelace Patton
anna.patton15@gmail.com

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Spotlight on Coral – Pocillopora damicornis

Spotlight on Coral – Pocillopora damicornis

We are back with our spotlight on coral. Pocillopra damicornis is the third principal hard coral that we work with in Costa Rica. Our coral intern Sebastian has created this great article all about it.

Here are some cool coral facts about Pocillopora damicornis!

What is Pocillopora damicornis?

coral restoration costa rica

Pocillopora damicornis is a species of branching stony coral, commonly known as Cauliflower coral. The species is distinguished from other species by having thinner branches and less regular verrucae. While small, regular verrucae exist, most of the protuberances are irregular and are often not true verrucae at all but are more like incipient branches. As a result, Pocillopora damicornis exhibits greater branching than does P. verrucosa. Colonies are usually less than 30 cm tall. Reported growth rates of Pocillopora damicornis vary substantially between locations in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, from 1.27 cm per year in Colombia to 3.96 cm per year in Panama.

Pocillopora damicornis occurs at all depths between the surface and 40 m deep or more, and is particularly abundant between 5 to 20 m. It is equally abundant in lagoonal areas and clear water reef slopes. Commonly forms monospecific, densely packed stands many tens of metres across in water 5 -10 m deep.

Restoration Success with Pocillopora damicornis

coral restoration project

We started our coral restoration project with Pocillopora damicornis and Pavona gigantea. Pocillopora is a great candidate for reef restoration, as a branching coral it is easy to harvest from wild coral colonies and it is also relatively easy to micro fragment. Pocillopora has responded well in our coral nurseries with good growth rates in both table nurseries and line nurseries. This coral species has a faster growth rate than the two massive coral species, which means shorter time in the nurseries, and therefore less maintenance and costs.

Geographic Range of Pocillopora damicornis

Pocillopora damicornis has a broad range which extends from the pacific coast of the americas america all the way to East Africa and the Red Sea. in the tropical pacific and through to oceania and southeast asia. The range of this coral in panama is it even considered as one of the major reef building species.

coral restoration in costa rica

Feeding methods of Pocillopora damicornis

Cauliflower corals are a filter feeding species that catch plankton and other small organisms from the water column using their hair-like tentacles. 

Sexual Reproduction of Pocillopora damicornis

Pocillopora damicornis is a broadcast spawner with the capacity to function as a simultaneous hermaphrodite. Pocillopora damicornis, like other Pocilloporid species in the eastern Pacific, has low rates of recruitment.

Histological evidence indicates that spawning is likely to occur during a few days around the new moon. The reproductive activity in the eastern Pacific is related to local thermal regimes. This then results in a generally higher incidence of coral recruits at sites with stable, warm water conditions. Also during warming periods in areas that experience significant seasonal variation. Pocillopora damicornis is also able to spread asexual due to natural fragmentation, making this coral a good candidate for restoration efforts.

Specific Living Conditions for Pocillopora damicornis

  • temperature: 20 °C -30 °C (optimal is 26 °C )
  • salinity: 34- 38 ‰ 
  • Depth: 0-40 meter
  • Ph: 8,1- 8,4
  • DKH: 8-12
  • Habitat: occurs in all shallow water habitats from exposed reef fronts to mangrove swamps and wharf piles
  • sedimentation, Pocillopora is relatively tolerant as long as there is adequate water motion


We hope you enjoyed the article, thank you to our intern Sebastian Moesbergen for writing it.

If you are interested in joining our team at Marine Conservation Costa Rica you can contact us. We run internships, volunteer programs and research opportunities, please contact us here.

sebastiaan intern

Sebastiaan Moesbergen joins us from the Netherlands. He is currently studying applied Biology at University and has been enrolled in our internship program since the beginning of March. As part of his internship he is assisting us with research and investigation and has been spearheading our spotlight on coral articles. Thank you Sebastian!

Spotlight on Coral – Pavona gigantea

Spotlight on Coral – Pavona gigantea

We are continuing our Spotlight on Coral Series of Blog. This week we look at another or our 3 types of hard coral that we are fragmenting in our coral restoration project at Marine Conservation Costa Rica. So here’s an indepth look at Pavona gigantea…..

What is Pavona gigantea?

