Community-Based Coral Reef Rehabilitation in a Changing Climate: Lessons Learned from Hurricanes, Extreme Rainfall, and Changing Land Use Impacts
Coral reefs have largely declined across multiple spatial scales due to a combination of local-scale anthropogenic impacts, and due to regional-global climate change. This has resulted in a significant loss of entire coral functional groups, including western Atlantic Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) biotopes, and in a net decline of coral reef ecosystem resilience, ecological functions, services and benefits. Low-tech coral farming has become one of the most important tools to help restore depleted coral reefs across the Wider Caribbean Region. We tested a community-based, low-tech coral farming approach in Culebra Island, Puerto Rico, aimed at adapting to climate change-related impacts through a two-year project to propagate A. cervicornis under two contrasting fishing management conditions, in coastal areas experimenting significant land use changes. Extreme rainfall events and recurrent tropical storms and hurricanes had major site-and method-specific impacts on project outcome, particularly in areas adjacent to deforested lands and subjected to recurrent impacts from land-based source pollution (LBSP) and runoff. Overall, coral survival rate in “A frame” units improved from 73% during 2011-2012 to 81% during 2012-2013. Coral survival rate improved to 97% in horizontal line nurseries (HLN) incorporated during 2012-2013. Percent tissue cover ranged from 86% to 91% in “A frames”, but reached 98% in HLN. Mean coral skeletal extension was 27 cm/y in “A frames” and 40 cm/y in HLN. These growth rates were up to 545% to 857% faster than previous reports from coral farms from other parts of the Caribbean, and up to 438% faster than wild colonies. Branch production and branchiness index (no. harvestable branches > 6 cm) increased by several orders of magnitude in comparison to the original colonies at the beginning of the project. Coral mortality was associated to hurricane physical impacts and sediment-laden runoff impacts associated to extreme rainfall and deforestation of adjacent lands. This raises a challenging question regarding the impact of chronic high sea surface temperature (SST), in combination with recurrent high nutrient pulses, in fostering increased coral growth at the expense of coral physiological conditions which may compromise corals resistance to disturbance. Achieving successful local management of reefs and adjacent lands is vital to maintain the sustained net production in coral farms and of reef structure, and the provision of the important ecosystem services that they provide. These measures are vital for buying time for reefs while global action on climate change is implemented. Adaptive community-based strategies are critical to strengthen institutional management efforts. But government agencies need to transparently build local trust, empower local stakeholders, and foster co-management to be fully successful. Failing to achieve that could make community-based coral reef rehabilitation more challenging, and could potentially drive rapidly declining, transient coral reefs into the slippery slope to slime.