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worldwide coral reef conservation through research, education, outreach, and restoration

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Advancing coral reef restoration in Colombia

SECORE is expanding the implementation of its coral reef restoration methods and technologies to Colombia. Our new partner is a highly experienced group of scientists and practitioners working in the Islas del Rosario. Several of their members have previously participated in our capacity-building efforts, including our recent virtual training.

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The Islas del Rosario from above. This specific site is called Oceanario, and it's where ECOMARES uses lab facilities for fertilization and rearing of larvae. (Photo by Jess – Adobe)

We are thrilled to announce the addition of ECOMARES, a renowned Colombian foundation, to our implementation program. Their organization was established in 2009 with the purpose of contributing to research, conservation, and restoration of marine ecosystems. Its members have worked as teachers, researchers, natural resource managers, and conservationists, both locally and internationally. Together, they form a highly skilled group with a sound mission to advance and promote coral reef restoration efforts in Colombia.

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ECOMARES members and their partners (Photos by Carlos Olarte (PNNCRSB) & Diego Duque (PNNCRSB))

In partnership with Colombian universities, private businesses, and the national park, ECOMARES has established a project site for coral reef restoration research and implementation in the archipelago 'Corales del Rosario y San Bernardo'. Elvira Maria Alvarado Chacon, the current CEO of ECOMARES with nearly four decades of experience in coral reef research, elucidates the condition of the local marine ecosystem, "As all reefs in the Caribbean, it suffered a significant reduction of coral cover, and in the 80's it was also impacted by dredging activities in the Cartagena region. Yet, corals still thrive, and we still have 53 different species. In fact, this park has the greatest coral cover of Colombia's continental reefs, ranging from 22% to 33% in the shallow, depending on the location." That's why she believes "there is a reasonable chance of restoring the coral reef, starting with populations of massive species, like brain or star corals, which have shown some degree of resistance to environmental changes."

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ECOMARES' coral reef restoration work (Photos by Arnold Fonseca (ECOMARES) & Carlos Muñoz (ECOMARES))

Nowadays, however, environmental changes and resulting coral reef degradation occur at a rate that traditional conservation measures (e.g., creating marine reserves) cannot fully mitigate anymore. Existing conservation efforts are essential and must be expanded, but coral population enhancement is now seen as a necessary addition to complement these efforts. Considering these developments, ECOMARES has a specialized team with more than 11 years of experience developing coral reef restoration projects and programs. What's more, members of ECOMARES, Parque Nacional Natural Corales del Rosario, Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano, Universidad del Magdalena, CEINER, and Diving Planet have been conducting larval propagation experiments for the past several years. Elvira adds that they have "extensively studied the reproductive characteristics of different coral species and recently did trials raising Orbicella faveolata [star coral] larvae." In addition, they "also have experience obtaining colonies through fragmentation and micro-fragmentation inside in-situ nurseries. So far, the results have been good, yet, these are all clones. To sustainably restore the reef, we need genetically diverse individuals which can only be propagated through sexually obtained recruits.", Elvira emphasizes.

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Spawning work at ECOMARES (Photos by Camilo Valcarcel (PNNCRSB) & Carlos Olarte (PNNCRSB))

Since developing tools and technologies for larval propagation is our expertise, several ECOMARES members have participated in SECORE trainings over the past few years. In 2018, Elvira and Valeria Pizarro came to a workshop in Curaçao, and following this event, Elvira told us, "we tried raising coral larvae in a pool, inspired by SECORE's version we saw in Curaçao. Unfortunately, we had no luck, and we understood that we need to improve our knowledge and expertise. On top of that, successful restoration needs larvae in vast amounts. That's why we have to scale up, and the partnership with SECORE will give us the opportunity to learn from years of experience." In a recent virtual training on coral reproduction led by experts from the Coralium lab (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and SECORE, we shared our knowledge in coral reef restoration technology with three additional members of the Colombian partnership group. Aric Bickel, our Director of Technology and Implementation, is "incredibly excited to officially bring ECOMARES and its partners into our implementation program." He believes that "Together we will be able to refine the technologies and techniques to upscale restoration in Colombia and meet their population enhancement goals."

Apart from ECOMARES' scientific expertise, they are also connected to several other practitioner groups in Colombia and have the potential to train these additional organizations in coral reef restoration. With their team's profound experience and SECORE's technologies, they are well prepared to implement larval propagation on larger scales at their local reefs while at the same time paving the way for expanding reef restoration efforts beyond their region. Elvira hopes to train more people soon, as she believes, "We need to move on with practitioners from other protected marine areas, universities, and NGOs working in coral reef conservation to increase restoration efforts in Colombia significantly."

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Aric Bickel inside one of our CRIBs (Photo by Valeria Pizarro); Seeding Units (recruits on substrates) (Photo by Sandra Mendoza Quiroz); Latest version of our CRIBs

The SECORE staff is excited at the prospect of future trips to Colombia. We plan to undertake a site visit to kick off the partnership later this summer, and it will also be the first time our equipment will be used in Colombia. For a start, we will provide ECOMARES with two CRIBs (Coral Rearing In-Situ Basins) and several thousand self-stabilizing settlement substrates. Last but not least, Aric considers that "ECOMARES has developed a unique partnership network between universities, non-profits, private businesses, and the national park system to work in the Islas Del Rosario." He is "really looking forward to visiting the site and seeing how they have organized this on the ground, as it has the potential to serve as a model for the region on how to develop a sustainable and successful restoration program."

We are looking forward to a fruitful collaboration with ECOMARES in Colombia!

The expansion of the training and implementation program in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean is supported by the Builders Initiative. Read more about our capacity-building program here: Capacity Center Mesoamerica

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SECORE's lead partners are:

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
California Academy of Science
Hagenbeck
The Builders Initiative

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