Pavona gigantea is known as plate coral or leaf coral. It is a common coral that grows in relatively shallow and protected areas. Pavona has a naturally occurring growth rate of between 9 and 12 mm each year and also grows large plate colonies. They have visible coralites with a width of between 3 and 6 mm. The colonies tend to have a furry appearance due to the extension of their tentacles during the day.

Restoration Success with Pavona gigantea

Fragment of Pavona
restoration of Pavona Gigantea

Pavona gigantea can be relatively easy to harvest and fragment, as it often grows in plate formation. The younger growth to the edge of a plate is often thin and can be easily harvested. The older growth is thicker and extremely dense. The Pavona has responded well to micro fragmentation in our restoration project. Pavona gigantea seems to be reasonably resilient to stress and we have had a low mortality rate.

Geographic Range of Pavona gigantea

Pavona gigantea is found in the pacific ocean, growing along the coast of middle america from Mexico to Ecuador and in the Galapagos and Cocos Islands. In the Mid- Western Pacific, it is found in reefs located in the middle of the ocean. This is around the body of water between Japan and Papua New Guinea.

Feeding methods of Pavona Gigantea

Pavona Gigantea in Costa Rica

Corals consume particulate organic matter and absorb dissolved organic matter. However, their consumption of plankton is limited to zooplankton that is in the 200- 400​ ​μm size range. They use their tentacles to obtain this food. The same as other hard corals, Pavona gigantea depends on receiving most of its energy from it’s symbiotic relationship with the Zooxanthellae. These use photosynthesis to harness energy..

Sexual Reproduction of Pavona Gigantea

Typically Pavona gigantea colonies are gonochoristic, broadcast spawners. This is that there are both male and female colonies releasing eggs into the water column. Spawning takes place at the beginning of the rainy season, normally between May and July. Interestingly, in a few studies of Pavona gigantea, hermaphroditic colonies have also been discovered! This is likely to be an example of sequential cosexuality. It is when corals can begin their reproductive life as males and then become hermaphroditic. It has been suggested that sequential cosexuality is an adaption to guarantee sexual reproduction and increase connectivity among populations.

Specific Living Conditions for Pavona gigantea

Temperature: 18 °C -29 °C
Salinity: 34- 37 parts per thousand
Depth: abundant between:0,5 -20 meters Ph: 8,1
Dissolved oxygen concentration: 4.55 mL/L

Nitrate concentration: 0.831 ​μmol/L Phosphate concentration: 0.357 μmol/L Silicate concentration: 1.776 μmol/L

We hope you learnt something. Thank you Sebastian for the great info and help with this. If you want to learn more about our project you can contact us here or apply to become a volunteer or intern here in Costa rica.

Sebastiaan intern with marine conservation costa rica

Sebastiaan Moesbergen joins us from the Netherlands. He is currently studying applied Biology at University and has been enrolled in our internship program since the beginning of March. As part of his internship he is assisting us with research and investigation and has been spearheading our spotlight on coral articles. Thank you Sebastian!

What is coral bleaching? Why does it happen?

What is coral bleaching? Why does it happen?

coral bleaching
 Image credit: Wikipedia via CC license

Coral bleaching, the phenomenon, the event that has brought scientists from all around the world together to discuss a single question- what is happening to our coral? Climate change skeptics and environmental downfall contributors have no other option than to acknowledge the reality of this current mass global issue.

An event that has been trending and turning heads from all over, even reaching world news. It has made its way to fame and has quickly gotten the attention of the human race- but do you really know what coral bleaching is?

So what is coral?

Looking at coral from its outward appearance, it can be disguised as a simple being that has no other purpose than for fish to inhabit and feed on. Some even mimic a rock substance. It is only when you look within that you realize that it is not a simple being at all.

bleached coral

Coral colonies are made up of tiny, yet extraordinary polyps that resemble sea anemones. An algae called Zooxanthellae, or Zoox,  benefits the coral by living inside the polyps and photosynthesizing. This provides the necessary nutrition a coral needs to be able to be, well, coral.

Benefits of coral

Scientists are fascinated with the advantages that coral provides. In reality, these ancient and complex animals are what millions depend on for their survival. Some benefits of the reef include protection from tropical storms and waves. Also tourism, food, habitat and protection for many marine species, and even medicine. Imagine what would happen if we were to lose all of this due to the recklessness of our own generation? Well, the truth is that we already are on our way to doing so.

