Coral reef restoration efforts in Latin American countries and territories

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Scientific article

Coral reef restoration efforts in Latin American countries and territories


Coral reefs worldwide are degrading due to climate change, overfishing, pollution, coastal development, coral bleaching, and diseases. In areas where the natural recovery of an ecosystem is negligible or protection through management interventions insufficient, active restoration becomes critical. The Reef Futures symposium in 2018 brought together over 400 reef restoration experts, businesses, and civil organizations, and galvanized them to save coral reefs through restoration or identify alternative solutions. The symposium highlighted that solutions and discoveries from long-term and ongoing coral reef restoration projects in Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean and Eastern Tropical Pacific were not well known internationally. Therefore, a meeting of scientists and practitioners working in these locations was held to compile the data on the extent of coral reef restoration efforts, advances and challenges. Here, we present unpublished data from 12 coral reef restoration case studies from five Latin American countries, describe their motivations and techniques used, and provide estimates on total annual project cost per unit area of reef intervened, spatial extent as well as project duration. We found that most projects used direct transplantation, the coral gardening method, micro-fragmentation or larval propagation, and aimed to optimize or scale-up restoration approaches (51%) or provide alternative, sustainable livelihood opportunities (15%) followed by promoting coral reef conservation stewardship and re-establishing a self-sustaining, functioning reef ecosystems (both 13%). Reasons for restoring coral reefs were mainly biotic and experimental (both 42%), followed by idealistic and pragmatic motivations (both 8%). The median annual total cost from all projects was $93,000 USD (range: $10,000 USD—$331,802 USD) (2018 dollars) and intervened a median spatial area of 1 ha (range: 0.06 ha—8.39 ha). The median project duration was 3 years; however, projects have lasted up to 17 years. Project feasibility was high with a median of 0.7 (range: 0.5–0.8). This study closes the knowledge gap between academia and practitioners and overcomes the language barrier by providing the first comprehensive compilation of data from ongoing coral reef restoration efforts in Latin America.


Active restoration is defined as the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed [1]. It may be increasingly necessary on coral reefs, once it has been determined that the natural recovery of corals is hindered [2]. In comparison, rehabilitation is typically described as the replacement of structural or functional characteristics of an ecosystem that have been diminished or lost [3]. As for any conservation intervention, setting clear goals and defining indicators to measure progress towards these goals is of pivotal role in judging success [4]. The goal of any restoration action is to eventually establish self‐sustaining, sexually reproducing populations with enough genetic variation enabling them to adapt to a changing environment [5–7].

Coral reef restoration may play a particularly important role where coral species are threatened with extinction. The Caribbean Elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata, and Staghorn coral, A. cervicornis, were once widely distributed and among the major reef-building species in the region [8]. Both species are now listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List [9] as a result of major losses in cover of both species throughout the Caribbean since the 1970s [10].

The lack of natural recovery of Caribbean coral reefs [11] has spurred the need for active management programs to assist in their recovery [12, 13]. Management actions include effective spatial planning, enforcement, no take zones, treatment of sewage and protection of adjoining ecosystems such as mangroves [12, 14–16]. Resilience-based management of coral reefs [17] may stimulate coral recovery, especially if applied in conjunction with active restoration [13, 18]. The rationale being that seeding corals onto reefs where larval supply or post-settlement survival have been inadequate, will only be successful if the conditions are suitable for supporting their survival and growth.

