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Empowering coastal communities through coral restoration

Written by Zachary Wong, marine scientist, on his work with The Oceancy.


I was initially drawn to the field of marine conservation, like many marine scientists of my generation, by the captivating documentaries of David Attenborough and popular movies like “Finding Nemo”, which showcase the mesmerising beauty beneath the waves. For a long time, I believed that only marine scientists could save our rapidly deteriorating oceans. However, moving to Cornwall, United Kingdom, to study a degree in Marine Biology shattered this misconception.


In Cornwall, I discovered the invaluable contribution of volunteer and community-based groups that are revolutionising the approach to marine conservation through innovative community action. For example, Falmouth Marine Conservation is one such group, actively involved in various conservation projects that incorporate citizen science, such as seagrass monitoring and dolphin watching. These initiatives not only provide large volumes of data but also equip communities with the skills and knowledge to empower local action [1,2].


After graduation, driven by the activism I witnessed in Cornwall, I sought a role that utilised community action for broader impact. I began work with The Oceancy in October 2023, dedicating myself to advancing a grassroots initiative in the Maldives aimed at safeguarding their precious coral reefs. Established in 2020, The Oceancy is an NGO committed to empowering marginalised local communities worldwide to manage their own ecosystem restoration projects. The Oceancy partners with locally-based NGOs to train community members and develop projects spanning seagrass, mangrove and coral restoration efforts.


The Oceancy and Baokalo team travelling to a neighbouring island to monitor the health of the local reef. © Zachary Wong

My involvement with The Oceancy brought me to Velidhoo Island, situated in the Noonu Atoll of the Maldives, where I contributed to the “Coral Again for Velidhoo” project. Launched in 2021, this community-based coral restoration project is a collaboration between The Oceancy and Baokalo, a local NGO committed to promoting social development by engaging and integrating local communities and individuals in volunteer activities. It aims to revitalise the reef surrounding Velidhoo, focussing on enhancing reef health, local skills and livelihoods. Velidhoo, locally known as the Safari Island, has a history of boat building for fishing and diving purposes. The coral reefs around Velidhoo are vital to the community, supporting the local tuna fishery, tourism and recreational activities like snorkelling and octopus harvesting. However, the local house reefs suffered degradation due to past chemical fishing and the severe mass bleaching event of 2016 [3].


For the first phase of the project, a scientific officer from The Oceancy travelled to Velidhoo Island in 2022, and collaborated with Baokalo to deploy 45 coral frames and train 10 Baokalo members. From October to December 2023, my colleague Laura and I worked for The Oceancy as Scientific Officers supporting the second phase of the project. This phase included training and supervising members of Baokalo, coordinating restoration work with new volunteers, engaging in science outreach activities with the local school, deploying 50 new coral frames, and conducting reef monitoring activities.


The restoration project involved young Baokalo members, aged 16 to 28, who hailed from diverse backgrounds, including students, teachers, resort employees, and water sports guides. Despite their varying occupations, they all shared a common goal: to restore the reefs of Velidhoo.



Removing algae using toothbrushes to clean the coral frames. © Zachary Wong

From the first day, Baokalo and the volunteers extended a warm welcome, eager to show us Velidhoo and its coral reefs. Snorkelling around the island revealed small stretches of vibrant reef, where corals of all shapes and hues flourished. These reefs teemed with life, from tiny Maldivian clownfish darting in and out of their anemone homes to curious spotted eagle rays gliding past. We would find ourselves engulfed by enormous schools of redtooth triggerfish, and occasionally, green sea turtles could be seen lazily propelling themselves through the water in their coral oasis. However, amidst these uplifting scenes, the majority of the reef presented a different sight: dead coral rubble, large desolate boulders that were once vibrant with life, and the sparse presence of healthy colonies. It was evident that action was urgently needed.


A hawksbill turtle visiting the coral frames. © Laura Basaglia

Over the course of two months, Laura and I provided comprehensive training to twelve Baokalo volunteers in all aspects of the coral restoration project. They learned how to collect corals of opportunity (coral fragments that have broken off the reef), attach them to metal frames, and deploy and maintain these frames at the restoration site.


The project prioritises simplicity, using basic techniques, materials, and equipment to ensure that anyone in the community can participate. Coral fragments were secured onto the frames using cable ties, and toothbrushes were used to remove algae from the deployed frames.


We also organised presentation nights to dive deeper into coral reef science and marine issues such as plastic pollution and climate change, engaging the volunteers in broader discussions. All the volunteers showed eagerness to contribute to the project, with some assisting daily, others during their lunch breaks, and some even after working late-night shifts. Even on workdays with torrential rain, we had volunteers turning up to help.



