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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Part 5/5: Repairing Puerto Rico's Corals

Published: September 21, 2019


By Bobby Bascomb


Grupo Vidas workers have used zip ties to reattach hundreds of coral fragments to the reef near Vega Baja. (Photo: Ricardo Loreano)


(stream/download) as an MP3 file

Roughly 10 percent of Puerto Rico’s corals were broken and damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Corals are a first line of defense against storm surges and a critical habitat for juvenile fish but face an uphill battle against warming seas, ocean acidification and ship groundings. As Host Bobby Bascomb reports, Puerto Ricans are finding ways to give corals a fighting chance by reattaching healthy fragments.

BASCOMB: Hey Adnelly, how's Puerto Rico today?

MARICHAL: It's great. It's super sunny and warm as pretty much always, which is nothing for me to complain about.

BASCOMB: Hey, it is sunny and warm all the time there. And the next one is about coral reefs. But do you snorkel scuba dive any of that sort of stuff?

MARICHAL: I do. snorkel it's it's a really popular activity here.

BASCOMB: Oh, really?

MARICHAL: Anytime you go to any local beach, you kind of see people poking around. Even if it's not necessarily a beach that's known for snorkeling. I think it's just kind of a fun, accessible activity.

BASCOMB: Yeah, you don't need much, you know, just a mask and snorkel. And you're good to go really.

MARICHAL: Exactly.

BASCOMB: So the reef I went to actually, you could just walk right off the beach and swim out for two minutes. And then you're on this amazing coral reef, it was really accessible.

MARICHAL: Yeah, a lot of beaches in Puerto Rico have that type of reef access, which is nice. And it's also nice, because you don't have to necessarily go on a boat to get somewhere else to then jump in the ocean. And so it's also a nice activity for kids who were just learning how to swim, right?

BASCOMB: Yeah, yeah, it seemed so for sure. So I met up with some people at a coral reef near Vega Baja, which is about half an hour west of San Juan. And they were doing some really interesting work. I just did not know that this was possible. They were actually re attaching the coral that broke off during the hurricane.

MARICHAL: Yeah, super fascinating work.

BASCOMB: Let's have a listen.

[WAVE SOUNDS]

BASCOMB: I’m standing on a tall dune near Vega Baja on Puerto Rico’s north coast. The ocean stretches out in shades of dark blue, turquoise, and pale aquamarine.

But interspersed among the usual colors of a tropical ocean are patches of brownish orange – elkhorn coral. Salvador Loreano is a worker with the environmental NGO Grupo V.I.D.A.S. Their main task is coral restoration.

S. LOREANO: Our goal right now is to plant coral fragments here because you know that Maria, Hurricane Maria, came here and devastated the island. This caused great damage to the coral reef because the first time we went to there after Maria, the reef was like destroyed, like we’d see big coral colonies upside down and a lot of dead coral.


The Grupo Vidas crew taking a break from their coral restoration work. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: As long as they remain submerged under water, these coral, which are colonies of tiny invertebrate animals, have a 20 percent chance of survival. But that increases to more than 90 percent if they are attached to a larger structure, not getting banged around by the surf or smothered with sand.

If a piece of coral is at least 2 inches long and 80 percent healthy, it can actually be reattached to an existing reef. Salvador points towards the water…

S. LOREANO: Over there is my sister and that’s one of my friends that work here. They’re preparing to enter to the Arrecife El Eco.

BASCOMB: Can we go see what they’re doing?

S. LOREANO: Yes.

[WALKING SOUNDS]

BASCOMB: Mariola Loreano is standing on the shore in about a foot of water.

S. LOREANO: Mariola!


Ernesto Vélez Gandía stands on the beach getting ready to reattach bits of coral broken off the reef by Hurricane Maria. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: She’s wearing a rash guard to protect from the hot tropical sun.
A mask is perched on her forehead, a snorkel dangling off it. She’s holding a white milk crate with all the tools the crew will need for their morning’s work.

M. LOREANO: Yeah, basically what we have in there is a sledge hammer; a slate where we write our tallies, basically, which is all of the fragments that we’ve successfully planted; a bag for any trash that we find inside the ocean; a buoy so it floats.

BASCOMB: So, should I put on my fins then and we head in?

S. LOREANO: if you’re using flippers, I recommend that you either walk sideways or back because, you know, if you use flippers walking front, it’s going to be rather difficult.

BASCOMB: I’m going to fall on my face.

S. LOREANO: Most… mostly. [LAUGHS] I can help you enter the reef, because, well, it’s all rocky, but there are a lot of sea urchins there.

BASCOMB: Oh, so it’s spiny.

S. LOREANO: Yeah, but it’s not that big of a deal because they’re really deep inside the crevices so they won’t sting you.

BASCOMB: So, is there any other advice I need before we go in?

S. LOREANO: One thing you got to be careful of, it’s not that big of an issue, but scorpion fish have also appeared here. You know how they camouflage very well?

BASCOMB: I don’t actually.


The beach near Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

S. LOREANO: They rely on their camouflage. And sometimes their camouflage is really good. [LAUGHS] So it’s best to keep an eye out where you put your hand and everything.

BASCOMB: I’m not going to touch anything.

S. LOREANO: I know, I know! – just in case.

[SOUNDS OF WATER SPLASHING]

BASCOMB: We put on our mask, snorkel, and fins and walk backwards into the bath-warm water, stepping over the sharp black sea urchins.

[SPLASHING SOUNDS]

BASCOMB: Once the water is knee-deep, we splash in and swim about 500 feet to the reef.

