Coral Reef Restoration Methods

There are many methods and techniques of active coral restoration available to reef managers, many of which are very cheap and easy to construct or maintain. But, the science behind coral conservation and restoration is relatively new, and these techniques are constantly being improved. In the case of community managers, each community or region will find that different techniques or materials are more efficient for them, and adapting the techniques is essential for local success. It is important to keep in mind that in any new field, mistakes are bound to be made, but they should not be repeated. This article gives an overview of popular coral restoration methods to review where the field of coral restoration stands today, and what improvements are needed for the future.

Introduction to Coral Restoration

Coral reefs around the world are under increased threats due to both local and global stresses, making coral reef restoration more vital to preserve marine resources and local economies. Generally, there are two main types of coral restoration, known as Active and Passive Restoration. Active coral restoration refers to projects whereby time, energy, and resources are devoted to directly increasing the coral reef health, abundance, or biodiversity. Together these three factors constitute what is referred to as the coral reef resilience. A reef which has a high abundance of corals that are healthy and formed from a diverse range of coral genera is said to be resilient, or able to withstand or recover from disturbances.
Ideally, active restoration is done after passive restoration, or the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) has already been accomplished. The most common objectives of active restoration are to restore habitat and corals which have been lost, or improve reef resilience to mitigate future disturbances. In order to restore an ecosystem effectively, the threat must first be reduced or eliminated. But, in an increasing number of areas around the world today, the likelihood of stopping the consortium of imposing threats is minimal. In these areas, restoration to improve resilience must be implemented to reduce the degree of damage and maintain small areas of the reef to serve as ‘biodiversity banks.'
Charles Darwin has been given credit as being the world’s first coral restorationist. What he realized was that corals dislodged by boat grounding or anchors often died after rolling around or being abraded by sand. Using that observation, he theorized that by securing the coral in place it should recover and regrow. He tested this theory by pounding pieces of bamboo into the sand and tying the unsecured coral fragments to it. After observing the corals over time, he determined that in doing so the coral not only survived, but began to regrow and replace lost tissue areas through the asexual reproduction of coral polyps.

Types of coral restoration

In the time since Darwin, techniques for coral restoration have advanced, but the basic principle is still the same; secure broken corals so they will survive. This can be done due to the fact that corals reproduce primarily through asexual means, and any individual polyp in the colony has the potential to create a new colony in the right conditions. For some corals, such as branching or bushy colonies, asexual reproduction through budding or breakage is a major mechanisms in which they spread out, and is referred to as propagation. Today, we use stronger and more long-lasting materials than Darwin’s bamboo poles to secure the corals onto (concrete, steel, ceramics, limestone, etc.), or simply replant them securely to natural reef areas. Corals can be secured to a solid structure using a wide variety of straps, glues, wedges and other techniques. If a coral has been secured in an area where the physical conditions are conducive for that coral colony’s growth, then it will thrive as long as it is secure in place.

If you have ever been involved in securing coral fragments, or ‘coral gardening,’ then you know that it is not quite so simple as just attaching the coral; the conditions must be conducive for growth. Generally, this means that you maintain the same light levels (depth), and transplant the corals to an area where threats such as sedimentation, pollution, anchor damage, etc are low or absent. Depending on the size of the project, achieving high levels of success and minimizing mortality or unexpected consequences or disasters (risk mitigation), can be quite difficult.

In restoring coral reef through asexual propagation and the securement of coral fragments as discussed above, there are three primary or foundational objectives that are either addressed individually or in unison; (1) Increase solid structures available for coral growth, (2) increase coral coverage (3) alter growing conditions. These objectives can also be referred to structural, biological, and physical conditions (respectively).

Structural restoration

Structural restoration generally involves the construction of artificial reefs, sinking of wrecks, or relocation of rocks/dead coral heads. The goal is to increase the amount of reef structure and habitat available for the corals and other reef organisms to grow on. Structural restoration is required in areas were the reef has been lost due to disturbances such as blast fishing, boat grounding, dredging, landslides, etc. In areas which have been reduced to rubble or sand, corals will not have solid structure to attach to and will end up being abraded or buried during high waves. Ecosystem succession in these marginalized areas can take decades to recover, and many never do so on their own.

