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Maldives Coral Restoration Project

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Maldives Coral Restoration Project
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The Soneva Foundation Coral Restoration Programme in the Maldives aims to restore precious coral reef systems

The Maldives, an enchanting island nation, boasts captivating underwater beauty. Corals, essential to ocean biodiversity, host 25% of sea life on the reef.

The Soneva Foundation Coral Restoration Programme aims to restore precious coral reef systems, establishing a thriving coral hub in the Maldives.

To execute this vision, the Soneva Foundation established a new Maldivian NGO known as Soneva Conservation. Operating from the AquaTerra science centre at Soneva Fushi, Soneva Conservation oversees the largest coral farm in the Indian Ocean, equipped with both in- situ and ex-situ capabilities.

Commencing with a one-hectare coral nursery, one of the world’s largest utilising Mineral Accretion Technology (MAT) at the outer edge of the house reef, our efforts expanded to include the Maldives’ first Coral Spawning and Rearing

Lab at AquaTerra. This lab replicates the reef’s natural environment, enabling coral spawning. To complement our in-situ lab, we introduced 30 micro-fragmenting tanks, a technique involving breaking healthy coral colonies into tiny pieces, nurturing the fragments and then transplanting them onto damaged reefs.

Based on these initiatives, we expect to produce approximately 150,000 coral fragments each year.

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WHY CORAL RESTORATION?

Conservation and restoration efforts seek to protect coral reefs and expedite their healing process. These help reduce threats, allowing corals to adapt and become more resilient. Adaptive breeding programmes also support faster coral evolution, helping them cope with ever-changing ocean temperatures.

The Soneva Foundation Coral Restoration Programme aims to restore precious coral reef systems and create a thriving coral hub for the Maldives. The coral reef in the Maldives has been damaged by earlier severe weather events like heat waves, leading corals to bleach and die.

To help reefs recover, the Soneva Foundation strives to create a large diversity of resilient corals, that are healthy enough to reproduce in the wild and continue to grow

around the reefs and sustain a healthy functional ecosystem for the Maldives as our climate changes.

The Soneva Foundation aims to foster a thriving ecosystem for generations to come, benefitting not only the reefs but also the marine life they support.

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CORAL RESTORATION METHODS

The Soneva Foundation Coral Restoration Programme employs various methods to restore coral reefs including the Mineral Accretion Technology nursery, coral spawning and rearing lab and micro- fragmentation tanks.

Ahmad ‘Aki’ Allahgholi first got involved with the programme by setting up the MAT nursery through his Coralive organisation. He has since joined Soneva as the Guardian of Ecosystems to lead a team of six permanent hosts and four interns.

“Our proudest moment is the expansion of operations. We started with having an in-situ nursery – the largest one in the Maldives and Indian Ocean – as our only form of coral restoration. Now we have an ex-situ coral spawning lab and micro-fragmenting lab, 3D printing of substrate to recruit more coral naturally and transplant our micro-fragments and baby corals to the reef and rope nurseries. We also have monitored rehabilitation sites around the house reef as well as the development of a facility that allows us to house more coral babies to grow and create resilient species for our future reefs,” says Aki.

The team has also developed living breakwaters to reduce beach erosion and created another sanctuary for corals to grow and fish to live in.

“As it stands, we have the capacity to grow over 200,000 corals in our ex-situ laboratories. This is the optimal goal, and we will strive for this. However, it must be said that, as we are developing our methodology and learning about the coral growth, reproduction and recruitment rates around the Maldives, this will most likely fluctuate each year,” says Aki.

In the following pages, we will explain in greater detail the various coral restoration methods used by the Soneva Foundation.

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MICRO-FRAGMENTATION – REVOLUTIONISING CORAL RESTORATION

Micro-fragmentation, a groundbreaking method, involves delicately breaking healthy coral colonies into minuscule pieces, nurturing them in controlled micro- fragmenting tanks until they flourish, and subsequently transplanting them onto damaged reefs. This innovative approach not only accelerates coral growth but also augments genetic diversity, creating a protective environment crucial for successful coral restoration.

The originator of this technique is Dr David Vaughan, the visionary behind the Plant a Million Corals Foundation.

