EPA Joins the Nature Conservancy, NOAA, in Releasing Guide to Coral Reef Restoration Planning and Design
Published January 28, 2021
Referred to as “cities of the sea,” coral reefs are among the most vital and diverse habitats in the world. Home to a quarter of the world's marine fish and more than a million species, coral reefs also serve as protective barriers for shorelines and as lucrative, life-sustaining fishing sources and tourist attractions for coastal and island communities. However, climate change and human behaviors severely threaten these magnificent ecosystems. As global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise, waters become warmer and more acidic, leading to devastating reef degradation. Additionally, pollution and overfishing can disrupt coral reefs’ ecological functions, stunting growth and preventing reproduction. As a result, researchers have observed staggering damage and decay among coral reefs worldwide.
Beginning in the 2000s, resource managers and practitioners have implemented modern restoration technologies to combat coral reef degradation. Restoration techniques may include transplanting coral colonies to more hospitable locations, growing new coral fragments in nurseries and outplanting them to reefs, or attaching man-made artificial structures to reefs. These and several other interventions show promise in mitigating environmental impacts on coral reefs and encouraging substantial reef recovery.
However, researchers including Dr. Elizabeth Shaver, Science Lead for the Reef Resilience Network at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and Dr. Jordan West, Senior Ecologist at the EPA, identified a significant knowledge gap in the planning and development of reef restoration endeavors.
To address this gap, Shaver, West, and their colleagues created “A Manager’s Guide to Coral Reef Restoration Planning and Design.” The Guide, a collaborative effort among TNC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), EPA, and other partners, is a tool for reef managers as they plan, design, and implement restoration projects. The Guide details a six-step framework to identify and prioritize the needs and goals of a restoration project, select appropriate interventions, develop and implement an action plan, and monitor and evaluate project outcomes.
Shaver explains the motivation behind the Guide: “We want people to have a resource that they can use to determine whether or not they want to do restoration…[A]nd if they are going to go ahead with restoration, they are able to really think through what their goals are and how restoration can complement existing management programs.”
Shaver also notes that reef restoration can be costly and time consuming, as reefs can take decades to recover, so it is a process that can benefit from prior planning.
The Guide promotes an “adaptive management” strategy that encourages managers to consider climate change effects throughout the restoration planning and design process. Adaptive management includes continuous experimentation and refinement of methods across the project timeline, allowing for flexibility in the wake of changing environmental stressors.
To implement an adaptive management strategy, the authors of the Guide included “climate-smart considerations,” which managers can use as guiding questions in their design processes. West explains that there are two main questions associated with climate-smart considerations. First, how is climate change likely to affect stressors of concern to chosen restoration interventions? Second, how must the design of interventions be adjusted to account for these climate-induced stressors? To illustrate the considerations, West uses the example of artificial reef construction as an intervention. It is important to consider factors such as the composition, quantity, and position of artificial reefs, to ensure that they withstand environmental stressors. Overall, climate-smart considerations facilitate critical thinking, more detailed design, and therefore more effective restoration projects.
Restoration is a major step toward attenuating the detrimental effects of climate change and human factors on coral reefs. With the help of the Guide, Shaver and West are optimistic that managers and practitioners can conduct effective projects with sustainable results.
However, as Shaver mentions, restoration is only one part of a greater solution: “Restoration is not a sliver bullet. It is not going to fix all of the problems, and it is not going to keep reefs around forever…[I]t needs to be paired with effective management and climate change mitigation.”
The Guide acknowledges that restoration is more successful when combined with effective management of local stressors. Water quality, for example, can affect reef health and the overall efficacy of restoration. When restoration and management are performed together, the organisms that rely on coral reefs for survival, and the communities that use reefs as critical resources, will reap the benefits of restoration.
As reef managers use the Guide, Shaver and West hope to see thoughtfully planned, effective restoration projects that improve reef health for decades to come. Following the Guide’s release, Shaver, West, and their collaborators plan to facilitate the use of the Guide in various locations, and to host online trainings for those interested in restoration. Furthermore, West seeks to adapt and implement strategies from the Guide in other aquatic resilience projects, demonstrating its versatility within the conservation field.