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Interview: COVID-19 won’t stop us

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the restoration community at a time where organizations such as SECORE’s restoration partner FUNDEMAR were ready to upscale their restoration programs. We talked to FUNDEMAR’s Executive Director Rita Sellares about short-term impacts, growing success, and FUNDEMAR’s long-term restoration goals in the Dominican Republic.


Executive Director Rita Sellares (2nd from right) and the FUNDEMAR staff. (Paul Selvaggio)

SECORE: The COVID-19 pandemic is still holding the whole world hostage. How are you and your FUNDEMAR team doing? Can you work at all?

Rita Sellares: Yes, we can, but the range of what we can do is very limited. I’m not allowed to open the office, but we have started to go out to our coral nurseries again to take care of all the coral fragments that are growing there. We are doing this in very small teams, usually not more than two people, to limit the risk. If we are not out in the water, we are focusing on the growing amount of administrative work. Currently, we are finalizing the restoration plan for 2020. We are updating our databases and asking for all the quotes that we’ll need for upcoming projects. So, we try to do all the required office work now, and it is way more than we expected. But I really hope that we can go back to normal as soon as possible because it is the time of the year now where we should be starting a lot of our activities in the water.


The lockdown has hit the coral restoration community in the Caribbean at a time where things were just about to really take off. That’s also true for FUNDEMAR, who is the leading reef restoration organization in the Dominican Republic. How is it affecting your expansion?

The pandemic has caused a setback of several months for us, but it is not going to stop us from growing. A few years ago, FUNDEMAR would not have survived such a situation. But we have been working on a sustainability concept for several years now that helps us to secure income from various sources. We have several coral restoration projects running, which support the staff and the office. Furthermore, we have the support from students, who do their research at our facilities, and we have our partners from the local tourist industry, the resorts and hotels, that usually support us as well. With the travel ban for researchers and the hotels closed due to COVID-19, I’m a little bit worried how the pandemic will affect the tourist industry in the long run. But we do have some savings and new grants that we received before the pandemic started that will help us to keep the project running. We are going to postpone some investments that we had planned for the summer, but it won’t affect the work that we are doing in the water.



A school of fish is visiting one of FUNDEMAR's coral nurseries. (Paul Selvaggio)


One of FUNDEMAR’s biggest assets is its huge network of local supporters. How did you manage to form these strong relationships with the people and businesses in Bayahibe?

We started a restoration program based on fragmentation in 2011 after we had received a project grant from the United States of America to create a nursery for the staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis. However, when the project ended, we did not have any money to sustain the project. At this time, FUNDEMAR worked with volunteers, who were doing project work, but we did not have any permanent staff. That is why we started our partnership with some of the hotels in and around Bayahibe and developed our own business plan step by step. When the first hotels joined our program, a chain reaction started. More and more resorts wanted to get involved. Within one year all members of the hotel association became partners. At the same time, our local dive centers became involved in the maintenance of our coral nurseries, which enabled us to expand from one to eight staghorn coral nurseries and upscale our restoration activities based on fragmentation.

But this was just the beginning...

Yes, in 2015 we decided to find out if using sexual reproduction techniques would work as well. Back then we did not have any data on whether corals in the Dominican Republic were spawning at all and if they did, in which time of the year. We neither had a spawning calendar nor a wet laboratory, so we went out that summer to find out when our staghorn coral colonies would spawn and if they were able to fertilize each other. Many of them could have been clones, so we needed to check if they actually reproduced sexually. The research was done by Johanna Calle Triviño, PhD student of CINVESTAV with the support of Anastazia Banaszak from UNAM in Mexico, and her first trial went really well. She presented her results at a conference in Hawaii, where she met Dirk Petersen from SECORE. SECORE invited us to UNAM in Puerto Morelos and to CARMABI in Curaçao to learn how to collect coral spawn, fertilize the eggs, get the larvae settled on substrates, and take care of them. I knew then that we would need a wet laboratory in Bayahibe if we wanted to use sexual coral reproduction techniques on a larger scale.



Photos from the first coral fertilization work in FUNDEMAR's new wet lab container in May 2019, together with colleagues from SECORE. (Paul Selvaggio)


We know that you now own a wet lab. How did you get it?

