Coral reef restoration program engages local community

Hesley explains the anatomy of the coral reef and its importance to the environment. (Yasser Marte/South Florida Media Network)

Volunteers work alongside scientists at Rescue a Reef, a research and restoration program based at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Dalton Hesley, a senior research associate at the Benthic Ecology and Coral Restoration Lab, joined the program as manager shortly after its conception about five years ago. Rescue a Reef may be young, but researchers at UM have spent 15 years looking at coral reefs, the issues they face and how to restore them. 

“We’ve made great strides during that time, but we realized that we couldn’t solve this issue alone,”  Hesley said. “The problem around corals is too large for us to really tackle by ourselves. So we decided to build a public program, Rescue a Reef, that could better engage individuals and offer them the opportunity and tools needed to work alongside our team.”

Diego Lirman, who holds a PhD in marine biology, founded the program in 2014 to help bridge the gap between science and society. Hesley said having non-scientists as part of the project is vital. 

Madeline Kaufman became an ambassador after four expeditions as a citizen scientist.

“It’s just the coolest, most engaging way to learn about a problem and be a part of the solution,” she said. “Originally you probably are like, ‘researchers and super trained professionals are the only people that can actually do this,’ but you learn that it’s something that really anyone can do if they’re interested in doing it.”  

She said that a typical expedition may consist of visiting offshore underwater coral nurseries, where participants assist in cleaning algae and other growths off of the structures and then collect corals to outplant, or attach, to nearby reef sites. 

They happen once to twice a month depending on the weather, and participants can sign up by joining Rescue a Reef’s email list through their webpage.

The expeditions cost usually less than $100 to join. (Rescue a Reef makes no money off the expeditions, which are hosted by dive shops.) 

Lucia Speroni, a science writer at Illumina Inc., participated on a trip and said she found the experience extremely fulfilling. “There is a special kind of click that happens when you are able to help the underwater world with your own hands. You start thinking more about your everyday actions and their impact on the reef, because you have experienced how fragile and awesome corals are,” she said. 

Speroni said her group planted 120 staghorn corals. She said she felt joy knowing she’d contributed to a better future for the reefs. 

Coral reefs play critical roles in our ecosystems and lives, including providing habitats for fish, protecting coastlines during storms and even millions of jobs that stimulate the economy through tourism and recreation. 

One technique used to grow the reefs is microfragmentation, Hesley said. The process involves breaking up the coral into quarter-sized pieces, which can increase the rate of growth tenfold. Other methods involve running experiments to test which types of coral survive or manage to grow efficiently under heat stress and which are less susceptible to disease. Although Rescue a Reef has successfully planted over 10,000 corals in Miami-Dade County, Hesley stressed that coral restoration is only a short-term solution. 

“We should really stop the issue at the source rather than adjust to the problem and not face it head-on,” he said. “So coral restoration can be an amazing vehicle for raising awareness, conducting research and promoting recovery, but we really need societal action to have any long-term impact.”

The expeditions can be especially useful for that, he said. “[Scientists] have our soapbox when we talk about coral conservation, but it’s much more impactful if you hear that from your neighbor, someone in your class, someone that you walk to the park with,” he said. “That’s why we feel like we’re empowering individuals to take ownership of these coral reef resources because it’s really theirs. It’s theirs to lose, and it’s theirs to benefit.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Madeline Kaufman’s name and to clarify that Rescue a Reef does not profit from the expeditions. 

Beatriz is a broadcast media major at Florida International University and is the managing editor for South Florida Media Network. She aspires to become a documentarian.

I attended Santa Monica College not knowing my interest and major but I knew that I had to return to school. I took some photography because I had an interest in social-economic issues, history and politics and how photographs have the ability to captivate the narrative and atmosphere of these topics. Once I joined The Corsair newspaper I delved deeply into writing and photography. That’s when I decided to immerse myself in journalism. I transferred to FIU continuing my studies in Journalism and photography and I am proudly interning with the South Florida Media Network.