Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse eco-systems on earth. They prevent coastal erosion and provide food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people in more than 100 countries, with an estimated value of US$375 billion per year.
This essential resource has survived tens of millions of years of natural change but many reefs are now being destroyed by the deliberate actions of mankind.
Despite their importance, very little work had been carried out to establish the best way to restore damaged reefs prior to research by Newcastle University.
Today, reef managers, local governments and the maritime industry use international guidelines shaped by the Newcastle team's findings and their collaborations with colleagues from:
- Singapore, Philippines, Thailand
- Japan, Australia
- USA, Israel, Tanzania and Mexico
Challenging restoration practice
The Newcastle University team was the first to challenge the effectiveness of common coral transplantation strategies. These methods focused on attaching fast-growing coral species onto damaged reefs to speed their recovery but cost on average US$0.5 million per hectare, and sometimes achieved little.
The team concluded that restoration techniques should be used as a last resort. Instead, they highlighted the resilience of the habitats once human impacts such as overfishing, pollution and careless tourism are managed and campaigned for this to take priority.
Where restoration was deemed appropriate, the team highlighted the need for greater attention on the use of more robust, slow-growing coral species. They went on to develop cost-effective techniques for rearing coral from spawn.
The team devised innovative coral ‘plug-ins’ that work by rearing healthy baby corals on cement cylinders embedded with plastic wall plugs the kind used to fit screws into masonry. The plug-ins are then slotted into pre-drilled holes in a damaged reef. Researchers hope they can eventually reduce the cost of this technique to a mere US$1 per coral.
As a by-product, their research has also provided the tools for selective breeding of more temperature tolerant corals that will give reefs a better chance of surviving the threat of global warming.
Alasdair Edwards, Emeritus Professor of Coral Reef Ecology at Newcastle University, said: “We’ve shown that natural recovery will take place where local human impacts are managed.
Better management is the main solution, transplantation is a last resort.”
Get updates on our research
Subscribe to our mailing list to receive updates on this and other key research stories from Newcastle University.