Enhancing coral recruitment through assisted mass settlement of cultured coral larvae
The escalating rate at which coral communities are declining globally requires urgent intervention and new approaches to reef management to reduce and halt further coral loss. For reef systems with limited natural larval supply, the introduction of large numbers of competent coral larvae directly to natural reef substrata provides a potentially useful approach to replenish adult coral populations. While few experiments have tested this approach, only one experiment has demonstrated its long-term success to date. Given the differences in life-history traits among corals, and different sensitivities of larvae to abiotic and biotic factors, coupled with the dynamic nature of post-settlement survivorship and recruitment processes, trials of the larval enhancement technique with larvae of different coral species are needed to test the broader applicability and viability of this approach. Accordingly, in this paper we examine the applicability of the larval enhancement technique to restore a population of Acropora loripes in the Bolinao-Anda Reef Complex, Pangasinan, northwestern Philippines. Larvae were cultured ex situ following spawning of collected A. loripes colonies in June 2014. Competent larvae were transported to degraded reef areas and approximately 300,000 larvae were introduced in each of three 6 × 4 m plots directly on the reef. Fine mesh enclosures retained the larvae inside each treatment plot for five days. Three adjacent 6 × 4 m plots that served as controls were also covered with mesh enclosures, but no larvae were introduced. Each plot contained ten 10 × 10 cm conditioned settlement tiles cut from dead tabulate Acropora that were used to quantify initial larval settlement. After allowing larval settlement for five days, mean settlement on tiles from the larval enhancement plots that were monitored under stereomicroscopes was significantly higher (27.8 ± 6.7 spat per tile) than in control plots, in which not a single recruit was recorded. Post-settlement survivorship and growth of spat and coral recruits on tiles and reef substrata inside the experimental plots were monitored periodically for 35 months. After 35 months, the mean size of each of the remaining 47 A. loripes coral colonies surviving on the reef substrata was 438.1 ± 5.4 cm3, with a mean diameter of 7.9 ± 0.6 cm. The average production cost for each of the surviving A. loripes colonies at 35 months was USD 35.20. These colonies are expected to spawn and contribute to the natural larval pool when they become reproductively mature, thereby enhancing natural coral recovery in the area. This study demonstrates that mass coral larval enhancement can be successfully used for restoring populations of coral species with different life-history traits, and the techniques can rapidly increase larval recruitment rates on degraded reef areas, hence catalysing the regeneration of declining coral populations.