Citizens meet coral gardening

12 10 2021

It is possible to cultivate corals in the sea like growing a nursery of trees to restore a burned forest. Cultivated corals grow faster than wild corals and can be outplanted to increase the healthy area of damaged reefs. Incorporated in projects of citizen science and ecotourism, this activity promotes environmental awareness about coral reefs, the marine ecosystem that is both the most biodiverse and the most threatened by global change.

When I finished by undergraduate studies in the 1980s, I met several top Spanish marine biologists to prospect my first job ever in academia. In all one-to-one interviews I had, I was asked what my interests were. And when I described that I wanted to study ways of modifying impacted marine ecosystems to restore their biodiversity, a well-known professor judged that my proposition was an inviable form of jardinería marina (marine gardening) ― those words made me feel embarrassed and have remained vivid in my professional imagination since. Neither the expert nor the young researcher knew at the time that we were actually talking about ecological restoration, a discipline that was being formalised exactly then by botanists in their pledge to recover pre-European conditions for North American grasslands (1).

Aspects of coral gardening. The photos show (top) a diver scraping off (with the aid of a toothbrush) algae, sponges and parasites that compete for light and nutrients with the coral fragments under cultivation along suspended ropes (Cousin Island, Seychelles), (middle) coral outplantings in the Gulf of Eliat (Red Sea) hosting a diverse community of fish that clean off the biofouling for free (21), and (bottom) a donor colony farmed off Onna (Okinawa, Japan) (12). Photos courtesy of Luca Saponari (Cousin), Buki Rinkevich (Eliat) and Yoshimi Higa / Onna Village Fishery Cooperative.

Today, the term coral gardening encompasses the suite of methods to cultivate corals (tiny colonial jellyfish with an external skeleton and a carnivorous diet) and to outplant them into the wild to boost the growth of coral reefs following perturbations (2). In the face of the decline of coral reefs globally, due to the combination of climate change, pollution, and overfishing (3), this type of mariculture has gathered momentum in the last three decades and is currently being applied to more than 100 coral species in all the main reefs of our seas and oceans (4-6).

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Influential conservation ecology papers of 2017

27 12 2017

Gannet Shallow Diving 03
As I have done for the last four years (20162015, 2014, 2013), here’s another retrospective list of the top 20 influential conservation papers of 2017 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime.

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More species = more resilience

8 01 2014

reef fishWhile still ostensibly ‘on leave’ (side note: Does any scientist really ever take a proper holiday? Perhaps a subject for a future blog post), I cannot resist the temptation to blog about our lab’s latest paper that just came online today. In particular, I am particularly proud of Dr Camille Mellin, lead author of the study and all-round kick-arse quantitative ecologist, who has outdone herself on this one.

Today’s subject is one I’ve touched on before, but to my knowledge, the relationship between ‘diversity’ (simply put, ‘more species’) and ecosystem resilience (i.e., resisting extinction) has never been demonstrated so elegantly. Not only is the study elegant (admission: I am a co-author and therefore my opinion is likely to be biased toward the positive), it demonstrates the biodiversity-stability hypothesis in a natural setting (not experimental) over a range of thousands of kilometres. Finally, there’s an interesting little twist at the end demonstrating yet again that ecology is more complex than rocket science.

Despite a legacy of debate, the so-called diversity-stability hypothesis is now a widely used rule of thumb, and its even implicit in most conservation planning tools (i.e., set aside areas with more species because we assume more is better). Why should ‘more’ be ‘better’? Well, when a lot of species are interacting and competing in an ecosystem, the ‘average’ interactions that any one species experiences are likely to be weaker than in a simpler, less diverse system. When there are a lot of different niches occupied by different species, we also expect different responses to environmental fluctuations among the community, meaning that some species inherently do better than others depending on the specific disturbance. Species-rich systems also tend to have more of what we call ‘functional redundancy‘, meaning that if one species providing an essential ecosystem function (e.g., like predation) goes extinct, there’s another, similar species ready to take its place. Read the rest of this entry »

Essential predators

21 11 2012

© C. Hilton

Here at, My contributors and I have highlighted the important regulating role of predators in myriad systems. We have written extensively on the mesopredator release concept applied to dingos, sharks and coyotes, but we haven’t really expanded on the broader role of predators in more complex systems.

