Coral restoration through the eyes of different actors and contexts
What is reef resilience?
One of the main goals of coral restoration is to assist the recovery of reef ecosystems’ coverage and health followed by disturbances that can be local, regional or global. Besides the necessary technical survey of restoration, such as the survival and growth of corals in nurseries and transplants, restoration efforts are also a great opportunity to increase reef resilience (Lake, 2015). What does this mean? The resilience of an ecosystem is the capacity it has to absorb persistent disturbances while maintaining some key components or processes (Holling, 1973; Hughes, 2010; Hein, 2019). Restoration interventions are intended to strengthen this capacity so the system can deal with present and future pressures and therefore, persist in time (Lake, 2015).
By considering coral reefs as socio-ecological systems, the analysis of its resilience includes the human dimension with the same importance as the biological one. Therefore, the positive or negative impacts that societies can have on ecosystems are included, as well as the effect that the ecosystem status has on social systems (Hein et al, 2019; Glaser, 2006). Still, the actual measurement of these aspects in coral restoration literature is still in its first steps.
What are ecosystem services? How can we measure the benefits and limitations of coral restoration?
One way of understanding how humans are impacted by ecosystems status, and how restoration interventions can result in benefits to humans, is through the framework of ecosystem services, which are understood as the direct or indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being (TEEB, 2010; Quétier, 2007). The perception of benefits derived from ecosystems varies according to different actors, and its assessment can give valuable information for management strategies. In fact, it unveils different priorities for the well-being of different actors; what aspects could be improved, and therefore anticipate/understand the actor’s support or rejection of the project, hence its local legitimacy (Elwell et al, 2018; Sterling, 2017).
Stakeholders’ perception about coral restoration projects
The researcher Margaux Y. Hein and her thesis supervisors of the ARC Center of Excellence of Coral Reef Studies in Australia, published in 2019 a scientific paper aiming to describe the perception of several stakeholders about the socio-ecological benefits and limitations of different coral reef restoration projects. To do so, 4 different projects around the world were considered: New Heaven Reef Conservation Program (Koh Tao, Thailand), Reefscapers (Landaa Giraavaru, Maldives), the Coral Restoration Foundation (Florida Keys, USA), and The Nature Conservancy Caribbean Program (St Croix, US Virgin Island).
From the participants’ answers, benefits and limitations were divided in emerging categories/ themes to facilitate the analysis. Regarding the perceived benefits, the socio-cultural and ecological ones were the most mentioned in the answers from participants of all contexts (Figure 1). The first one is mentioned in 72.4% of the answers, and it includes aspects such as the education and awareness of both tourists and locals regarding coral reef problematics. It also includes community involvement as a benefit to the project through practical participation in restoration efforts. Furthermore, the positive valuation of the existence of the project per se reflects the fact that people value coral reefs for their well-being and recognize their vulnerability.
Figure 1. Synthesis of the responses of participants regarding the benefits of the coral restoration in the different categories (A) according to the project location; (B) to the actor involved and (C) amongst the people directly and indirectly involved with the project. Source: Hein et al, 2019.
On the other hand, as for the ecological benefits, they were included in 68.9% of responses with an outstanding reference to “ecosystem function” (data not shown here, for more info visit the article), making clear the fact that participants think restoration efforts have an effect on the whole ecosystem, and not only on the coral coverage.
Now, as for the perceived limitations, the most mentioned themes are technical and management limitations (Figure 2). The technical limitations were mentioned in 58.3% of responses, and include the resource constraint in terms of people involved and “lack of funding”. But it also refers to the scientific know-how of restoration (used materials, locations of transplants). In fact, a trade-off appears between the involvement of short-term participants, generally amateurs, and the quality of transplants made.
Figure 2. Synthesis of the responses of participants regarding the limitations of the coral restoration in the different categories (A) according to the project location; (B) to the actor involved and (C) amongst the people directly and indirectly involved with the project. Source: Hein et al, 2019.
As for the management limitations, mentioned in 42.7% of the answers, they refer mostly to the lack of effective communication and link with the local community, suggesting that some of them hold a closer link with tourists than with the local community, and therefore there is an opportunity to continue to strengthen the relationship with locals (data not shown here, for more info visit the article). Furthermore, participants outlined the fact that there is poor monitoring of the process, hindering the possibility of measuring success.
The above mentioned limitations were mostly identified by groups directly involved with the restoration projects, while the ecological problems were less frequent but mentioned by both groups directly and indirectly involved in the projects (Figure 2c). This outlines the shared perception of uncertainty about the success of coral restoration, and the need to include indicators measuring the achievement of the goals.
Furthermore, the responses of both benefits and limitations varied among the 4 locations (Figure 1a, 2a), highlighting the fact that the notion of coral restoration success is context-specific, and will depend on the social and institutional framework in which the project is developed.
Overall, this study evidences coral restoration projects’ both strong and weak points from the perspective of different stakeholders. The study highlights variations that are dependant on how involved stakeholders are in the project and in which way. Still, the main benefits identified by the actors fall in the ecological category, stressing the fact this is the most socially recognized aspect of coral restoration, suggesting the need to further communicate other aspects, such as social benefits.
For further info, visit the article: Hein M.Y., Birtles A., Willis B.L., Gardiner N., Beeden R., Marshall N.A. (2019) Coral restoration: Socio-ecological perspectives of benefits and limitations. Biol. Cons. 229: 14-25