“By chance, I inadvertently fragmented a three-year-old massive coral produced through sexual reproduction. To my amazement, the micro-fragments exhibited accelerated growth, and they could be seamlessly fused back together to form a substantial colony that would otherwise have taken many years to develop,” reveals Dr Vaughan.

Game-changer

The development of this technique involved the use of a specialised saw, initially designed for crafting coral jewellery from fossils or coral skeletal rock. Live corals are meticulously cut into one-centimetre fragments. These micro-fragments exhibit remarkably faster growth, facilitated by a swift ‘wound healing’ response, making rapid coral culture a feasible reality.

Aside from the impressive growth rates – up to 20 times for certain species – micro- fragmentation demonstrates adaptability to both massive and branching corals. The technique allows identical clones to reunite and generate larger colonies in considerably shorter timeframes, presenting opportunities for increased quantities and more substantial colonies.

“It is undeniably a game-changer for coral restoration,” adds Dr Vaughan.

30 micro-fragmenting tanks

Through his Plant a Million Corals Foundation, Dr David Vaughan is actively involved in designing, constructing and supplying micro-fragmenting labs for coral restoration projects. The integration of a land nursery, employing this technique alongside the traditional field nursery, represents a synergistic combination. This dual approach significantly enhances both the quantity and size of the reef. In October 2023, Dr Vaughan installed 30 micro-fragmenting tanks at Soneva Fushi and provided comprehensive training to the coral restoration team.David Vaughan pioneered the micro- fragmenting technique

“This seamlessly complements Soneva Foundation’s existing efforts in advancing field nursery production at scale. The addition of micro-fragmentation offers the potential to double production numbers, introducing more species and facilitating the planting of larger corals. Combined with sexual reproduction on land and the settlement of new offspring for genetic diversity, the Soneva Foundation has established a comprehensive and sustainable programme for coral restoration on the island, serving as a model for expansion throughout the Maldives and globally,” notes Dr Vaughan.

Make a difference

Expressing optimism, he anticipates that initiatives like the Soneva Foundation’s Coral Restoration Programme will make a substantial difference for reefs worldwide.

“We must collectively recognise that our actions as a planet impact our oceans and natural resources, particularly coral reefs. While these new technologies enable us to restore reefs using coral strains resilient to current conditions, and do so at an accelerated pace, we must also address the root causes of climate change and other stressors to facilitate the recovery of reefs. I remain hopeful,” affirms Dr Vaughan.

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CORAL SPAWNING & REARING – Facilitating Coral Reproduction

With over 40 years of research, it is established that seasonal temperature changes, sunlight and lunar cycles intricately influence coral reproduction in the wild. The Coral Spawning and Rearing Lab replicates on land the environmental conditions necessary for coral spawning, meticulously controlling parameters such as light, temperature, tides and more. This enables corals to spawn more frequently and at predetermined times.

Dr Jamie Craggs, immersed in reef restoration and coral reproductive research since 2010, recalls his fascination during a field training programme in Singapore’s annual mass spawning event. “Witnessing this natural wonder captivated me and led me to focus all my research interests on coral reproduction,” he shares.

Upon returning to the UK, Dr Craggs laid the foundations for the world’s first planned reproduction of broadcast spawning corals

in aquarium environments. Following the success of triggering the first predictable coral spawning in an aquarium, Professor Mike Sweet encouraged Dr Craggs to document the methods for his PhD and explore their potential for reef restoration.

In 2017, a landmark paper detailing the coral spawning system design and husbandry method was published. This open access paper garnered numerous inquiries from researchers globally, prompting the formation of the Coral Spawning Lab in late 2019, capable of delivering prefabricated labs.

Maldives’ first lab

Dr Craggs and his team have distributed over 60 spawning and rearing systems worldwide. The Soneva Foundation lab, installed in AquaTerra at Soneva Fushi in 2023, marked the Maldives’ first lab of its kind. Plans for the addition of V-shaped raceways in early 2024 are underway to complement the system.

“The Phase Two expansion at Soneva Fushi will be the largest capacity project to date. Once complete, the systems will be capable of holding over 60,000 corals at any moment in time. With the newfound knowledge of staggered natural spawning in the Maldives, and the ability to work with multiple spawns throughout the year, these facilities will outpace any other in the Indian Ocean, potentially even globally,” asserts Dr Craggs.

