Technology meets coral reef restoration
Aric, you have been working with SECORE International for more than three years. What motivated you to get involved in coral reef restoration?
I spent a large portion of my early career working in coral ecosystems. I did my graduate work on commercial fisheries in the Florida Keys, Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMA) work with coral ecosystems in Fiji, as well as watershed management and non-point source pollution mitigation on the Northern Marianas Islands, Guam, and Palau. I then moved on to work in more temperate ecosystems in California. I love coral reefs and spent a lot of time living and working with communities that depend on them. That's why I wanted to return to that work, but only in a manner that would allow me to make a significant impact. These ecosystems are so important, and their survival is so tenuous that we need to develop solutions very quickly if we want them to be around much longer. SECORE offered that opportunity, as a group of passionate individuals, with promising ideas and a strong vision on how to grow those efforts to meaningful scales to address the crisis.
You had the chance to gain profound hands-on experience in all these locations, but when did you join your first SECORE trip, and what was the most exciting thing about it?
My first trip to a SECORE field site happened basically my first week. I was hired on a Tuesday, flew to Germany a week later, then went straight from Germany to a spawning event in Curaçao. It was such a whirlwind introduction to the organization and what we do! It was incredible. I had worked with corals for more than 8 years but had never seen spawning. Going out with the exceptionally skilled Curaçao team as my first experience was really special. The first night that we got significant spawning, I was up with the lab team until 4 am. The whole two weeks were so exhausting, but it was also incredibly inspiring! It was the perfect start to my journey with this organization.
Left to right: Aric with our team in Curaçao (Paul Selvaggio); Spawning coral (ReefPatrol); Collection of egg and sperm bundles (Paul Selvaggio)
Witnessing your first spawning event ever right after you got hired sounds like a wonderful beginning. Following this, you have been working at several of our implementation sites. Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to when you get ready for the next trip?
I am passionate about coral, of course, but what really pushes me and what I love the most about this job is working with our on-site partners. They are the ones that are driving the impacts we are making, and they are our connection to the communities that are on the front lines of the coral crisis. Seeing the reefs, diving, and witnessing coral spawning — which hasn't yet lost its magic for me — is great, but what I look forward to the most is working with the people that are part of our network. In particular, seeing the evolution and progression of the first groups that we started working with in our training program is really rewarding. Many of them came to our trainings with no larval propagation experience, and now, just a few years later, they have developed a real proficiency and expertise in doing this work.
Left to right: Aric at a training in Curaçao in 2018 (Valeria Pizarro); Aric at our implementation partner Fundemar (Paul Selvaggio); Training on Eleuthera (Victoria Cassar)
Let's talk a bit more about your field of work. Nowadays, corals need as much help and support as they can get. Why are technology and engineering such important aspects of reef restoration?
To scale restoration to a point where it can make a significant impact, we need to work with experts outside of biological sciences. We need to significantly reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of restoration. Engineering and design are key to achieving these goals. The same concepts that are used in other industries — scaling manufacturing, reducing labor, fine-tuned logistics, and so on — are directly applicable to coral restoration. Figuring out to harness that know-how and incorporate those types of expertise into what we do is integral to our success.
What will be the next technology improvement, and how will it add to previous techniques?
One area we are starting to work on this year is scaling our material capture, or in other words, to collect enough coral egg and sperm bundles for larval propagation as we scale project size. This consideration is of particular importance in the Caribbean, where source populations can be locally restrictive. Our feeling is that nurseries will play a key role over the next 5–10 years. In some locations, it may be the only place to harvest genetically diverse egg and sperm bundles reliably. To make better use of that, we are developing technologies that allow for the bulk collection from nurseries or dense patches of reef. The idea is that by harvesting from multiple individuals simultaneously, we can scale collection without scaling the labor needed usually. If successful, this concept will reduce costs as projects are scaled. Hopefully, it will also allow for the efficient utilization of the thousands of fragmentation nurseries that have been developed over the last decade.
Left to right: Captured egg and sperm bundles (SECORE); Substrates with coral settlers (Sandra Mendoza Quiroz); Latest version of our CRIBs (Coral Rearing In-situ Basins)
Current methods and techniques enable local organizations to implement restoration on hectare scales, but reefs are declining on square kilometer scales and beyond. What needs to be done to close this gap?
Square kilometer scales are our goal, and I think we can get there over the next 5 years, but we have a lot of work to do. To be clear, we could do a kilometer-scale project now, but it would be expensive. So, what we are really talking about is increasing our efficiency to make projects of that size "affordable". To do that, we have to continue to reduce the amount of labor that is required at each step. Regardless of methodology, human work is the largest cost driver of restoration projects, so it is one of the first things we need to continue addressing. Being able to collect egg and sperm bundles and outplant baby corals in bulk will get us a long way towards reducing those costs, and we will put a lot of effort into developing those techniques over the next several years.
Additionally, we will be looking to automate steps in the rearing, settlement, and outplanting processes. We are also aiming to be more efficient with the egg and sperm bundles we collect; the more we can optimize settlement and increase survivorship, it decreases the size or number of larval cultures we need to maintain and decreases the amount of spawn we need to collect — or, allows us to conduct larger projects with the same amount of spawn. These aren't areas that can be improved with research or engineering teams working in silos on their own; you need these experts working closely together to get over these hurdles. This is where I think SECORE is ideally positioned to make significant impacts.
[Closing the gap]
Thank you, Aric, for all these valuable insights! One last question, does the progress, which SECORE and its partners are making, give you hope for the future of coral reefs?
Definitely! There is still so much work to do, and you can always look back and identify areas that you could have been more successful or worked faster, but we have made a ton of progress over the last several years. Part of that has been building our team and adding key staff to our engineering and training programs. We are in a really great place to address the challenges in scaling restoration.