This week comes an elegant experimental study (and how I love good experimental evidence of complex ecological processes and how they affect population persistence and ecosystem stability, resilience and productivity) demonstrating, once again, just how important predators are for healthy ecosystems. Long story short – if your predators are not doing well, chances are the rest of the ecosystem is performing poorly.

Today’s latest evidence comes from on an inshore marine system in Ireland involving crabs (Carcinus maenas), whelks (Nucella lapillus), gastropd grazers (Patella vulgata, Littorina littorea and Gibbula umbilicalis), mussels (Mytilus edulis) and macroalgae. Published in Journal of Animal Ecology, O’Connor and colleagues’ paper (Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of predators in complex ecosystems) explains how their controlled experimental removals of different combinations of predators (crabs & whelks) and their herbivore prey (mussels & gastropods) affected primary producer (macroalgae) diversity and cover (see Figure below and caption from O’Connor et al.). Read the rest of this entry »

The Biodiversity Club

11 10 2012

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species uses 5 quantitative criteria to allocate species to 9 categories of extinction risk. The criteria are based on ecological theory (1, 2), and are therefore subject to modification and critique. With pros and cons (3-6), and intrigues (7, 8), the list has established itself as an important tool for assessing the state of biodiversity globally and, more recently, regionally.

We all carry codes of some sort; that is, unique alphanumeric labels identifying our membership in a collectivity. Some of those codes (e.g., a videoclub customer number) make sense only locally, some do internationally (e.g., passport number). Species are also members of the club of biodiversity and, by virtue of our modern concern for their conservation, the status of many taxa has been allocated to alphanumeric categories under different rationales such as extinction risk or trading schemes (5, 9-13). Contradiction emerges when taxa might be threatened locally but not internationally, or vice versa.

In the journal Biological Conservation, a recent paper (14) has echoed the problem for the seagrass Zostera muelleri. This marine phanerogam occurs in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, and is listed as “Least Concern” (LC) with “Stable” population trend by the IUCN. Matheson et al. (14) stated that such status neglects the “substantial loss” of seagrass habitats in New Zealand, and that the attribution of “prolific seed production” to the species reflects the IUCN assessment bias towards Australian populations. The IUCN Seagrass Red List Authority, Fred Short, responded (15) that IUCN species ratings indicate global status (i.e., not representative for individual countries) and that, based on available quantitative data and expert opinion, the declines of Z. muelleri are localised and offset by stable or expanding populations throughout its range. Read the rest of this entry »

Marine protected areas: do they work?

13 08 2010

One measure that often meets great resistance from fishermen, but is beloved by conservationists, is the establishment of marine protected or ‘no take’ areas.” Stephen J. Hall (1998)

I’m going to qualify this particular post with a few disclaimers; first, I am not involved in the planning of any marine protected areas (henceforth referred to as ‘marine parks’) in Australia or elsewhere; and second, despite blogging on the issue, I have never published in the discipline of protected area design (i.e, ‘conservation planning’ is not my area of expertise).

That said, it seems to becoming more imperative that I enter the fray and assess not only how marine parks should be designed, but how effective they really are (or can be). I’ve been asked by several conservation NGOs to provide some insight into this, so I thought I should ‘think aloud’ and blog a little mini-review about marine park effectiveness.

Clearly there is a trend to establish more marine parks around the world, and this is mainly because marine conservation lags so far behind terrestrial conservation. Indeed, Spalding et al. (2008) showed that only 4.1 % of continental shelf areas are incorporated within marine parks, and ~ 50 % of all marine ecoregions have less than 1 % marine park coverage across the shelf. Furthermore, marine protection is greatest in the tropical realms, while temperate realms are still poorly represented.

The question of whether marine parks ‘work’ is, however, more complicated than it might first appear. When one asks this question, it is essential to define how the criteria for success are to be measured. Whether it’s biodiversity protection, fisheries production, recreational revenue, community acceptance/involvement or some combination of the above, your conclusion is likely to vary from place to place.

Other complications are, of course, that if you cannot ensure a marine park is adequately enforced (i.e., people don’t respect the rules) or if you don’t actually place the park anywhere near things that need protecting, there will be no real net benefit (for any of the above-mentioned interest groups). Furthermore, most marine parks these days have many different types of uses allowed in different zones (e.g., no fishing, some fishing, recreational diving only, no boat transport, some shipping, etc., etc., etc.), so it gets difficult to test for specific effects (it’s a bit like a cap-and-trade legislation for carbon – too many rules and often no real net reduction in carbon emissions – but that’s another story).