[UNDERWATER BREATHING SOUNDS]

BASCOMB: A rainbow of fish greets us – green fish with florescent blue heads, black fish with yellow stripes, green fish with pink stripes. They’re all juvenile fish, and the reef is a critical habitat for them. Bulbous brain coral dot the sea floor, and orange elkhorn coral stick out at awkward angles, much like its namesake.

[SCRAPING SOUND]

BASCOMB: A worker named Ernesto is already hard at work.

He uses a wire brush to scrape algae off a piece of coral the size of a ping pong paddle and does the same to a suitable spot on the reef. Just like gluing two objects together, you need to start with a clean surface on both sides. Then he pulls a plastic zip tie out of his sleeve and uses it to attach the coral in place.


A piece of dead brain coral washed up on the beach. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

He uses pliers with a florescent pink handle to pull the zip tie tight and cut off the excess plastic, which he sticks into his other sleeve. This piece of coral is now one of hundreds just like it pinned to the reef with zip ties. And in two to three weeks, it will grow onto the reef enough to stay put on its own.

[WAVE SOUNDS]

BASCOMB: Roughly 15 percent of the coral here at Vega Baja was broken off by hurricane Maria. But these corals evolved with hurricanes. If hurricane damage was the only issue, this work wouldn’t be necessary. But much like the world’s coral reefs in general, this reef has a lot of challenges.

Grupo V.I.D.A.S. worker Ernesto says one of the biggest problems is algae blooms from sewage runoff. In many places the coral is essentially smothered, leaving it a ghostly gray color.

VÉLEZ GANDÍA: Yeah, those… they look like zombies, right there.

BASCOMB: They look like zombies, like Day of the Dead.

VÉLEZ GANDÍA: Yeahh, it’s like Day of the Dead but under the water.

BASCOMB: There is a very large dead coral at the entrance to the reef in the shallowest, warmest water. Ernesto believes that one died not from algae blooms but from stress of a warming ocean.

VÉLEZ GANDÍA: The water is getting warmer. Every year it’s getting warmer.

BASCOMB: Standing on the dune in a light blue rash guard and smoking a cigarette, Ernesto talks about the death of that coral as one might talk about a member of the family passing away.

VÉLEZ GANDÍA: And we got a lot of love for him. We saw him alive, very alive. He is one of the oldest in our reef. But he start dying, we saw the process of his death. So, we just admire him and remember him. It’s very sentimental, I don’t know, but it’s deep in the heart.

BASCOMB: Adding to the warming water and algae blooms, ship groundings break off large chunks of coral each year; collectors intentionally break it off to sell for home aquariums; and spear fishermen damage it with their equipment.


Elk horn coral are part of a vital reef ecosystem that provide habitat for fish. (Photo: Sean Nash)

Ocean acidification and coral bleaching are also huge problems for the world’s corals, and Puerto Rico is no exception. The team admits it’s an uphill battle to save this reef, but Salvador says they’re already seeing results.

S. LOREANO: Our work has given us results like species that we thought we’d never see again started to return, like moray eels, scorpion fish, sea cucumbers, puffer fish, sand dollars, which are a species of flat sea urchin, and also there’s like a spotted eagle ray hanging around over there.

BASCOMB: Projects like this have actually been going on for nearly 20 years on a small scale. But one million dollars of post-Maria funding allowed scientists from NOAA, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and independent NGOs to speed up their efforts. The grant money will dry up soon but workers have been able to reattach roughly 15,000 pieces of coral to the reefs surrounding Puerto Rico.

BASCOMB: So I gotta tell you, Adnelly that was a learning experience for me. I just didn't know that that was possible to reattach coral. Of course, we all know that it's a living organism. But it looks like a rock it doesn't look like something that could just grow back onto another structure.

MARICHAL: I know, I was super interested in hearing that story as well. And it definitely gave me a lot of hope for the regeneration of corals on this island.

BASCOMB: Yeah. And the cool thing too, is the people I was with, they were just re-attaching relatively small bits of it, you know, maybe a foot long was the largest one. But some other people that I talk with for a different story, they were actually re attaching huge brain coral that are like 1000 pounds, and they use float bags to lift them up off the bottom and put them on to a larger piece of coral. It was really, really incredible work.

MARICHAL: That's actually really good to hear. Because the last time I went snorkeling in Culebra, I had actually heard from someone in a dive shop that that type of brain coral, like brain corals the size of small cars, had been flipped over and like tossed. And in my head, I was just imagining that was kind of it for that coral. So that's really cool. But there are ways to help those much larger pieces of devastation.

BASCOMB: Oh, I have to tell you, I got really sunburned during the story.

MARICHAL: I can imagine Yeah. Snorkeling and surfing you just get you got obliterated.

BASCOMB: Yeah, yeah, I think I was maybe the third day I was in Puerto Rico. I didn't really have a tan yet. And I know that you're supposed to put on sunscreen and I did everywhere but my calves, which stick out of the water, which was really stupid.

MARICHAL: That's happened to my boyfriend who lives in New York and is on the paler side and forget one spot and it's it's a problem.

BASCOMB: Yeah, the sacrifices I make for radio here. All right, Adnelly, well gosh it's been really fun talking with you. Thanks so much for helping me out with this podcast.

MARICHAL: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. And thanks so much for shining a light on a lot of what's been going on in Puerto Rico since the storm.

BASCOMB: Oh, my pleasure.

--

Bobby's "Combat Divers Restore Ocean Health" story

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