Future Perfect A ray of hope for underwater life

A healthy colony ready for the nursery
A healthy colony ready for the nursery | © (CC BY-NC-ND): Richard Walker

Dr Austin Bowden-Kerby is not so young anymore. But he overflows with the energy and passion of youth. “Wow! Look at this coral!” I swim over. “It’s a staghorn. They’re very rare here” he gushes. We’re exploring in waters off the Beach House, a small retreat on Fiji’s famous Coral Coast. Soon after, another call: “I found Nemo!” A shy clown fish darts into hiding. Later he chomps into an edible seaweed drifting past. “They say it’s a great aphrodisiac” he winks.

His enthusiasm for life on the reef is infectious, but it hides a more serious concern. That these reefs that he loves might not be around in just a few decades. “Most of the projections say that by the year 2050 the coral reefs will be gone.” But Austin has a plan. He wants to save the world, and he’s starting with coral.

Save coral reefs, save the planet

“The Earth has a fever, and it is called climate change.” Austin – an American-born marine biologist who now calls Fiji home – is blunt about the challenges we face. “We all know that our home is in big trouble… we are out of balance.” But why focus on coral?
 
  • Austin with his team. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Richard Walker
    Austin with his team.
  • The concrete legs of the nursery tables are dropped onto the site. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Richard Walker
    The concrete legs of the nursery tables are dropped onto the site.
  • On the morning of Day 2, the sun finally comes out. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Richard Walker
    On the morning of Day 2, the sun finally comes out.
  • Austin and his team construct the first of the nursery tables. Raised up, the corals will be safe from Crown of Thorns Starfish. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Richard Walker
    Austin and his team construct the first of the nursery tables. Raised up, the corals will be safe from Crown of Thorns Starfish.
  • A healthy colony ready for the nursery. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Richard Walker
    A healthy colony ready for the nursery.
  • Healthy corals were hard to find on a reef were many had died. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Richard Walker
    Healthy corals were hard to find on a reef were many had died.
  • The coral gardener presents wild corals ready for the nursery. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Richard Walker
    The coral gardener presents wild corals ready for the nursery.
  • Austin and his team attach the corals to the nursery table. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Richard Walker
    Austin and his team attach the corals to the nursery table.
  • A complete coral nursery. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Berna Tural
    A complete coral nursery.
  • The author himself is visiting the coral nursery. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Berna Tural
    The author himself is visiting the coral nursery.
Coral reefs provide food, livelihoods and coastal protection to a billion people worldwide. They occupy less than one percent of the ocean’s area, but are home to a quarter of all marine species. According to Austin, coral reefs are the most sensitive of our environmental systems. They are the front line in the battle against climate change. “If we can save this system, we can save the planet.”

To save a reef, garden it

But how do you save a coral reef? Here’s one way: cultivate it, harvest it, regrow it. Garden it! Austin Bowden-Kerby is a coral gardener. He has been working in the ocean for more than 40 years. The idea for coral gardening was planted – literally – on the dynamite-blasted reefs of Micronesia. “I tried breaking up corals, branches of corals, and throwing them down. And on these broken areas I got instant reef!” It’s not quite instant – the coral branches that Austin placed on the rubble of dead reefs took at least six months to fully establish themselves. But they grew, and Austin was encouraged. Lots of work and one PhD later, and he is confident that coral gardening is the way to save the world’s reefs.

Decades on, Austin has used coral gardening techniques to start rebuilding reefs across the world, and trained others to do the same. But he stresses that it’s not a quick fix. “I don’t pretend that I’m trying to replant the whole reef. You can’t do it.” What you can do is replant a patch to create “a pocket of health” that will grow and spread on its own.

So how does it work? First, find a good spot that has everything a garden needs – sunlight, space, protection from the elements. Create a nursery where the corals grow. In time, harvest the corals and place them back into the reef, where they take hold, reproduce and spread. And the best thing? With a bit of training and know-how, anyone can play their part. “This is something people can do. It can be done on a small scale and repeated, repeated, repeated to have a major impact”.

Saving the reef with ‘super corals’

But coral gardening has changed since Austin first started. In early 2016 global water temperatures rose dramatically. Reefs were damaged across the world. Once flourishing sites that Austin had worked on became completely bleached, and died. These spikes in temperature are likely to be the norm from now on. So Austin only wants to plant corals that he knows can withstand hotter water without bleaching. He calls them ‘super corals’. The waters off the Beach House reached 34 degrees Celsius in early 2016. That’s three or four degrees higher than bleaching temperature for most corals around the world. Which means that whatever has survived here may be some of the most heat-resistant coral on the planet.

I’m following Austin as he hunts for surviving super corals. But there isn’t much to be found. When he finds a small colony he is ecstatic. He carefully detaches the coral from its rock and transports it back to the nursery.

The whole point of this trip is to figure out which of these corals will survive in a hot-water future. “Unless we actually know that what we’re planting will survive into the future, why plant it?” Austin is looking for as many different species and genotypes of coral as he can find to put in the super coral nursery. Some may not survive the summer, but the ones that do will be some of the toughest corals around. Perfect for regrowing a heat-resistant reef.

In a year or so, these super corals will be trimmed and the second-generation corals put back onto the reef. From there everything is in Mother Nature’s hands. The corals will grow and eventually spawn, releasing their offspring into the water to create new colonies of heat-resistant corals as far as the tide will take them. But why not just leave these ‘super corals’ where they are? Sadly, rising water temperatures are not the only threat to corals. With its natural predators overfished, the coral-eating Crown of Thorns Starfish runs rampant across Fiji’s reefs. They eat one fist-sized coral every day. “Every bleaching resistant colony that we bring into the nursery has a much better chance of surviving under care than it does in the wild,” says Austin.

Seeing the bigger picture

Austin wants to see coral gardeners all over Fiji. And he wants to train them in his techniques to manage and restore their home reef. What’s more, he wants them to team up with resorts. Already, several resorts have employed trained coral gardeners. Communities need the reef for their food. Resorts need the reef for their business. It’s a win-win.

But Austin knows that coral gardening alone is not enough. If fish are to return to the reef they need protection from overfishing. So locally managed marine areas and ‘no take’ zones are vital. But if you ask local villages not to catch fish, where do they get their protein? Austin is working on that too – his ‘Happy Chickens for Healthy Reefs’ project trains people in poultry farming. So far he has hatched and distributed over 15,000 baby chicks.

Austin thinks big – it isn’t just about saving the reef. Austin’s whole purpose is to provide hope. To show people that something can be done. To inspire. “Corals excite people. They get people involved. It’s like a ray of hope in this really dark time. We need this hope.”