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Reef Life Helps Islands Hit Blue Sustainability Targets

Reef Life Foundation takes a holistic approach to coral reef conservation by aiming to revitalize, restore, and protect reef ecosystems through IntelliReefs advanced materials engineering and biological research, applied restoration, international and local collaborations, and educational outreach.

In November 2018, Reef Life Foundation deployed their revolutionary nanotechnology artificial reefs, called IntelliReefs, onto reefs severely affected by Hurricane Irma (2017) in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten. These pilot IntelliReefs were intended to provide food and shelter for fish communities, complex 3-D structures to enhance biodiversity, additional healthy coral reef habitat to attract wild coral spawn, and adhere to strict budgetary requirements.

Sint Maarten’s marine ecosystems have been degraded by overfishing, hurricanes, runoff, and a suite of natural and anthropogenic stressors over the past five decades. Hurricane Irma (September 2017) caused widespread damage to the island and was one of the strongest hurricanes to have hit in the Atlantic Ocean to date, with winds exceeding 185 MPH. Large surge caused severe damage on reefs and intense rainfall increased freshwater and nutrient input. Sint Maarten coral communities also suffer from continued deterioration due to eutrophication and physical damage from boating traffic.

Reef Life Foundation is currently in the early stages of producing an ongoing coral reef online educational outreach curriculum that aims to increase awareness and protection of coral reefs, environmental justice for local island populations and developing nations, and improve literacy and ongoing education for women and girls (SDG 5). They plan to work with the educational outreach coordinator at the Nature Foundation Sint Maarten to provide this curriculum for free to local schools.

Understanding and promoting healthy coral reefs for island communities is vital to increase awareness of restoration efforts and integrate local economic entities and anti-poverty groups into landscape management plans and environmental justice initiatives. Improving the health of reefs will improve the livelihoods and health of local populations who rely on reefs for food security, storm protection, and economic stability.

As with many other island and coastal nations, revenue from tourism is a major source of economic income on Sint Maarten. Income generated from tourism circulates into local fisheries, dive and snorkel shops, restaurants and souvenir shops, and boat and equipment rentals. This creates a funding source for educational outreach, habitat protection, and salaries for governmental and non-governmental conservation organizations.

Functional, robust ocean habitats mitigate environmental devastation and provide food and economic security. This begins with the health of individual animals and populations, and can be scaled up to whole ecosystems. It is abundantly clear that our CO2 emissions are contributing to global warming, threatening our ecosystems and way of life. Historically, oceans have been a major carbon sink, mitigating rising global emissions since the Industrial Revolution. But we are well beyond our tipping point - as the ocean takes in more than it's fair share of CO2, it is becoming increasingly acidic and has begun to dissolve the skeletons of calcifying animals.

By integrating the many different benefits that a healthy ocean provides, The Ocean Health Index encourages us to consider the “value” of habitats and species, such as whales and sharks, comprehensively. For example, Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies, sequestering an average of 33 tons of CO2 during their lives. In comparison, a tree only absorbs up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year - less than 1000th of a whale’s carbon absorption (IMF). Sharks and the larger fish have been valued through the vital benefits and ecosystem services that they provide for humans. In 2016, it was found that sharks generate a total economic impact of $377 million in Florida alone from job creation, tourism, and fisheries.

As researchers around the world are beginning to value ocean resources in this way, it is becoming more clear to global businesses and governments that these animals are actually worth more alive than they are dead.

The implementation of IntelliReefs as an active restoration strategy in coral reef ecosystems in Sint Maarten had direct ecological and social outcomes. The Reef Life science team found that IntelliReefs were able to boost local restoration of coral reef habitat by:

  • enhancing and helping to preserve local biodiversity

  • providing additional habitat for fish, wild corals, and other reef-building organisms

  • and providing food and shelter for fish

This, in turn, has positive social impacts on Sint Maarten. This collaborative research and restoration effort formed strong partnerships with local businesses and conservation organizations, creating a precedent for successful reef conservation by applying the needs and addressing the pain points of the local community and governing authorities.

The Sint Maarten project is the site of a world-first in coral reef restoration, and is raising global awareness about conservation and reef deterioration in the Caribbean. It has also opened avenues for other innovative research and technology companies to collaborate with Reef Life and the local Nature Foundation to accelerate data collection and disruptive reef restoration technologies.

Reef Life currently has an ongoing Sint Maarten fundraising campaign to provide ongoing funds for research, ongoing IntelliReefs deployment, and support for the local Nature Foundation’s fieldwork and local educational initiatives.

Photo credits (in order of appearance):

  • NOAA Fisheries / Coral Reef Image Bank

  • Ian Kellet / IntelliReefs

  • Yen-Yi Lee / Coral Reef Image Bank

  • Rick Miskiv / Coral Reef Image Bank

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