Conservation and restoration of coral reefs

Pablo Morón Elorza, member of Los18, interviewed Pablo Góngora, creator and director of the international project Reefers, for the conservation and restoration of coral reefs.

Their area of action is in Indonesia, where Pablo and his team select and collect fragments of damaged coral, which they relocate in artificial reefs, allowing their development and subsequent insertion in affected reefs.

In addition, they carry out multiple informative actions that raise awareness of the importance and current situation of reef ecosystems, promoting sustainable development models.

Pablo, it is a pleasure to have you with us and to be able to talk to us about something you are so passionate about and which is as important as the conservation of the oceans. Could you tell us why oceanic research and dissemination is important for the protection of marine species?

The oceans constitute more than three quarters of the biosphere, in which we live. Their influence is therefore clear and direct for us, so the more we know about the oceans, the more we know about our environment and how we need to act to make it work for us.

We must understand that caring for the oceans is ultimately caring for ourselves, and this is not possible if all the knowledge that research provides us with does not reach everyone, hence the importance of dissemination.

There is a saying "you take care of what you know" and another saying "ignorance is your greatest enemy". A hundred years ago, most ordinary people did not know the Iberian lynx and those who did saw it as vermin to be exterminated. Today, millions of euros are invested in research to protect the lynx and its environment (and together with it, the thousands of species that make it up) and it is already part of popular culture.

We should have the same affection and respect for the oceans as we do for the lynx, if not more, because our existence depends on it.

Do you think it is essential to create marine reserves and protected areas? Could you tell me briefly what the most obvious differences are between a marine reserve and the unprotected sea?

Absolutely, they are essential. Human beings are putting enormous pressure on the oceans and this is something that is obvious to anyone, even if they have no training in this area. When you have the opportunity to dive in different areas, both protected and unprotected, it is very clear how humans are behaving in this area.

The first thing that is striking about protected areas of "a certain age", more than ten years old for example, where the presence of humans is not linked to direct fishing or destruction of the environment, is their wealth of life forms and the number of specimens per square metre.

We can contemplate well-structured and hierarchical communities of invertebrates linked to hard substrates, accompanied by a large number of fish, especially shoals of juveniles that find in these sessile communities an ideal habitat to escape predators, meteorological phenomena and find food in abundance. However, more striking than the number and diversity of flora and fauna is the close and trusting behaviour of the fish, usually much larger than we are used to seeing in other areas.

In these protected areas the fish are highly trusting, you can get close to them, they allow themselves to be photographed with relative ease and they even interact with you so much that you feel as if they perceive you as just another being in the ocean, something almost neutral (within limits of course).

This situation is not felt when we enter unprotected areas, exhausted by fishermen with rods or harpoons and even massive professional gear. Benthic communities are often affected by the impact of nets and the passage of boats through shallow waters, it is more difficult to see large schools of juveniles and there are hardly any adult or older specimens. But the most alarming thing is the fearful behaviour of the fish in the presence of the diver, especially in the target species. I always like to give the example of groupers, animals that in protected areas almost approach you demanding your attention, and in some cases willing to be happily sand-bathed by the diver.

In those areas where they are fished, their presence is only perceived as a fleeting shadow among the rocks or a bit of sand that rises from the bottom. The animals and plants in protected areas generally live in very low stress conditions, which allows the enrichment of these areas, making them the breeding grounds, and therefore the expansion points, of all those species that will later radiate and try to colonise other areas that do not necessarily have to be protected. Protected areas end up becoming the points of generation of life that tries to expand to other more distant areas.

What do you think is the best way to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems and to restore them?

While it is true that legislation regulating the use and practices of certain marine areas is necessary in the first instance, there is no better protection than that which is granted on one's own initiative.

When "something" is valued on a social scale, especially by those directly affected by that "something", it is inevitable that individual actions and collective movements will arise to defend and prevent the loss of that "something". This "something" then goes from being an ignored element, sometimes repudiated by the social collective, to being a common good and even a necessity.

The current perception that a large part of society has of the oceans is that they are there, static, "inert" to them and sometimes far from our homes. Many people have never even come close in their lives for a variety of reasons. If somehow a person living in Kansas or Mongolia understood how the state of health of our oceans can directly affect them in their daily lives and feel a sense of belonging, the conservation of these areas would extend beyond the limits imposed by any agreement or regulatory document.

This almost utopian task is based not only on the conceptual dissemination mentioned above, but also on the active participation of the populations that are furthest away from marine water bodies. Taking for granted the fundamental role of the population directly linked to the sea, whose presence and action is the first line of battle in this matter.

If there is such awareness, respect and action, recovery will come by itself. It is the same as when we consider the management of cleaning the living room of any house. Having good tools and a good attitude to cleaning the home is all very well, but if we do not take measures to prevent the accumulation of dirt, the whole cleaning job can become an ineffective, high-wear job.

No matter how many ocean clean-ups, reef restoration or beneficial events we carry out, if we do not first change those actions and behaviours that cause the direct degradation of the marine environment, all the measures we take to restore a particular environment will be ineffective and useless. Restoration is useless without education.

You dedicate your career and your life to raising awareness and mitigating human impact on our oceans, could you give us information about harmful effects produced by human impact and affecting the Atlantic and the Mediterranean?

In past centuries, the oceans were thought of as the great sink or drain that could accept and dilute everything. Any discharge into the sea was not supposed to have any consequences due to the great mass of diluent that makes up most of the planet.

Poor management of resources, poor or non-existent waste management, and adding to this equation, as mentioned above, the lack of knowledge, has led to an unsustainable situation that is evident at all levels. We are changing the chemistry of the sea, warming the water and worsening the effect of storms.

The already famous Pacific rubbish island is accompanied by its counterpart in the Atlantic, and the continuous and uncontrolled dumping is causing many areas to die of intoxication or eutrophication. And we have many examples in Spain alone, without having to look far afield.

The problem that has arisen in La Manga del Mar Menor is a case in point. It is infuriating to see that the lack of waste management in the area has led to a situation of massive death of marine life and algae colonisation that is difficult to repair. But the feeling is even worse when you know that this is something that technicians and biologists had been predicting and warning about for years, and they were simply ignored.

On the other hand, and motivated by similar spills, it is known that the levels of mercury or lead in food webs are increasing alarmingly. Their accumulation, at the levels of top predators, is causing fish such as swordfish and tuna, already highly persecuted, to begin to show concentrations of these metals that are unsuitable for consumption.

Recently we have been at the PIE in Plentzia (Marine Biology and Biotechnology Research Institute) where they showed us some research. How the hormones in contraceptives, for example, are changing the reproductive processes of species such as mussels. Elements such as cadmium, or new precursors such as platinum, will give us a lot to talk about in the coming years. Centres like this one help us to understand and make visible real problems such as microplastics, immunosuppressants and hormones that end up in our seas, directly affecting their inhabitants.

To tackle this problem we must look beyond the oceans, and inland. I would like to give a very obvious example of action, which is to put a phrase in the sewer "The sea starts here". Once again, let us remember that the well-being of the seas and oceans is not just a problem or competence of coastal populations, but of the whole world.