A LONGITUDINAL CROWDSOURCED PHOTO AND VIDEO DATABASE for coral reefs
Launching in mid-2019, Coral Lovers will begin compiling a longitudinal photo and video library of at-risk coral reefs by crowdsourcing historical, current, and future footage. The focus will be on smaller reef systems that may not be well-documented by the larger conservation organizations, but are nonetheless popular with snorkelers and divers.
Sadly, our coral reef ecosystems are suffering world-wide. The extent to which we can document both healthy corals, as well as those in decline, will impact both the mitigation and level of recovery we can achieve in the face of this epic destruction.
As our reefs continue to decline, and even disappear, video footage of some areas may be our only reminder of what once was. Having a backed-up, referenced, decentralized depository of this footage provides a level of protection for this potentially invaluable information. By examining historical video footage, we will be able to identify and study microecosystems that once thrived together. This information may also enable us to replant coral reefs as close as possible to their original state.
One impetus behind Coral Lovers is to contribute to a roadmap for repopulating reefs in the future, should the need arise. If a catastrophic or wide-spread decline occurs precipitously, there will be neither the time nor sufficient funding for comprehensive documentation, or for trial-and-error learning— for instance, discovering which corals coexist successfully in close proximity in various locations and conditions.
Finally, we hope the footage collected can be used to raise public awareness of both our remarkably beautiful reefs and the very real risk of extinction that they currently face.
PILOT PROJECT - KAHALU'U BAY, HAWAII
The pilot project for this initiative will be Kahalu'u Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii, a small reef that is under significant and continued threat of degradation from multiple factors— including oxybenzone pollution, sewage runoff, global warming and ocean acidification, coral bleaching, overfishing, and trampling from overuse. Kahalu'u Bay is only 4.2 acres in area, but is being “loved to death” annually by over 400,000 visitors.
Hawaii’s native cauliflower coral (Pocillopora meandrina) is being considered as a threatened or endangered species through a petition through the Center for Biological Diversity. Our own rough estimation is that the number of living cauliflower coral heads in Kahalu'u Bay has declined by over 95% in recent years, largely due to the coral bleaching events of 2014 and 2015, but also from factors such as land-based pollution, sedimentation, and physical disturbance caused by human trampling. Here is a 13-month sequence captured from our footage showing one of the few remaining living cauliflower coral heads in the bay:
Sadly, there is very little left of this remarkable animal, who we named Canary. In the last two images, you can see the precious few polyps that are still hanging on. Each time we snorkel out to this coral head, we take a moment and hope… hope that there is still some sign of life. As of this writing in early February 2019, our hopes are dwindling.
Unfortunately, our little Canary is not the only casualty in the past year— this next timeline features a coral we named Compadre because it sits next to the coral named Spawner, who provided the only gametes collected in the bay in 2018.
But the most heartbreaking one for this writer is Sweety, named by Kathleen Clark at KBEC because she was so petite and adorable. This is probably because I didn’t recognize her upon receiving the most recent photos contributed by Kathleen, not until that awful moment when I thought “Oh no… not Sweety!”
What is particularly shocking is that Sweety’s degradation occurred in only seven short months— from July to February, and it continues into 2019 despite the fact that water temperatures have not been extreme. These are not dramatic events that are accompanied by an immediate realization of the danger ahead. Rather, they are small deaths that are easy to miss until they cumulatively reach a tipping point of no return— and we are almost there. It’s downright distressing to see recent news headlines such as “Scientists 'Thrilled' to Report Hawaii’s Coral Reefs are Making a Miraculous Comeback” as we watch the steady and continuing decline in our coral health (see below).
It’s not surprising that this reef has declined to a shadow of its former majestic beauty. What’s miraculous is that coral life continues in Kahalu'u Bay despite extreme and synergistic stressors. This is in large part due to the efforts of the Kahalu'u Bay Education Center (KBEC), who have worked tirelessly to mitigate the human-impact damage to the bay since 2011. You can read more about KBEC and how Silver Spiral Seas supports their efforts here.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
The degradation that this and others reefs around the world have experienced in the last 30 years is harrowing, but it’s not too late to reverse the decline. We believe that conservation efforts can be facilitated through shared knowledge and multidisciplinary approaches to the complex problems being faced by our wild reefs today, and may hold the key to repopulating reefs in the future if the immediate decline cannot be halted.
The wealth of knowledge contained in the ocean and the life it supports should be maximized through compilation and integration across as many interest groups and disciplines as possible. It is our hope that this video library will contribute to this effort.
Header Image of Reef: Image courtesy of www.coralreefimagebank.org, credit: Jayne Jenkins
Snorkeler on Reef: Image courtesy of www.coralreefimagebank.org, credit: Mark Fitz
Cauliflower Coral: Image by Silver Spiral Seas, LLC