For months, I told everyone that came to the office to ask what we would need: I want a lab! I want a lab! (laughs) Then we had the idea to install a wet lab container, and we received a grant to pay for it. Thanks to the support of the community and partners we were able to set it close to the marina, where our lab is located now. We are still the only coral restoration organization in the Dominican Republic doing sexual reproduction. We created the coral spawning calendar for the reefs of the Dominican Republic―it took us three years to do that―but everything was worth the effort because now we have a really robust restoration program. On the one hand, it has an asexual part with eight coral nurseries that connect the different reefs. We know that our outplanted and in-nursery staghorn corals spawn and that fertilization occurs naturally in the area. On the other hand, we have our sexual reproduction program, where we are working with five different species. We have the lab, and we maintain close partnerships with all relevant institutions in the Dominican Republic. We also get the support of more than 30 volunteers that we trained on how to transplant coral fragments and that has been helping us to do the outplanting each year since then―in an event that we call CORALMANIA. This year, we will teach them how to help in our sexual reproduction program. And since we will be outplanting substrates instead of coral fragments, the event will be called SUBSTRATOMANIA―assuming that the COVID-19 restriction will allow us to get all those people into the water in August. If not, we will have to use more boats and work in smaller teams. But with the help of our many local partners, we will find a way.



Rita Sellares and colleagues Alido Báez check on the coral larvae that have settled on the settlement substrates in the labs (left). Afterward, they do the same for the substrates in the in situ rearing basins (middle). Later on, the substrates were outplanted onto the reef. (Paul Selvaggio)


We have been monitoring our outplants very closely during the last few months and I must say that I’m very happy with their survival rate and I’m confident that we can expand the sexual reproduction part of our restoration program with the help of our local volunteers and the dive centers. Ideally, our supporters and new technicians trained would do the basic work, while my team can focus on the monitoring. So, our team can invest even more time in monitoring and up-scaling the sexual reproduction program. If everything plays out the way we have planned it, we might even be able to deploy the CRIBs (Coral Rearing In Situ Basins) in another region of the Dominican Republic and raise sexually reproduced coral babies there as well.

How are you planning to upscale the sexual reproduction program? Do you want to work with more species or does up-scaling mean higher numbers of CRIBs and outplanted settlement substrates per species?

Basically, we are planning to work with more substrates. I want to focus on the elkhorn coral Acropora palmata because we already have one restoration site for this species. But we also want to keep working with other species to keep diversity. At the moment, we have sufficient capacities to do sexual reproduction for of? five coral species, which are Acropora palmata (elkhorn corals), Acropora cervicornis (staghorn coral) Dendrogyra cylindrus (pillar coral), Diploria labyrinthiformis (grooved brain coral) and Colpophyllia natans (brain coral). Once we have more space, more people, and more boats to handle more species, I would love to expand the program. But the situation, which we are in right now, ties us to five species because three of these species spawn in August. So, we have to divide the lab and the pools at this time of the year.



Divers collect larval settlement substrates that had been made by local children and were put into the ocean to be conditioned (get covered by a biofilm of bacteria and crustose coralline algae). (Paul Selvaggio)


FUNDEMAR is not only working with a vast network of local partners and supporters. You are also doing a lot of outreach for reef conservation in Bayahibe. Do you see that locals are treating their reefs differently nowadays?

Yes, that has changed completely. Our coral restoration program is the only one that I have seen that changed people’s minds. FUNDEMAR has been working since 1991 and I joined the institution in 2005. In my experience, when you just do occasional talks, trainings and workshops, people get motivated for a couple of hours or for a few weeks, before returning to their traditional way of doing things. However, with implementing our coral restoration program, we changed people’s perception of reefs without really planning it. First of all, because we had people from Bayahibe in our team. Secondly, we started to train kids and fishermen to become coral restoration technicians. Later on, all the dive centers became involved. So, when the locals met for a beer in the evening and talked about their day, some of them talked about coral nurseries and others asked: What’s a coral nursery? And our volunteers and team members explained it.