Natural means by which reef structure could return in areas with physical reef damage includes the settlement and long-term growth of corals from the Fungidae family which are better adapted to survive without being attached to the substrate. Eventually these fungidae corals grow large, and die. Other corals can then settle on the large, and relatively stable, dead skeletons successfully. Larvae from the Porites genus seem to be particularly successful in recruiting to marginalized areas, as they tend to be more resilient towards physical abuse by wave action. Giant clams, rock oysters, coralline algae, and even marine debris can sometimes assist in this process. By adding artificial structures in these areas where the physical and biological conditions for coral growth are still good, and the natural levels of coral recruitment are high, the reef can quickly and effectively be restored. In areas that are recruitment limited or greatly marginalized, artificial structures will need to be ‘seeded’ with coral transplants to facilitate and speed development.

In addition to restoring damaged reefs, this technique can also be used to extend the reef boundaries, create new reefs in sand flats, improve fisheries, or create alternative dive sites to mitigate the negative impacts of diving tourism. In areas where there is already an abundance of reef structure, as in reefs impacted by coral bleaching or disease, then structural restoration is not necessary, and may be a waste of resources and time that are usually limited to reef managers. {Also check out our article Artificial reef: What works and what doesn't}

Biological Restoration

Ideally, biological restoration should focus on increasing the success of coral reproduction to create new individual colonies on the reef.

Biological restoration usually involves increasing the amount of living corals on the reef in areas were structure is already available. This is generally achieved through methods such as collecting and rehabilitating naturally broken coral fragments, propagating coral colonies, culturing coral larvae, or transplanting living coral colonies. The general goal of biological restoration is to regrow corals in areas where populations have been diminished or lost. This is most generally required in areas which have been impacted by bleaching, disease, predation (COTs and Drupella snails), algae overgrowth, sedimentation, etc. Following these types of mass mortality events, small coral colonies can be used to ‘seed’ the reef that will eventually grow large enough to become sexually reproductive and return the balance on the reef. Biological restoration may also include integrating fish, giant clam, or other nurseries and aggregation devices to restore reef balance and return vital symbiosis necessary for reef health.

Without human intervention, the coral reef would naturally recover from mass morality events through both asexual and sexual means. Single corals such as branching colonies can propagate and create stands of healthy, but mono-specific (all the same DNA) stands of reef. Primarily though, the area will require that coral larvae successfully recruit to the area from connected reefs and are able to grow genetically unique colonies which are each suited to withstand different types of disturbances in the future. In areas where the reproductively viable coral population has been destroyed, connectivity to other reefs is low, or larvae are unable to settle successfully (due to grazing, turf cover, etc.) than the reef may never recover on its own, and biological restoration is necessary.

Biological restoration can also be used to assist in the development of Artificial reef: What works and what doesn't, transplant corals to areas where threats are reduced, create ‘coral banks’ for risk mitigation, or take proactive measures to increase coral reef resilience. To be successful, the restoration areas must still have ample light, temperature, and water quality to be conducive for coral growth. In areas where the threats to the corals are still present, or the ecosystem has completely collapsed, biological restoration may not be effective and could even have negative consequences for surrounding reefs. In these areas restoration techniques that address the physical conditions must be employed.

Physical Restoration

Physical restoration involves addressing the conditions in which the corals are growing to improve their health, growth rates, or fecundity (reproductive ability). These methods have generally been developed more recently, and some are still in the experimental stages. Methods include Artificial reef: What works and what doesn't or mineral accretion devices such as Biorock ™ technology. Mid-water nurseries are used as a staging area for rehabilitation of damaged or propagated corals before they are placed back out onto artificial or natural substrates. By floating in mid-water, the nurseries can be placed in areas with high water quality (such as in the open ocean), but still maintain the same ambient light levels which the corals and their zooxanthellae are adapted to. Generally, corals growing on mid-water nurseries have very high survival rates and tend to grow faster than similar colonies on the natural reef due to decreased stress caused by sedimentation, eutrophication, predation, or pollution.

Mineral accretion devices are an advanced reef restoration technology which uses low voltage electrical energy to change the water chemistry directly around the structure. The process of electrolysis utilized by the technology increases sea water pH and causes carbonate salts to precipitate out of the water (CaCO3, MgCo3, etc). In these conditions, corals can devote less energy to forming skeletal structure and divert that energy into other processes such as tissue growth/repair, immune system, mucus production, lipid storage, or reproduction. Corals growing on these devices tend to grow 3-5 times faster than their natural counterparts, and will survive in an extended range of physical conditions. This means that corals can thrive in areas where temperature, water quality, or light levels would otherwise be outside the range for that specific coral’s survival.