Our environment is sufferering

When you take a step back from the normality that our society has been convinced is sufficient and ideal, you will be shocked. As humans we have developed this hunger for more. We can’t get enough whether its money, power, food, clothes, etc. Then we are basing these needs off the idea that we will never run out, thus mass producing. It is only when we wake up from this false mentality that we can see what we are doing to our planet. The environment has been silently suffering from our carelessness for a long time. But it is finally grabbing our attention through natural disasters such coral bleaching. 

a bleached coral reef
Coral bleaching at Molokini Crater

Our carbon pollution is affecting our climate worldwide, especially our oceans. With life as fragile as coral, the rising temperature of only a few degrees can dramatically alter their ability to function. This can almost certainly lead to fatality, or otherwise known as bleaching. Car pollution, factory pollution, mining and burning of coal, and other destructive actions of man are collectively working together to kill coral reefs by stressing them out.

Like humans who react to fevers, the coral reacts to heat by expelling the zooxanthellae. The disruption of the zoox and coral relationship causes the coral to starve. This is due to the lack of nutrients obtained through photosynthesis. They then turn the color white we so famously see, giving it the name “bleaching”. Although most believe that a coral is dead once it has turned this holy white, it is actually still alive. It has the potential to recover. It is only once the tissue is extracted and rotting from the coral that it is officially too late. 

Other factors like overfishing, pollution, and sunscreen, work as a team to cause coral bleaching on our coral reefs. If we continue to go down this wasteful and harmful path, we will only increase the severity of coral bleaching. A species that has survived for centuries is now depleting in only a few years due to the intensity of our ways. It can take decades for a reef to recover and less than a decade to destroy it. If we continue our mass burning of fossil fuels and increase our carbon pollution in the atmosphere, these severe bleaching events will continue annually. Coral is vital to life on Earth and the mass bleaching events are a cry for help. It is now up to us to ensure that the coral reefs are not gone for good.

So what can you do?

A few ways to help save our reefs and our planet:

Transportation (biking, walking, bus)

Reef Safe Sunscreen

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Speak Up

Reduce Runoff in our oceans

Eat sustainably

Keep feet/fins off of the reef 

8 Fun facts about Coral

8 Fun facts about Coral

Coral in Costa Rica

Coral reefs are referred to as the underwater cities of our planet. Diverse species collect and congest the underwater habitat. This gives them an appearance of hectic yet systematic city traffic. Warm-water fish and other marine species gather throughout the ecosystem due to their dependency.

This mass collection of colorful marine life allows many curious visitors to experience such beautiful and natural entertainment. Although when coral reefs are brought up for discussion, we tend to think of this tropical climate only a few feet below the surface, but that is not always the case. Here are some fun facts about the amazing coral reefs that maybe you didn’t know.

They are not just shallow water lovers..

Deeper Corals in Costa Rica

Deep-sea coral reefs can thrive as deep as 2,000m below sea level. With little to no exposure to sunlight, they result to feeding on microscopic organisms where current flow is accelerated. Other marine organisms such as deep sea shrimp and crab depend on these tree like shaped structures for habitat. Deep-sea corals grow about 5-25mm a year and form groves of tree, feather, column, or fan structures. Although they take their time, the underwater gardens created in the depths are very extraordinary. Enough to keep scientists wanting more, despite what little knowledge we currently possess about the depths. 

They have healing properties

Scientists may not have all the answers to questions associated with the depths of our oceans. Although we like to think that we have all the answers about the purpose of more shallow water reefs. We are constantly discovering new key advantages the reef provides for not only marine life, but for humans. Scientists have discovered that the coral’s chemical compounds they produce can be used for numerous healing techniques and medications. For example, for patients suffering from illnesses such as heart disease, viruses and human bacterial infections. Also Alzheimer’s disease, and even cancer. Much more research is still in store, but coral reefs have been considered the “medicine of the 21st century”.

They have ways of looking after themselves too

Coral reefs in costa Rica

Coral reefs are being studied worldwide for their ability to heal humans suffering from various illnesses. They are also being consumed by these humans globally. Yet who is taking care of the coral when they are sick? Different reactions have been displayed by the coral in an effort to get our attention. I think by far the most fascinating presentation has been the Glowing Corals. Coral Bleaching has been a recent but very serious issue which is caused by climate change and has caused the coral to suffer greatly from the heat. In response, the coral develops a sunscreen-like chemical that is very vibrant, giving off a fascinating glow throughout the reef.