Several techniques are used for the restoration of coral reefs. The most common techniques are based on asexual methods such as direct transplantation, coral gardening, and micro-fragmentation [19]. An alternative technique, larval propagation, is based on the collection of gametes and the consequent culturing of embryos and larvae, after which the coral spat are either grown in ex situ aquaria to larger-sized colonies or are outplanted onto degraded reefs at approximately one month old [20]. While the techniques used to restore coral reefs are reviewed elsewhere (e.g. [19, 21–23]), here we focus on direct transplantation, coral gardening, micro-fragmentation, and larval propagation as the techniques most-commonly employed by the case studies in the study area. One of the oldest techniques used in coral reef restoration is direct transplantation of corals [24], which involves the harvesting of coral colonies from a donor site and their immediate transplantation to a restoration site or re-attaching colonies that have been dislodged by a ship grounding, storm or hurricane [25]. The coral gardening approach was developed to scale-up restoration while reducing the stress on donor colonies. Fragments of corals are harvested from donor colonies, grown in nurseries to a threshold size [18] before being transplanted onto a degraded reef [26, 27]. Nurseries can be ocean-based (in situ) or land-based (ex situ). In situ nurseries are typically located in sheltered environments where conditions are favourable for coral growth and safe from predation, storm surges, and wave energy, and are regularly maintained and cleaned by physical removal of algal growth [28]. However, strategic siting of ocean nurseries can promote the recruitment of fish assemblages that remove biofouling through grazing, thus may significantly reduce person-hours spent in nursery cleaning [29]. In situ nurseries can have many shapes and sizes. For example, they can consist of floating mid-water structures built using ropes, mesh or cages [29–32], structures placed on concrete, tables or frames [33], PVC ‘trees’ [34], PVC grids or dead coral bommies [35]. Ex situ nurseries typically use flow-through large aquaria or raceways, and require continuous access to electricity, water quality monitoring, and control of temperature and light availability [36]. Micro-fragmentation is an approach especially useful for slow-growing massive corals. This technique involves the fragmentation of parts of a massive coral donor to yield multiple ~1 cm2 fragments. The fragments are placed close to each other on either artificial substrates or on the surface of dead coral colonies. The micro-fragments, as they recognize neighbouring fragments as kin, grow towards each other and fuse [37]. Ideally, they are outplanted to the degraded reef at a size of ~6 cm2 [37, 38]. Larval propagation involves the breeding of corals from eggs and sperm. Studies describing this technique typically report the use of raceways with seawater flow-through systems where coral spawn is collected from the wild, fertilization is assisted, embryos are cultured to larvae, which are settled onto substrates and then transported and seeded onto a degraded coral reef [39–42]. This process has also been referred to as larval enhancement, sexual propagation, sexual coral cultivation or larval reseeding [21]. As an emerging larval propagation technique, larval restoration concentrates coral larvae over enhancement plots on the degraded reef to facilitate coral larvae settlement directly to the substrate, without the need for laboratory facilities [43]. The first attempts to use larval seeding on the reef have been developed only recently (in 2002, [44]) and it is still a matter of active debate whether direct seeding of mass-cultured coral larvae is an effective option for reef rehabilitation [43, 45]. The main advantages of the larval propagation techniques are that they increase the genetic diversity among restored coral populations thus enabling increased rates of adaptation and improved resilience in the context of climate change [46], and they have the potential to be used over large scales while reducing the cost [39]. Also, they do not cause damage to the parent colonies when gametes are collected in situ with nets or from spawn slicks without removing the gravid colonies from their location.

While efforts in the USA, Australia or places where European scientists conduct their research are well described in the published literature and disseminated at conferences, there is a paucity of documentation on coral reef restoration projects carried out by practitioners in the Caribbean and Eastern Tropical Pacific. Reasons for this lack of exchange may be the language barrier, lack of interest in knowledge transfer between higher and lower income countries or cultural differences as well as lack of funding. In 2018, the Reef Futures symposium was held in the Florida Keys, USA and attended by over 400 delegates. The aim of this international meeting was to ‘bring together experts from around the world to share the latest science and techniques for coral reef restoration while kicking off a global effort to dramatically scale-up the impact and reach of restoration as a major tool for coral reef conservation and management’. The conference was organized by the Coral Restoration Consortium, which is a community comprised of scientists, managers, coral restoration practitioners, and educators dedicated to enabling coral reef ecosystems to survive the 21st century and beyond’ [47]. Within the Reef Futures conference, we convened a meeting of scientists and practitioners involved in active coral reef restoration in the Latin- and Centro-American Caribbean as well as the Eastern Tropical Pacific to fill the knowledge gap between academia and practitioners in the region and overcome the language barriers in coral reef restoration. Here, we showcase the advances and share the lessons learned from 12 restoration case studies from the Caribbean and Eastern Tropical Pacific. We provide a comprehensive compilation of unpublished data from coral reef restoration efforts where we outline the techniques that were employed, the motivations and objectives of each project, total project cost per unit area per year, spatial extent of intervention, project duration, and the indicators of success measured. This work provides the most complete data set on total project cost, feasibility and success indicators of coral reef restoration from practical cases that may guide decisions required to establish new restoration projects in the future.


Bayraktarov E, Banaszak AT, Montoya Maya P, Kleypas J, Arias-Gonza´lez JE, Blanco M, et al. (2020) Coral reef restoration efforts in Latin American countries and territories.

Published date:
5 Auguts, 2022

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