Generally, physical restoration is expensive and requires a high amount of regular maintenance compared with basic structural biological restoration methods. In many areas though, focusing on only one type of restoration will not led to success, and the various forms of restoration must be implemented together proportionally as is needed. This is most effectively done through a three-part strategy involving collecting a ‘feed stock’ of corals, the rearing of mature colonies, and transplanting to natural or artificial structures.

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About us

About Us

The New Heaven Reef Conservation Program (NHRCP) was founded in 2007 to teach divers about coral reef ecology, research, and restoration. We believe that the people most closely connected to the reef should be the ones that care for it, and so are trying to get more and more divers involved in marine education and conservation.  As a Social Enterprise Organization (SEO), our focus is on protecting and enriching the coral reefs while providing education and training for those wishing to develop, contribute to, or pursue a career in fields related to marine coastal management and protection. Our program directly contributes to the conservation of Thailand’s coral reefs through research and monitoring, reporting, mitigation, as well as active and passive restoration around the island of Koh Tao.

Our education and certification program is designed to give participants a hands-on approach to learning about the coral reef environment and a wide range of research and restoration techniques used by professionals around the world. Participants in our program range from gap year students wanting to learn something new and give back on their holiday, to seasoned dive instructors wanting to learn or start teaching marine conservation courses. We also host many students doing thesis projects for anything from internships to PhD thesis.

The New Heaven Reef Conservation Program is responsible for much of the marine protection or related activities and on-going maintenance around the island of Koh Tao, working closely with the local community and government groups such as the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources and the Department of Fisheries. Students in our program assist on a wide range of our ongoing projects, allowing them to immediately apply and practice the skills learned.

For more than a decade our program has provided a wide range of tangible positive impacts to the reefs of Koh Tao, while also training and certifying over 1,000 students from around the globe.

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Student Testimonials

Student Testimonials

Cheyenne My time with the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program was an experience I will never forget and always cherish. For years I have known I wanted to work in marine conservation, but was unsure of exactly what field I wanted to be in. After being thoroughly inspired by NHRCP’s work I now have a career path to follow—coral restoration and conservation. That decision was easy once I realized how fun, interactive, and important their work is. Each day at New Heaven you can look forward to an educational lecture pertaining specifically to coral ecology and restoration. After that, the real fun begins. Whether the day’s project includes surveying the ecosystem for changes in health, building upon artificial reefs, or controlling predator outbreaks, you can guarantee you’ll have fun and feel a sense of accomplishment. Daily dives in the beautiful blue sea around Koh Tao are always a treat, but there’s nothing better than being able to give back to the ecosystem during your dives. One of the best things about the NHRCP is their ability to include anyone into their program. Because the NHRCP includes lectures, volunteers are taught everything they need to know to be an effective team member, regardless of your educational or career background. Also, whether you are merely passing through Koh Tao for a few days or planning an extended stay, you will be treated as a valuable team member and friend for the duration of your time. The New Heaven Reef Conservation Program is an excellent program and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys diving and has an interest in giving back to our beautiful Earth.   Cheyenne Carey (USA), Intern June 2017

Coline Volunteering at New Heaven Reef Conservation Program is definitely a life-changing experience. As soon as you join the program, you have the feeling to be part of family of really passionate marine conservationists and diving addicts.  While learning theoretical aspect of marine biology and conservation in the morning, you dedicate your afternoon to conservation dives, an excellent way to directly apply all the things you’ve learned. Each day means new adventures to come, you never know what to expect for your dive: an amazing massive field of Euphyllia, the majestic night snow of the coral spawning, a whale shark coming to say hello, witnessing huge school of fishes dancing around you, spotting rare species of fishes and so on. This friendly team of passionate people is really inspiring and make you feel at home on the paradise island of Koh Tao. If you’re consumed by wanderlust and the thirst of doing positive actions for the threatened world surrounding us, joining NHRCP is the best choice you can make. One thing is sure, I will come back to Koh Tao to once again help with the preservation of this amazing and complex ecosystem and yet jeopardized.   Coline Monchanin (France), Intern April 2017