All these conditions aside, I think it’s a good idea to present what the real experts have been telling us about marine park effectiveness from a biodiversity and fishing perspective over the last decade or so. I’ll summarise some of the major papers here and give an overall assessment at the end. I do not contend that this list is even remotely comprehensive, but it does give a good cross-section of the available evidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Sleuthing the Chinese green slime monster

21 10 2009

greenslimemonsterI just returned from a week-long scientific mission in China sponsored by the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I was invited to attend a special symposium on Marine and Deltaic Systems where research synergies between Australian and Chinese scientists were to be explored. The respective academies really rolled out the red carpet for the 30 or so Australian scientists on board, so I feel very honoured to have been invited.

During our marine workshop, one of my Chinese counterparts, Dongyan Liu from the Yantai Institute for Coastal Zone Research, presented a brilliant piece of ecological sleuthing that I must share with readers of

The first time you go to China the thing that strikes you is that everything is big – big population, big cities, big buildings, big projects, big budgets and big, big, big environmental problems. After many years of overt environmental destruction in the name of development, the Chinese government (aided by some very capable scientists) is now starting to address the sins of the past.

Liu and colleagues published their work earlier this year in Marine Pollution Bulletin in a paper entitled World’s largest macroalgal bloom caused by expansion of seaweed aquaculture in China, which describes a bloody massive outbreak of a particularly nasty ‘green tide’.

What’s a ‘green tide’? In late June 2008 in the coastal city of Qingdao not far from Beijing (and just before the 2008 Olympics), a whopping 1 million tonnes of green muck washed up along approximately 400 km2 of coastline. It took 10,000 volunteers 2 weeks to clean up the mess. At the time, many blamed the rising eutrophication of coastal China as the root cause, and a lot of people got their arse kicked over it. However, the reality was that it wasn’t so simple.

The Yellow Sea abutting this part of the Chinese coast is so named because of its relatively high productivity. Warm waters combined with good mixing mean that there are plenty of essential nutrients for green things to grow. So, adding thousands of tonnes of fertilisers from Chinese agricultural run-off seems like a logical explanation for the bloom.

Qingdoa green tide 2008 © Elsevier

Qingdao green tide 2008 © Elsevier

However, it turns out that the bulk of the green slime was comprised of a species called Enteromorpha prolifera, and it just so happens that this particularly unsavoury seaweed loves to grow on the infrastructure used for the aquaculture of nori (a.k.a. amanori or zicai) seaweed (mainly, Porphyra yezoensis). Problem is, P. yezoensis is grown mainly on the coast hundreds of kilometres to the south.

Liu and colleagues examined both satellite imagery and detailed oceanographic data from the period prior to the green tide and not only spotted green splotches many kilometres long, they also determined that the current flow and wind direction placed the trajectory of any green slime mats straight for Qingdao.

So, how does it happen? Biofouling by E. prolifera on P. yezoensis aquaculture frames is dealt with mainly by manual cleaning and then dumping the unwanted muck on the tidal flats. When the tide comes back in, it washes many thousands of kilos of this stuff back out to sea, which then accumulates in rafts and continues to grow in the warm, rich seas. Subsequent genetic work also confirmed that the muck at sea was the same stock as the stuff growing on the aquaculture frames.

Apart from some lovely sleuthing work, the implications are pretty important from a biodiversity perspective. Massive eutrophication coupled with aquaculture that inadvertently spawns a particularly nasty biofouling species is a good recipe for oxygen depletion in areas where the eventual slime monster starts to decay. This can lead to so-called ‘dead’ zones that can kill off huge numbers of marine species. So, the proper management of aquaculture in the hungry Goliath that is China becomes essential to reduce the incidence of dead zones.

Fortunately, it looks like Liu and colleagues’ work is being taken seriously by the Chinese government who is now contemplating financial support for aquaculturists to clean their infrastructure properly without dumping the sludge to sea. A simple policy shift could save a lot of species, a lot of money, and a lot of embarrassment (not to mention prevent a lot of bad smells).

CJA Bradshaw

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ResearchBlogging.orgLiu, D., Keesing, J., Xing, Q., & Shi, P. (2009). World’s largest macroalgal bloom caused by expansion of seaweed aquaculture in China Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58 (6), 888-895 DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2009.01.013