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Field assistance in pandemic times – dedicated teams on-site!

Usually, the work of our field teams is carried out in strong cooperation with our local partners and with the assistance of students, interns and volunteers. This year, however, field logistics are restricted, and our teams need to be creative.

Likewise, our field assistants needed to make an effort to be able to join and work with us during this spawning season. Here, we want to highlight the work and dedication of four young scientists, who support our field teams in Curaçao, Mexico, and Florida. We are grateful to have them on board, enabling us to continue our work during these challenging times!

Matthew-James Bennett & Nina le Trocquer

Curaçao, Lesser Antilles, Caribbean

We start with a double feature, introducing Matthew and Nina, who work both at our coral restoration research site on Curaçao. Matthew and Nina graduated with a master’s degree at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris and the University of Amsterdam respectively. It’s the second spawning season on the island for the two young scientists, and at first it was unclear whether they would be able to travel to Curaçao at all. They had to go through a two-week quarantine in the Netherlands, before the could travel to the island. Our Research Scientist Valérie Chamberland and Caribbean Restoration Coordinator Kelly Latijnhouwers were relieved to no end when the two assistants could finally join the team. As usual, scientists of the CARMABI Research Station, our long-term partner on-site, complete the spawning crew on the island. This year, however, our team had to function with considerably fewer people than they were used to!

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First row: night diving to collect spawn and grow coral babies, Nina is diving in the middle; second row, left: Matthew and Valérie are collecting coral spawn; mid: at the Sustainable Market, Curaçao, 2019, Matthew (second from left), Valérie (third from right, Kelly (second from right), Nina (first right); right: scenic view off the Carmabi Research Station (Paul Selvaggio).

"So far, we have been very lucky since we have been on a location where the pandemic had very little direct impact on our work," says Matthew. "For me, the most challenging thing about working in these times is the uncertainty about how the pandemic could evolve and how that may affect our projects and any future plans, particularly given the seasonal nature of what we do (coral spawning season)." And what could be better to cope with such uncertainties than a reliable team where everyone works closely together and supports one another.

“The best experience this year was what we were able to accomplish month after month as a team,” says Nina. “Our team on Curaçao is composed of Valérie, Kelly, Matthew and I, as well as some volunteers that joined, especially during the Acropora spawning and without whom this project would have been very difficult to achieve. Working with a reduced team could have been very challenging, but thanks to the determination and the motivation of each of us, as well as the cohesion within the team, I believe this spawning season was a success.”

And a lot has been done! The scientists collected spawn of six coral species, including the endangered elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata, as well as Colpophylia natans, Pseudodiploria strigosa, Orbicella faveolata, Montastraea cavernosa and Siderastrea siderea) and conducted a series of experiments. For instance, they continued the 'Senescence Project' to check the effect of age on parental fecundity (Does reproductive success decline with age?). They set up experiments on coral settlement performance and studied larval behavior of the brooding species Porites porites (finger coral; brooding species release already developed coral larvae). And spawning work is an exhausting job!

Nina summarizes the daily labor right to the point: “In practice, the most challenging thing about a coral spawning season is the rhythm. Our days are usually filled with lab work and coral larvael maintenance, followed by night dives to collect the coral gametes, and long nights in the lab when the collection was successful.” And there is always the next project and research topic lurking around the corner. “There is never enough time or resources to do everything we want,” emphasizes Matthew.

Ah, but there is also the wonder of nature as a true reward! “During our spawning collection dives for the elkhorn corals, we were joined by a number of volunteer divers,” explains Matthew. “Many of them had never seen coral spawning before, and being surrounded by their excitement and enthusiasm reminded me how lucky I am to do the work that I do, and to be able to share the incredible experience of witnessing coral spawning with others.” And Nina continues, “every night we are able to observe coral spawning is an amazement, and each of them is very unique.”

Both want to continue their studies, as they are already hooked on coral reefs, eventually aiming at getting their Ph.D. “In the future, I would like to keep working in the coral reef restoration field, and who knows, maybe joining the SECORE team one day,” adds Nina half jokingly. We cross fingers that their plans will work out according to their wishes as well as for the next spawning season!

Raúl Tecalco Rentería

Riviera Maya, Puerto Morelos, Mexico

It's now the third spawning season that Raúl supports our field work in Mexico, where we work closely together with our long-term partner, the Coralium lab (National Autonomous University Mexico). Since Raúl was initiated by his biologist father, who taught him to care for and respect the sea at the age of five, he knew he wanted to become not only a diver but also a scientist studying coral reefs. To fulfill this dream, Raúl graduated from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Xochimilco.