Alec My experience at the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program was one I won’t be forgetting soon. The way that the staff managed the constantly changing dynamic was wonderful and they maintained a good balance of diligent conservation work, and beautiful diving. While I was there during my 6-week stint, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) had us join them twice to work on a project, which was abnormal for the program. However, the RCP program accommodated both us and the government by offering both governmental and typical projects on those days, allowing those with different conservation goals to experience different aspects of marine conservation. The RCP was also amazing in that the experience and education you were able to gain was correlated to the time you put into it. With every day being a different project or location, nothing was exactly the same each day which allowed us to participate in a huge breadth of conservation activities ranging from data collection and sightings to buoy installation and artificial reef deployment. All the staff were very knowledgeable on the subjects they lectured on, and more information was readily available if you asked questions and had the desire. Despite the amount of work available to be learned or completed, the staff were accommodating and didn’t force anything, letting each conservationist work at their own pace. As a young rising Marine Ecologist, my time at the NHRCP was the most valuable 6-weeks I have had thus far, and the experience, knowledge, and the good times with the RCP family will stay with me and draw me back to the frontlines of conservation on Koh Tao as soon as possible.   Alexander Ward (USA), Student August 2017

Emily  I was lucky enough to join the New Heaven Reef Conservation Team as part of my university degree. I found those 4 weeks where the most eye opening and rewarding experience that I could ever imagine. Every day we dove to various locations around the island to undertake predator collection (Crown of Thorns and Drupella), ecological monitoring, fun dives, muck dives and assisting the reef regrowth by restoring artificial reefs. I learnt so much and this experience changed my entire mindset not only as a person but also as an upcoming aspiring marine biologist. I am still studying a Bachelor of environmental science however when finished I aim to become a dive master and follow the footsteps of the people I met here and make a difference. I have met some of the most interesting and inspiring people who are now some of my closet friends and I can’t wait follow their successes in the future. Everybody was unbelievably welcoming and this trip will always be a highlight in my life and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity. Before leaving the island I was already planning my return trip. I encourage everyone to join NHRCP for as long as you can spare to help – everyone can make a difference. Individually we are a drop, together we are an ocean.Emily Monacella (Australia), Student January 2018

Elliot I joined the conservation team during April this year for a 3 month internship, and it has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. The memories and friends made through this program will be cherished and I’m without a doubt that I’ll be back again at some point. The program is full of incredibly passionate and driven people, and it has been an absolute pleasure to watch and work with them in their element. I feel like I’ve learned so much on the program and even grown as a person. It’s given me an insight on the issues the ocean faces due to our actions, but to know there’s great people finding ways and teaching people how to minimise the damage we cause, gives me great hope for the future. Thank you NHRCP! Elliot Young (UK), Student April 2017, Intern April 2018

Jeanne and Nienke Being busy while diving, trying to make a difference for the marine life is a great feeling! The New Heaven Reef Conservation Program is an amazing way to learn how marine conservation is done. An awesome team of passionate instructors gives lectures in the morning and guides everyone during the beautiful dive in the afternoon. There is a wide range of projects varying from restoring the reef, collecting coral predators to on of our favourites: searching for new things during a muck dive! We even learned how to weld the artificial reef structures. While living on Koh Tao, it will not only be a New Heaven, but also a New Home. Every day comes with a lot of new things to learn and new great people to meet. Doing the NHRCP internship, we learned to appreciate the underwater world even more than we already did. No doubt we'll be back for more conservation dives on Koh Tao! Jeanne Benichou and Nienke van der Loosdrecht (France and the Netherlands), Interns 2018

Maggie My time with New Heaven Reef Conservation Program not only made me a better diver, it introduced me to marine conservation and my own capability to create change. Being welcomed by a team of scientists and conservationists who are eager to share their knowledge made me look forward to every day at the program—a lecture at the school and then to the boats for a dive and a hands-on conservation technique on the reef. Each dive has the potential to bring something new, whether it be a rare sea slug sighting or the growth of a transplanted coral, and as an NHRCP student, the underwater world opened up for me more with every dive. Students and staff of the program come from all over the world and the friendships I made exposed me to different languages and cultures and made me realized how conservation is a global effort. New Heaven Reef Conservation Program is training the next generation of conservationists and giving us the tools and voices to create a positive impact on the marine ecosystem. I look forward to coming back!   Maggie Seida (USA), Intern March 2017

