Yes, Coral Reef Gardening Is a Real Thing


A novel approach in the Dominican Republic is helping to regrow a reef system that is 95 percent dead, as Jon Bowermaster reports for

On a recent humid morning, off the eastern tip of the 400-mile long Hispaniola Island—home to both Haiti and the Dominican Republic—I peered out at the blue green sea. Sail due east from this, the most populous island in the Americas, and the next stop is Africa.

But before embarking on that trans-Atlantic journey, you’d have to clear the reef that borders the island. On this particular morning, it was visible a half-mile from shore—a natural, grey-black speed bump sitting just below the surface.

Unfortunately, like most coral reefs in the world, and particularly in the hard-hit Caribbean, the reef off the tip of Puntacana is knocking on death’s doorstep. In the 1980s a disease swept through the system here, killing off 95 percent of the coral.

And around the globe, about one-quarter of coral reefs are considered damaged beyond repair, with another two-thirds under serious threat. Efforts to try and resuscitate—or regrow—reefs around the world is a particular passion of mine, and I’ve written about both the causes of reef die-offs and a variety of projects around the ocean attempting to resuscitate them: Electrified frames in lagoons of Polynesia encouraging fast-growing coral; so-called “reef balls” off the coast of California; even the use of human skeletons to provide growing structures.

On this particular morning, marine biologist Victor Galvan, a native Dominican affiliated with the University of Miami, shows me the novel approach that the Puntacana Ecological Foundation (PEC) is using to build “coral gardens” in the shallows off the tip of the island.

A-frame structures built of metal rods and covered with mesh serve as the “nurseries” to which small fragments of four different species of healthy coral are attached. Monitored and maintained for 18 months, these nurseries are trimmed, with healthy tissue being transplanted to degraded reefs. To date, roughly 300 feet of regrowth has been transplanted in this fashion.

“In 2010 we had seven frames,” says Galvan, “Today we have 52, with nearly 200 fragments on each. We are growing more tissue of one specific species than an entire coastline…and the process is starting to catch on around the country.”

Encouraging visiting divers to volunteer as coral gardeners—and gain PADI certification in the process—is a direct appeal to the nearly four million visitors who come to this corner of the Caribbean each year.

Getting locals involved in the restoration is key too.

Like the coastal world around the globe, reefs have been damaged by a handful of factors: Climate change, overfishing, acidification, disease, and development. The PEC is trying to counter the local impacts it can actually control, specifically overfishing and over development.

Susan Leib is the Foundation’s Coastal Marine Project Coordinator. Her job includes mapping an overall plan for protecting the 10-mile by 2.5-mile strip of sea that fronts Puntacana Resort. It also means working with local fishermen to encourage them to take ownership of the fishery, thus becoming its protectors.

This union is a global struggle, especially when trying to mix high-end resorts with long-standing fishing communities. Oftentimes, when resorts are built, fishermen feel threatened, and too often enemies are made when partnerships are the answer.

The reality is that if the reef goes, it hurts economies, tourism and fishing. Trying to negotiate ways to work together, and to include both local and national governments, is a delicate balancing act faced on virtually every island and coastline in the world.

Nearly a decade ago, the PEC started the Partnership for Ecologically Sustainable Coastal Areas (PESCA), in an effort to coordinate long-term efforts to protect this economically important corner of the island. It includes the coral garden project, but also encourages visitors and locals alike to better respect the sea and to protect it.

There are rewards for both fishermen and tourists too, says Leib, a native of Colombia who has been in Puntacana for almost three years. “There are 45 fishermen who fish out of the marina and when they see that we are working with them to protect the fishery they start to realize they are better off than when there were no protected areas.”

Water and sand quality testing, discouraging night fishing and gill netting, encouraging the fishing of invasive lionfish, starting upof a fishermen’s co-op as well as writing a “code of conduct” for tourist operators are all on Leib’s short list of accomplishments.

Getting non-fishing locals involved is also key to the program’s success, though it is often difficult on an island where many natives don’t swim, and have never dived. If you don’t go in the water, it’s hard to know what is at risk.

“It’s an old saying here,” offers Victor, “that Dominicans live with their backs to the sea.” The most popular island fare? Chicken, not fish.

“We cannot tackle these issues globally,” says Leib, “but we can focus on them locally. Like so many issues, getting the youth involved—in coral restoration, responsible tourism and more—may be our most important challenge.”

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