“This season, we were only two people who prepared before, during, and after spawning, everything related to field trips and laboratory equipment. It was a great effort but not impossible to achieve, “ says Raúl. “Working with corals has taught me that it takes patience, effort, and constant dedication to make a difference. So we really did our best to make this spawning season work!”

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First row: Raúl working at an elkhorn coral nursery; second row, left: raised elkhorn corals; mid: Raúl counting coral recruits on settlement tiles; right: Jetty at the Marine Station in Puerto Morelos (Sandra Mendoza, Carin Jantzen).

And there was a lot of work that needed to be done! Raúl and our Restoration Technician, Sandra Mendoza, together monitored the raised and outplanted cohorts from last year, are maintaining the aquarium facilities that still host young corals from last year's season (boulder and mountainous star corals; Orbicella annularis and O. faveolata), and finally, they have prepared the tanks for this year's spawning run. Then the team of two had to condition 3000 substrates in the open ocean, which eventually needed to be brought back for the settlement of this year's coral babies. Mexico is a bit different from our other research and implementation sites, as it requires a land-based coral culturing approach due to its exposed shores and other challenges like massively returning Sargassum blooms.

“During the spawning months, we collected gametes of five coral species (Diploria labyrinthiformis , Acropora palmata, Pseudodiploria strigosa, Orbicella annularis and O. faveolata) and fertilized the eggs in the lab. We carried out an experiment with the grooved brain coral (Diploria labyrinthiformis) to test for optimal density of coral settlers growing on the substrates. We also did a special outplanting, not only using this year's 600 elkhorn corals (A. palmata), but several bigger, older specimens, which have grown in a nursery.”

At least, nature's beauty pays back some of the efforts. “The best of all is the opportunity to attend the spawning events of species such as Orbicella, which personally seems to me, one of the most beautiful events in our ocean, which will never cease to amaze me,“ Raúl raves about.

And what's to come? Raúl will continue his studies, seeking to get his postgraduate degree. “Of course, I would like to continue collaborating with SECORE as long as I have the opportunity,” emphasizes Raúl. And we are proud and happy to have him on board!

Nicolas Rivas

Miami, Florida, USA

Nicolas aimed at becoming a medical doctor when he worked in the lab to gain some research experience and fell in love with zoology and research. He then pursued a master's degree in Marine Biology and Ecology focused on coral restoration at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS). “During my last year as a master student, I came across this incredible opportunity to work with SECORE, and I just could not let it pass me by,” says Nicolas. And there he was, joining and supporting our Research Director Margaret Miller and Project Engineer Miles McGonigle during this special and challenging field season.

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First row: Outplanted subtrates bearing coral recruits on Florida reefs; second row, left: Nicolas on the boat; mid: Nicolas at CRIB based in the Frost Science facilities; right: spawning staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis (Miles McGonigle, Nicolas Rivas).

“There’s a couple challenging things in this line of work due to how little we know about corals and their reproductive habits. However, that is also the most interesting thing, as we are always learning more and gathering new information,” emphasizes Nicolas. “It’s also challenging to stay up most or even all night, especially once you are on night number three. This year, the most challenging thing is being capable of assembling the proper team in a safe manner for fieldwork. On a typical day, we would be able to have as many divers and boat tenders as needed. Now, we are restricted to a select few, which means everyone working needs to be capable of doing any task.”

In Florida, a new exciting cooperation project has been launched this spawning season: the South East Florida Coral Reef Restoration Hub, bringing together versed and dedicated scientists, as well as linking renowned institutions. And the joined team was very successful this year! They collected spawn of three coral species (Acropora palmata, A. cervicornis, Orbicella faveolata), and we were even able to set up our Coral Rearing In Situ Basins (CRIB) at Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science (Frost Science). The precious, because critically endangered, elkhorn coral (A. palmata) as well as the mountainous star coral (O. faveolata) babies have been outplanted on Florida reefs already.

“My best experience has been working with a remarkable team,“ says Nicolas. „From engineers to prominent scientists and fellow students, we have all worked together to make this an incredibly successful year despite the pandemic.“ As Nicolas plans to pursue a Ph.D in coral restoration, we are looking forward to having him on our team the next years' spawning seasons to come!

Thanks a lot guys - you all have been amazing!

 

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This year's first big spawning in Florida reefs - this is what we call a 'spawning snowstorm' and a very happy diver (Nicolas Rivas).

Read more about our work...

Coral Restoration Research

...in Curaçao - Coral Restoration Research

...in Mexico - Capacity Center Mesoamerica

...in Florida - Frost Science and SECORE

...within the Southeast Coral Reef Restoration Hub

 

Meet our supporters

SECORE's lead partners are:

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

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