Presentation night teaching Baokalo members about coral reef science. © Laura Basaglia

The project also established a paid position for a local resident. Nineteen-year-old Saneeh from Velidhoo worked as an Assistant Scientific Officer, where he gained valuable scientific skills including fish and coral identification, coral reef monitoring, and data analysis. It was rewarding to see him develop these skills and actively contribute to the project. The Oceancy included this initiative to ensure that younger generations in marginalised communities have the opportunity to participate in meaningful ocean conservation projects and gain valuable experiences they might not have otherwise experienced. The involvement of the younger generation is crucial for shaping the future health of marine environments, particularly in small island communities like Velidhoo.


Saneeh learning about coral species identification. © Laura Basaglia


Saneeh is preparing the photo-quadrat for benthic surveys of the reef. © Zachary Wong

Laura and I provided support through our knowledge of coral restoration, but the volunteers played a crucial role in ensuring the success of the project by contributing their extensive local ecological knowledge.


One of the major achievements of the project was the identification of a healthy reef area near a neighbouring island, which proved vital for collecting coral fragments of a species that had been lost from the Velidhoo reef following the 2016 bleaching event.


This discovery was made possible by a volunteer who frequently visited the island for recreational snorkelling trips. This knowledge not only allowed us to reintroduce this coral species to Velidhoo, but also increased the genetic diversity of the reef, making it more resilient to climate change. This shows that while scientists are important in providing sound scientific advice, the invaluable knowledge held by local communities about their surroundings significantly enhances the success of conservation and restoration projects [4].



Collection of corals of opportunity from a neighbouring island. © Zachary Wong

Saneeh and the twelve new volunteers who contributed to the project are now trained and equipped to continue deploying more frames at the restoration site and other sites around Velidhoo in need of restoration. Furthermore, with the support of video tutorials created during our time on Velidhoo, these project participants are now capable of training new volunteers. For instance, during a school event, 16-year-old Mish'al demonstrated this by teaching his peers how to prepare coral frames. These volunteers will be vital to provide The Oceancy with important data to monitor the success of the project and contribute to research on community-led coral restoration projects.



Science outreach day for students at the local school, getting involved with the project. © Shaain Ibrahim

The project not only influenced local marine conservation attitudes but also garnered positive support from Velidhoo’ s Island Council during discussions about potential future endeavours. This support from a key stakeholder is poised to create opportunities for the community to enhance local capacity through remote and in-person training, as well as to improve livelihoods through job creation and other sources of income.


During my time on Velidhoo, community interest in the project was evident, with children and strangers joining the daily operations and eagerly seeking updates on the project’s progress. The growing involvement of the community in this project has instilled a belief that they can protect their coral reefs, encouraging people, especially the youth, to get involved.



Local kids after school help to attach corals to the frame. © Laura Basaglia

I left Velidhoo feeling immensely proud of the work accomplished by Laura, Saneeh, the volunteers, members of Baokalo, and myself. Our efforts went beyond restoring the island's coral reefs; we also made a significant impact on the next generation of Velidhoo.


This project has empowered younger and older generations to engage in accessible and impactful marine conservation opportunities.


Furthermore, there is potential for growth in establishing new alternative livelihoods and enhancing local skills and knowledge through science outreach, as well as in-person and remote training. These efforts can inspire the younger generation of Velidhoo to pursue sustainable livelihoods which safeguard their precious and biodiverse marine environment.


The network of coral frames. © Laura Basaglia

Innovative initiatives like The Oceancy and Falmouth Marine Conservation inspire communities to actively research and restore ocean environments, equipping them with the necessary tools to take action. In today's climate, these initiatives hold greater significance than ever before, as they debunk the myth that only marine biologists can contribute to ocean conservation. In reality, individuals of any generation can make a difference—all it takes is getting involved.



 Acknowledgements


Special thanks go to Laura for being dedicated to the success of the project, working many hours out in the field and in the office with me. I would also like to express my gratitude to Baokalo and the community of Velidhoo for welcoming Laura and myself, for supporting and collaborating with us on the project and sharing their experiences and culture. Additionally, thank you to the Council of Velidhoo for agreeing to meet us and discuss positive steps towards the development of the project. Thanks to the Noonu Atoll Education Centre for organising the school day event with us. Lastly, heartfelt thanks to the project’s sponsor for providing important funding, and to The Oceancy for setting up this project, and to Dr Luca Saponari for the in-person and remote training for this great opportunity.



References

[1] Hochachka WM, Fink D, Hutchinson RA, Sheldon D, Wong W-K, Kelling S. Data-intensive science applied to broad-scale citizen science. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 2012;27(2):130-137. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2011.11.006

[2] Bonney R, Phillips TB, Ballard HL, Enck JW. Can citizen science enhance public understanding of science? Public Understanding of Science. 2015;25(1):2-16. doi:10.1177/0963662515607406

[3] Cowburn, B., Moritz, C., Grimsditch, G., & Solandt, J. L. Evidence of coral bleaching avoidance, resistance and recovery in the Maldives during the 2016 mass-bleaching event. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 2019;626: 53-67.

[4] Lidskog R. Scientised citizens and democratised science. re-assessing the expert-lay divide. Journal of Risk Research. 2008;11(1):69-86. doi:10.1080/13669870701521636



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