Watch your sunblock please!

Although corals are able to produce sunscreen, the topic of sunscreen still needs to be discussed. Studies have shown that many top brand sunscreens we use such as Tropicana and Coppertone possess harmful chemicals like Oxybenzone and Octinoxate which are essentially absorbed by the coral. The chemicals accumulate in the tissue and cause the same reaction to coral as rising ocean temperatures do, coral bleaching. Places such as Hawaii and Palau are taking part in the banning of harmful coral reef sunscreens and a better future for the underwater ecosystem is hopeful.

Plastic? No thank you!

PLAstic on the coral reef

We are fighting for a better future for coral reefs globally but face many obstacles caused by the destructive behavior of man. One of the most concerning issues is the pollution of plastics. Studies found that Astrangia corals actually prefer microplastics over their regular diet (shrimp eggs). Because there is such a large quantity of plastic found in the ocean, researchers have found over 100 pieces of microplastic in the guts of wild coral. I guess you could call this a guilty pleasure. 

Eating is a friendly affair

Coral must have a strong digestive system to consume that much plastic. How do corals consume plastic and other food daily? They do not have eyes therefor it is impossible to hunt visually. Instead, they have strategically developed a relationship with tiny algae living within them called zooxanthellae. The zoox capture sunlight which is converted into sugar for energy. The energy is then transferred to the coral polyp and provides the necessary nourishment. Coral also uses its intelligence to capture food in a very different way. At night, the coral polyps arise from their skeletons and use their stinging tentacles to capture tiny floating zooplankton nearby. Once the prey is captured, it is then pulled into the corals mouth and digested. This strategy therefor classifies coral as an animal. 

Lets get it on……

Like every animal, corals reproduce. But as you can tell by now, nothing about coral is “normal” or “boring”. Of course neither is their reproductive system. They can reproduce both asexually and sexually. Coral reproduces asexually by budding or fragmentation. When budding, the new polyps leave their parent polyps and form new colonies. When fragmentation occurs, an entire colony of coral breaks off to form a new colony. This method is used in many coral restoration efforts. But this also occurs due to storm or boat grounding.

When Coral reproduces sexually, both sperm and egg is released. For some corals, such as Elkhart and Boulder corals, one colony will produce sperm while another colony produces only eggs. For other coral species such as Brain coral, both sperm and eggs are produced at the same time. The coral larvae can be fertilized in either the body of the coral or in the surrounding water. This process is called spawning.

Coral spawning

Synchronization is key

Spawning can occur as a mass synchronized event which draws in many curious visitors. The larvae make their way to the surface of the ocean, which gives off a rather out of this world appearance. Then they make it to where the water meets the air. Following that they begin their final descent back to the ocean floor where they will settle and attach to a hard surface (that is, if they don’t get eaten first). Once attached, they begin their growth cycle and start the process all over again. It is not an easy life for coral, but their complexity and beauty is what keeps us wanting to know more. We still have much to learn about coral reefs and its inhabitants, but the facts that we have discovered shape our way for the future.

Coral Diaries – November begins

Coral Diaries – November begins

November to me, always brings a sense of anticipation. You can feel the summer coming to Costa Rica. In October, businesses take their annual vacation and boats get their bottoms painted November though is the start of the new season. 
Here at Marine Conservation Costa Rica we are also really excited to get back in the water!

Marine Biologist John Reinbott

Starting this season, we welcome John Reinbott to our crew. John is a marine biologist and is fresh from a year long internship at the Coral Restoration FoundationTM in Florida. John and I are going to be working closely together on our coral restoration project. This last week we have been looking at the nurseries. We have also been brainstorming lots of ways we can improve on our current methods…and it’s been fun!

coral conservation intern
Welcome Coral intern – Anna

We also welcome Anna, our new coral intern from Ecuador. She will be helping us with data collection, maintenance and cleaning. Also building new structures and community education.
Looks like it’s going to be an amazing season! 

If you are interested about what we get up to, you  can see on our daily goings on on our Instagram stories @marineconservationcostarica