I remember that at the beginning we received a lot of complaints from some dive staff because the dive instructors and dive masters were pressured by the hotels and the same dive center to maintain the nurseries. They complained because they cannot go on diving trips with tourists when they have to work in the nurseries, which means they don’t get tipped. So, they did not like the maintenance job. But one day something switched. The divers started to care about the corals in the nurseries. They kept a close eye on the reefs as well and called whenever a colony appeared to show signs of distress or disease or when a fisherman threw an anchor on the reef or a net over one of our nurseries. They simply fell in love with corals; saw and felt the evolution of the program and have been fully committed and involved since then. Nowadays we have more volunteers who want to work for us than we can actually manage. The same goes for our fishermen. If they see another fisherman throwing a net onto a reef, they say: Hey, this is the reef where my corals are growing, so don’t throw the net. When I spoke to the fishermen many years ago, they never cared. But now that their friends are talking about reef conservation, many of them actually start to listen and when we pass one of the main bars on our way to the marina, many of them ask if the corals will be spawning that night, or they are cheering “FUNDEMAR, FUNDEMAR”, which is really nice. Our work has become so much easier with the support we get from our local communities.



An impressive pillar coral colony growing on a reef in Bayahibe (Paul Selvaggio).

What is the health status of the reefs you are working on and what are the biggest threats to them?

Most of the reefs that we are working on have 30 to 35 percent of coral coverage. Our shallow coastal reefs go lower to perhaps 10 percent and some sites only have 5 percent of coral coverage. In summer 2019 we saw a massive coral bleaching due to heat stress for the first time ever in Bayahibe. FUNDEMAR did the monitoring at that time and around 50 percent of our reefs were bleached. Fortunately, most of the affected colonies have recovered. However, the main problem that we are dealing with here in Bayahibe is the concentration of human activities on certain reefs. Everybody uses the same reef area: the fishermen, the divers, all the boats that go to the touristic sites, which means that the boat traffic is really high in a certain area and we do not have enough moorings for all of them to attach their boats to. Overfishing is a problem in certain areas as well. But, together with the ministry of environment and other partners, we are working on a management plan that will specify fishing zones, diving zones, the traffic zone and we will be able to get some funding for additional conservation activities like a boat patrol that will check the area and see if everybody is following the new regulations. It is still a work in progress and its finalization might be postponed a little due to the COVID-19 crisis. But the management plan for the area is in development and that is good news.


What is coming next for FUNDEMAR, besides the up-scaling of the restoration activities?

We are more and more focusing on research. We are going to publish several scientific papers and we are doing the restoration actions with a science plan, something we haven’t done before. We have selected several sites, and at each site we have a restoration site, where we outplant the coral recruits or the coral fragments; a reference site, that is the minimum goal that we want to achieve; and a control site, similar to the restoration site where we won’t do any transplant so we are able to compare it. By monitoring all three sites, we’ll hopefully be able to prove that reef restoration is working. In the past, we have only monitored the survival rate of our transplanted corals but never did an actual scientific study, because it was more important to get people involved, make the program sustainable and do the restoration work. Now that this part of the program is stable, we can invest more time and manpower into science. In a way, we are doing it a little differently than the rest of the community. Instead of starting out with a scientific program and adding restoration later on, we started with the involvement of the local community, and the restoration with the basic science and monitoring to make sure it was done in the appropriate way and are now getting more and more into science.


SECORE's Kelly Latijnhouwers is working with Rita Sellares at one of SECORE's Coral Rearing In Situ Basins (CRIBs). (Paul Selvaggio)

FUNDEMAR and SECORE have been closely cooperating now for more than two years. How did this partnership help you with the development of your restoration program?

There is a huge benefit that FUNDEMAR gains from partnering with SECORE. It was actually the push that we needed to start our sexual restoration program because after talking to Dirk Petersen we knew that we could start such a project with the CRIBs that SECORE has developed, even if we did not have a wet lab. So, when we managed to get the lab container too, everything came together. SECORE provided the CRIBs and a SECORE team came to our first big spawning event and helped us with setting up both, the lab and the CRIBs. Having this support really helps us to manage this first spawning event and be prepared for all upcoming sexual restoration work.

We wish you all the best and look forward to working with you and your team in the coming years. Thanks a lot for this talk.


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