Manipulate the corals to spawn

The Soneva Coral Team achieved success by collecting sufficient coral eggs during the November full-moon cycle. Going forward, the team will no longer need to spend nights in the ocean collecting coral eggs and sperm.

“A significant benefit is that we can manipulate the corals to spawn at different times. Rather than working in the field all night, which is costly, tiring and potentially dangerous in rough sea conditions, we can phase-shift the spawning to occur during the day. We can now also manipulate corals to spawn out of season, providing more access to eggs and sperm throughout the year, further increasing production potential,” explains Dr Craggs.

Early in 2024, V-shaped raceways will be incorporated, drawing inspiration from nature’s meandering rivers. This design ensures water moves efficiently, with the V-shape allowing corals to grow at a 45-degree angle, preventing sediment from settling and enhancing survival rates during the corals’ early growth phase.

Impressed with the Soneva Foundation Coral Restoration Programme, Dr Craggs commends the facilities at Soneva Fushi, providing a significant platform for coral production at an unmatched scale. He acknowledges the Foundation’s ambition to be a leading example in reef restoration, driven by Sonu and the senior team’s understanding of the reefs’ intrinsic value surrounding the island and the Maldives as a whole.

Despite global threats to coral reefs, Dr Craggs remains hopeful, considering himself an eternal optimist. He emphasises the dedication of organisations and individuals applying cutting-edge research to secure a future for reefs and says: “Soneva Foundation’s ambition embodies all of this, and that fills me with a good deal of hope.”

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MINERAL ACCRETION TECHNOLOGY – Electrifying Coral Growth 

Mineral Accretion Technology (MAT) harnesses low-voltage electricity to enhance the health and growth rates of corals and other calcifying marine organisms.

As electrons flow from an anode to the coral metal structures submerged underwater, calcium carbonate (CaCO3 or limestone), the primary building material for most hard and some soft corals, accumulates on these structures. This process facilitates the attachment and rapid growth of coral fragments, while a slight increase in the pH level creates an ideal environment for coral propagation.

The Soneva Foundation initiated its journey with a one-hectare coral nursery, boasting 432 table structures – one of the world’s largest applications of Mineral Accretion Technology (MAT). Strategically positioned at the outer edge of the Soneva Fushi house reef, this pioneering venture aims to amplify coral growth and restoration.

he MAT nursery has been meticulously populated with 50,000 coral fragments

T sourced from colonies rescued from development sites. Upon their transplantation, the nursery is replenished with additional coral fragments from the coral spawning lab and micro-fragmentation lab.

“As soon as these corals reach a fragment size of approximately 7cm, they will be transferred to the MAT nursery. This transition not only allows them to adapt to the different conditions in situ – varying pH and oxygen levels, potential turbidity, and pollution – but also promotes rapid growth into robust colonies before being finally transplanted onto the natural reef,” explains Aki.

The parallel operations of different labs contribute to the creation of a substantial number of individual corals. These corals are then transferred to the MAT nursery, where they undergo adaptation and fortification before being directly transplanted onto the natural reef. This intricate process ensures the optimal development and resilience of the coral colonies, fostering a thriving marine ecosystem.

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CORAL OUTPLANTING

Since February 2022, the Soneva Conservation coral team has relocated 31,000 coral colonies and fragments from areas around the Maldives under threat due to ongoing development.

To rescue the coral, the team uses a hammer and chisel to cut into the rock around the colony, ensuring they do not cut or break off live coral. The corals are then placed into a container of seawater and transported from the development site to Soneva Fushi, where the team dives them down and places them either into the large MAT coral nursery or plants them directly onto the reef using cement.

From the rescued coral colonies, the team filled up the MAT nursery with 50,000 coral fragments and outplanted 12,500 coral colonies and 30,000 coral fragments to rehabilitation sites around the Soneva Fushi house reef. Together, this equals about 200,000 coral fragments.

The team continues to monitor their health and progress over the seasons to develop a database that optimises coral restoration to species and the local environment. Their focus is to optimise and sustain each restoration method with an +85% success rate in coral propagation and growth, using sound scientific methodology to help restore coral reefs and create a database that will make the coral programme world-renowned.

