Restoring reefs from little pieces

Does the idea of working on coral reef conservation using cutting edge science excite you? How about living on an island helping tourists to participate and learn about coral conservation?

Conservation Careers Blogger Bill Boteler interviewed Simon Dixon to learn about his work restoring damaged coral reefs.

Simon is the Marine Discovery Centre Manager at the Four Seasons Resort Maldives, for the environmental consultancy company, Reefscapers.

Why do you work in conservation?

Why do I work in conservation? From a young age, I was influenced by nature documentaries. I was always fascinated with the marine world and by people like David Attenborough.

I wanted to be a part of rectifying, or at least trying to mitigate, the impact we have on our own ecosystems and on the world around us.

What are your main activities in your current role?

My current role is twofold. My primary role is the manager of the Marine Research Center that we have here on the island of Landaa Giraavaru in Baa Atoll in the Maldives. I progressed to that role from my original position, as the Coral Biologist, running the coral restoration program around the island. Currently, I’m fulfilling both of those roles.

What’s the best part of your job?

Seeing the actual changes that we make daily. The company I work for, Reefscapers, is a marine consultancy company working with a lot of the resorts around the Maldives. Here at Landaa, our base is concerned with three main areas.

One is rescue, rehabilitation and release of injured sea turtles. We then have our aquaculture department, which is designed at going out into local communities and teaching them to rear species in captivity to take pressures off wild populations often collected for the ornamental aquarium hobby. Then, of course, we have our coral restoration.

My primary love is the corals. It’s being able to make a difference every single day in a small way, which over time builds up to quite a sizable difference to our environment around this island.

Credit: Reefscapers.

What are your least favorite parts of your job?

I enjoy 99% of what I do. There are some admin elements, as with any job. On a beautiful sunny day, I’d rather be out in the water than sitting in front of my computer, but it’s a necessary part of the job.

I think the hardest part about where I am is isolation. There are no shops or restaurants etc. You can walk from one end of the island to the other in about 10 minutes. After extended periods this can become challenging, but after a short break I am always ready to come back.

What steps have you taken in your career to get where you are now?

I did a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology, which I followed up with a master’s degree in Conservation Biology a few years later.

In between my bachelor’s and my master’s, I did a lot of volunteer work. I got my scuba diving instructor license and my freediving instructor license, so that I could get paid to be in an environment that I loved, whilst gaining experience in many different aspects of Marine Biology and meeting like minded people.

I would say the biggest steps alongside education was experience and perseverance. If you are interested in this field, you need to persevere.

Credit: Reefscapers.

What advice would you give to people on a similar path?

If you choose the right paths and the right places, you will gain a lot of experience. It is that experience which you must view as a currency.

I’ve done a lot of volunteering. I found ways to earn money alongside that volunteering. Pick and choose where you do your volunteering or your internships.

This field of marine biology is incredibly diverse; you can specialize in a multitude of different disciplines. When I did my master’s, it wasn’t as common as it is now. People are going down the route of PhDs, which is incredibly valuable. Again, pick and choose very carefully.

Oftentimes, whilst conducting your internships or volunteer work, you will meet people who will be able to facilitate you to do a PhD, or a master’s thesis research project. You will also familiarize yourself with the organizations involved in the areas of marine research which interest you. These connections can prove invaluable when you are ready to find paid employment.

What do you see as the outlook for coral reefs and the species that depend on them, including humans?

Coral reefs are under ever increasing pressure from anthropogenic stressors. If we continue on the same path then many of these incredibly diverse ecosystems will collapse.

I believe for coral reefs to stand a chance we need to tackle the underlying problems, which is our impact on our ecosystems and climate change. We can all make changes to our daily lives which will positively impact our fight against the effects of climate change. This will then allow restoration programs and new research techniques to facilitate the survival of these delicate environments.

However, we must act at a global AND local scale. Restoration initiatives alone will not be enough to save the reefs of the world and reducing our carbon footprint will not ensure reef revival, without active restoration techniques being put in place.

I believe the quoted figure is around one billion people globally who rely on fish as their primary source of protein. Much of the targeted species in these fisheries rely on coral reef habitats for a portion of their life cycle. Without reef habitats, we would see a dramatic decline in the numbers of these species and consequently millions of people struggling for food and income.

Coral reefs also provide tens of billions of dollars in economic value, globally, every year, not only through fishing but also tourism. Here in the Maldives the country is dependent on tourism. Without tourists the economy of the Maldives would simply collapse.

The reefs also provide a buffer from environmental impacts. By dissipating the energy of waves, they prevent erosion and mitigate the effects of adverse weather conditions. Again, this is especially evident in the Maldives where the majority of the land masses are no more than 1m above sea level. Increased erosion due to the loss of reef habitat, alongside rising sea level due to climate change will cause islands to be lost to the sea, as is already evident in several locations across the globe. This then begs the question of where do the people go?

A coral reef undergoing restoration. Credit: Reefscapers.

How is coral restored?

There are a multitude of different methods. We use a natural form of asexual reproduction. If you imagine a coral colony that looks like an upturned hand, if you break one of those fingers off, that one finger will then grow again into another coral colony. The same process occurs in domestic gardening.  If you take a cutting from a plant in your garden and then replant that cutting, you will get a genetically identical individual.

We harvest pieces of coral from wild colonies (never more than 15% of the total colony), to ensure genetic diversity, and from colonies that we have grown on our coral frame structures. We then attach them to the structure, which looks like a spider sitting down. These fragments will then grow into colonies and will provide additional habitat for marine organisms alongside them.

Due to the high tourism activity here, we use guest interaction to educate visitors about the importance and pressures facing coral reefs. We also allow guests to sponsor their own coral frame. These frames are assigned an individual number and photographically monitored every 6 months. These photos are uploaded to our website, which not only allows the sponsors to track the progress of their frame, but has also provided us with one of the most comprehensive restoration monitoring programs of its type.

We are now using advancements in Artificial Intelligence to extract the invaluable data contained within our photo data set, to facilitate management strategies at a local and hopefully, global scale.

Simon Dixon. Credit: Reefscapers.

If you think coral reef restoration might be for you, you can learn more on the Reefscapers website.

You can also explore similar reef restoration projects and training like the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program (NHRCP) and saving disappearing coral reefs in the Seychelles.


Main image credit: Reefscapers.


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