More than two years after Category 5, Hurricanes Irma and María ravaged the coastal ecosystems across the northeastern coasts of Puerto Rico, coral reefs and seagrass meadows have yet to be fully recovered. The current degraded state of these ecosystems put at risk the ecological functions and services that the ecosystems provide and have a damaging effect on the fauna that depends on the seagrass-coral reef continuum to complete their life cycle. Indeed, these ecosystems are considered essential habitats for multiple species of ecological and commercial importance. This project will restore one acre of coral reefs and seagrasses at two localities (two acres in total) in the Island Municipality of Culebra, Puerto Rico, severely damaged by storm-generated waves. The two sites are part of the NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint Focus Area, and they have also been designated by Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) as an area of coral reef conservation priority. Coral reefs restoration will be focused on the outplanting 21,000 colonies of the morphologically complex and rapidly growing species, Acropora cervicornis and A. palmata. These ESA-listed species are essential reef builder corals due to their role in increasing reef complexity and providing habitat for many reef-dwelling species. In addition, seagrass restoration will be focused on planting the native species Thalassia testudinum and Syringodium filiforme, species that have been declining in the last couple of years in many areas across Culebra, including the sites to be restored. A total of 4,128 seagrass planting units will be outplanted within denuded areas to increase the area covered by native species. The project will have a duration of three years. It will consist of three primary activities:
- Propagating coral on in-situ nurseries
- Outplanting of coral and seagrass to the affected areas
- Adaptive restoration using population models
Each activity is associated with distinct methodologies and outcomes (see description below); however, as a collective, all the activities of the multi-method restoration approach will contribute to the resilience, conservation, and community goals established by NOAA. Propagation and outplanting activities will be equally partitioned in time to ensure the completion of the project on time.
By restoring the seagrass-coral reef continuum, this project will:
- restore and enhance critical habitat for the benefit of Listed and Managed Species under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act,
- improve the probability of population persistence of the threatened corals A. cervicornis and A. palmata and the declining native seagrasses T. testudinum and S. filiforme,
- promote reef accretion by increasing the amount of calcium carbonate entering the reef system,
- enhance recruitment rates of benthic species by increasing the surface area available for colonization,
- increase the forage area available for species depending on seagrass meadows for feeding,
- revitalize coral reef aesthetics and attractiveness, and
- help to restore wave energy buffering, a fundamental shallow reef ecosystem service provided by both coral reefs and seagrass beds.
Accordingly, this project will advance the principal objective of the Community-based Restoration Program Coastal and Marine Habitat Restoration solicitation of fostering species recovery and increase populations under NOAA’s jurisdiction while restoring essential fish habitats and ecosystem services such as protection from coastal flooding, extreme weather events, and coastal erosion while improving economic opportunities to the coastal communities that rely on tourism and small-scale fisheries as a source of income.