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Growing a solution to conserve our coral reefs

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Environmental action: marine biologist and aquaculturist Samia Sarkis in the coral reef nursery at Coney Island (Photograph by Sarah Lagan)

Healthy coral reefs promote biodiversity in our oceans, contribute to the quality of our tourism and, most importantly, protect our tiny island’s coasts from potentially devastating storms.

As it is essential that we conserve them for generations to come and it is only fitting that our young people are part of a drive to protect them.

Samia Sarkis, a marine biologist and aquaculturist who has turned her attention to corals, is leading the cause with Coral Garden Initiative, a scheme for primary school-aged children.

The initiative — designed through her organisation, the Living Reefs Foundation — aims to restore sections of the reef system at Castle Harbour that were damaged during the construction of LF Wade International Airport.

Students take young corals and grow them in a nursery based at the government Fisheries Department at Coney Island. Once the corals have progressed, they can be taken out to the damaged areas and attached to the seabed.

Dr Sarkis said: “It is mainly for children aged 8 and above and, by taking part, they are helping us to expand our gardens.

“Corals are animals and the children learn that corals have the same requirements as other animals. They feed them with brine shrimp and they also treat them in the ‘coral hospital’ for stress.

“They help us to make the mini gardens, which are juvenile corals fixed on tiles. We then take them out to the coral gardens and keep tabs on every tile and communicate through Facebook.

“People are receptive and excited.”

Other “more innovative” methods are being explored as fragmentation results in less genetic diversity, which in turn reduces the resilience of reefs.

The Living Reefs Foundation is focusing on non-branching hard corals, using a method that relies on larval seeding to obtain young corals.

“Fragments we have been using were left over from experiments at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences,” Dr Sarkis said.

“This summer we are trying to get a sustainable source of corals by producing the larvae in the lab.

“We are trying work mainly on boulder species like the brain and star coral because they are the species which dominate the reefs in Bermuda.

“We are applying existing techniques but also investigating a relatively new technique in collaboration with the UK industry sector, which relies on the application of an electrical current in the water which apparently stimulates coral growth.”

Dr Sarkis grew up by the sea in France. Her interest in corals was sparked through a volunteer internship with the non-profit Earth Watch.

She came to Bermuda more than 20 years ago as a volunteer for Bios.

She then worked on special projects with the Department of Conservation Services during which she helped to conduct an economic valuation of Bermuda’s coral reefs. The robust study’s estimate, which she describes as “conservative”, was that our reefs provide benefits of up to $1.1 billion.

Dr Sarkis launched the Coral Garden Initiative in June, 2016, initially inviting tourists to work on gardening projects. An Adopt-a-Coral Programme at Rosewood Bermuda to develop the gardens came later.

“One recommendation of the report was the establishment of a tourism conservation partnership,” she said.

“We realised that visitors to the island are willing to pay for the conservation of the reefs. Corals grow slowly and we need funding.”

The Living Reef Foundation’s coral garden workshops run between 3pm and 5pm on Sundays at the Beach Club at Rosewood Bermuda. Workshops are $50 per person or $40 per sibling. Register at livingreefs.org under the Coral Garden Initiative tab or by e-mail, ssarkis@livingreefs.org, with the subject line Coral Garden Workshop

Samia Sarkis (Photograph by Sarah Lagan)