Conor Having very little knowledge of marine life prior to my time on Koh Tao I was considerably nervous before starting with the NHRCP. However, all those nerves melted away before the first day on the program was over. I was a student there for three months and my only regret was not staying longer. The people in the program have an amazing ability to make everyone feel as welcomed and valued as possible, making it very easy to work confidently alongside them. Prior to my time with the program I had very little knowledge of marine life but after all of the daily morning lectures I have learnt so much that was not only mind-blowingly interesting but has also improved the quality of every dive for me. As exciting as it is seeing all of the incredibly beautiful fish and corals it was absolutely fascinating to be able to spot out the tiny sea slugs and many of the hidden marvels that also live in the marine ecosystems which we visited every afternoon. Each dive we’d visit some of the most beautiful dive sites I’ve seen and work extensively on anything ranging from coral predator collection to maintaining artificial reefs, with each job being just as rewarding as the last. Whether you want to make your contribution to marine conservation, expand your knowledge on marine life or just have an amazing time this is definitely the place to go. I made incredible friendships and loved every day more than the last. I look forward to re-joining the program someday soon! Conor King (Zimbabwe), Student January 2018

Purdey  My time at new heaven was one I will never forget, it completely changed my life and career path. I arrived knowing barely anything about the different ecosystems and felt nervous that I wouldn’t understand anything as I didn’t have a background in marine science. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The instructors are so supportive and always keen to answer any questions you have and never leave you feeling clueless, you can sit through the lectures as many times as you like until you are happy with your understanding. A typical ‘marine conservation’ project would be just completing a fish survey but here you learn so many different aspects of the marine world from reef restoration, to algae, to sea slugs and everything in between.  If you didn’t think it was possible to enjoy diving any more than you already do, wait until you start to learn about everything you are seeing underwater and all the symbiotic relationships. It starts to become addictive as you just want to learn more and more... Not to mention the relaxing dives of sitting around a beautifully sculpted tree attaching coral fragments giving them a second chance at life... It is a completely new level of love! Each day you return feeling fulfilled and so motivated to carry on with this incredible work.  I’m so grateful to have been able to be part of such an amazing experience and I would go back in a heartbeat! Purdey Oldworth (UK), Student May 2018

May  What in life could be better than staying on a beautiful island, diving in stunning ecosystems, spending time with inspiring people, and working and learning to protect our planet? I first came here as a student for a 2-week program and then came back again for 3-month internship. Not only was it some of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had, but it also gave me inspiration. The ocean became a whole new world for me. The more I learned about it, the more I fell in love with it and realized how important it is. The knowledge I’ve gained from the program also changed the way I see the ocean. I remember sitting and looking at the sea when I almost finished the internship, and realized that the sea would mean something different to me from now on. It’s not just a body of water with wavy surface anymore, but it’s a home for millions of amazing creatures. And those creatures have a profound connection with us. They are our life-support system. This 3-month experience made marine life become my friends.  It has inspired me to do something to protect them. Maythira Kasemsant (Thailand), Intern May 2018

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Ways to help/Donate

There are many different ways to get involved in our marine conservation projects, and of course each person should help out in the way which works best for them. Below are some recommendations on ways that you can join or support our efforts:

Take a marine conservation course – The best way to help us, is to help yourself. Receive training in our 3 day to 4 week programs so that you make contribute to ongoing research and restoration projects here on the island, and take that knowledge and skill set with you wherever you travel next.

Conduct a research or thesis project with us - We can facilitate a wide range of research projects for Thai or international students working on thesis or post-graduate projects. Over the years we have helped many students with their project development, data collection, and publication. Plus with 10 years worth of data colelcted already, there is a lot that you can build upon.

Join our internship program – Want to immerse yourself in marine conservation? Do an internship for school credit, or just take a few months away from your busy life to enjoy helping paradise? Try our internship program and find out what’s its like to work as a coral reef conservationist. SCUBA dive everyday & relax in paradise every night. We can even help you find funding or sponsorships and help you get cheap accommodation when you arrive

Donate or help with fundraising – All of our projects take money to keep them running, but usually it’s not very much. A donation of only 30 US Dollars can get materials for 6 of our students to work on artificial reefs or coral nurseries for a day. Donate through our website or host an event at your school or work to help raise money (then, if you’re lucky, come visit us and see the work done).

Help Spread the Word – Maybe you can't donate or make it to Koh Tao, but you can still help us out greatly by sharing our links on facebook or your own websites. Tell your friends, mention it to other travelers, write an article or news release, paint a picture. . .whatever your skills are, there is a way to use them for the good of the marine environment.

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New Heaven Reef Conservation Program