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ONE BILLION CORAL FRAGMENTS 

Addressing the global challenge of coral degradation requires a concerted effort, with various tasks operating in tandem to steer us in the right direction. Therefore, the Soneva Foundation Coral Restoration Programme, even on a large scale, stands as just one element within a multifaceted strategy essential for effective environmental restoration.

“The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has determined that, to restore our coral reefs to their state 20 years ago, the annual outplanting of one billion coral fragments is necessary,” states Aki.

In line with this goal, a coordinated global effort involving 6,000 to 7,000 coral restoration projects, similar to the Soneva Foundation’s undertaking, is imperative. The scalability of the two labs with tanks and the MAT nursery is evident, yet the primary challenge lies in securing an ample number of

marine biologists and environmental specialists to oversee these projects. The annual outplanting of 150,000 coral fragments per project demands a substantial workforce and well-prepared logistics.

The associated costs of such an ambitious undertaking naturally come into question.

“The capital expenses would amount to around US$ 5 billion, with annual operating expenses reaching approximately US$ 1.5 billion,” explains Aki.

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WHAT ARE CORALS?

Corals are animals living in a symbiosis with algae, while producing limestone.

A coral colony, as we can observe in the ocean, is composed of numerous individuals, all living and growing in a connected manner. One individual is referred to as a coral polyp, looking like a cylinder surrounded by tentacles, which is usually not visible except during feeding time. The tentacles are used as a defence mechanism and to gather food.

Even though coral polyps eat with the help of their tentacles, their main energetic income is generated by the sun, through photosynthesis of the algae living in symbiosis with them. This type of algae is called zooxanthellae and is in the outer cells of the coral. The nutrients generated by photosynthesis support coral metabolism, growth and therefore survival. In return, corals protect the algae and support it with other nutrients generated from respiration.

Although some species live in cold and dark waters, corals are mostly found in the warm tropical seas, preferably in temperatures between 23 ̊C and 30 ̊C.

WHY ARE CORAL REEFS IMPORTANT?

  • Coral reefs, the world’s most biodiverse marine ecosystem, hosting over 25% of marine life.
  • Coral reefs contribute significantly to humanity, providing food security, income for tourism and shoreline protection.
  • Approximately half a billion people globally rely directly on coral reefs for their food and livelihood.
  • Coral reefs act as efficient wave reduction systems, protecting shorelines from erosion and reducing storm impacts.
  • Coral reef tourism, as in the Maldives, generates an estimated US$10 billion globally each year.
  • Coral research also contributes to medical treatments, including cancer and HIV research.
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Dr Johanna Leonhardt – Manager, Soneva Coral Project (AquaTerra)

Johanna grew up on Australia’s East coast and has spent her whole life in the ocean where she feels more at home than on land. She has an undergraduate degree in Analytical Chemistry (Forensic Science) and Marine biology. She has received her postgraduate degrees in Environmental Conservation (Genetics) and Marine Science (Coral Health) at James Cook University located in Far North Queensland on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

About AquaTerra:

With a name inspired by Soneva Fushi’s exceptional natural setting, AquaTerra brings together sustainability, science and rare experiences. A hub for our conservation efforts, the new state-of-the-art centre aims to educate our guests about the local ecosystem through a range of inspirational experiences, and host cutting-edge scientific research. 

AquaTerra currently houses a spawning and rearing laboratory, developed with the team from Coral Spawning Lab, to conduct assisted evolution and create heat resilient super corals, and a 3D-Printing laboratory to produce coral substrate. 

Later in 2023, the Soneva Foundation will also fund the installation of a micro-fragmenting laboratory with 28 outdoor tanks that can produce up to 100,000 corals per year, as well as live streaming cameras with fish recognition software at the coral nursery, to combine with live data from a SmartBuoy.

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Adrian Stacey
Scuba Diver ANZ Editor, Adrian Stacey, first learned to dive on the Great Barrier Reef over 24 years ago. Since then he has worked as a dive instructor and underwater photographer in various locations around the world including, Egypt, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico and Saba. He has now settled in Australia, back to where his love of diving first began.
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