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Drinking for Conservation

Volunteers use beer bottles to bring Malaysia's coral reefs back to life

Well that was an awful dive. Nothing to see except sunbeams dancing over acres and acres of dead coral rubble. The highlight was a lone Anemone with a couple of isolated Clown Fish who looked like the aquatic equivalent of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday, so remote were they from other signs of fish inhabitation. And this within the Coral Triangle, home to the greatest marine biodiversity on earth. Later that evening, relaxing on the end of an old wooden jetty, Joachim Naulaerts, a slim, tanned 28 year old Science Officer with the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC), puts things into context. Swinging his legs over the turquoise water below, sipping on a cold beer as the sun sinks gently down into a blaze of gilt edged cloud, he talks about blast fishing, or the use of explosives to kill large numbers of fish at once, and the devastation it has caused. He explains that the dive today took place in an area untouched by conservation efforts, a section of reef that has remained the same since before TRACC’s project here on Pom Pom Island began six years ago.  

photo of restored reefphoto by Elizabeth FittVolunteers on Pom Pom Island are working to rehabilitate coral reefs heavily damaged by dynamite fishing by creating what they call a "bottle reef" that hard corals can grow on. 

The reefs around this remote area — which sits along the border between Malaysian Borneo and the Philippines — were devastated by dynamite fishing over previous decades. And damage is still ongoing. Naulaerts is here on Pom Pom Island to help restore them, beginning with their House Reef, situated immediately in front of the TRACC Camp. He’s been here as a Science Officer for 13 months, living in a tent and working with his colleagues, volunteers, and science interns to improve the marine habitat and raise awareness of the anthropomorphic issues to which the marine ecosystem is currently subject. He talks with passion about how important a healthy marine ecosystem is to humans and how vital coral is to that system.

“Reefs in general are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet,” he says. “They provide food, ecotourism, and lots of natural resources — a lot of medicines actually come from the oceans. They also protect our coastlines from erosion. They are a nursery for most of our pelagic fish, which most of the commercial fishing industry depends on. No reefs, no fish, no food! They’re also a carbon sink and a nitrogen sink, so in terms of global warming they play a specific vital role.”

He tells me that one of the ways that volunteers here work to rehabilitate coral reefs heavily damaged by dynamite fishing is with something they call the Bottle Reef. People at TRACC came up with these artificial reef units in response to a need for a cheap, easy to construct and install design, using only locally available materials.   

photo of destroyed reefphoto by Elizabeth FittA stretch of sea bed that has not yet been rehabilitated by TRAAC remains a barren rubble field destroyed by bomb fishing. 

Bottle Reefs are simple but they work. They have two ingredients: concrete and glass bottles. Concrete forms a good substrate for coral to attach to. Corals create their own hard skeleton structure as the individual polyps that make up a colony secrete calcium carbonate to form the basal plates in which they sit. The calcium bicarbonate in concrete is a similar substance and therefore something corals will happily bond to, provided the concrete has been correctly cured for 30 days in Pom Pom’s humid environment so that the pH reaches a level the corals can tolerate.

Sonny Culkin is the new Science Director at TRACC. He is taking the concept of Bottle Reefs forward, incorporating new revelations in coral research to develop a type of reef unit he calls the ARC Reef (Artificially Rehabilitating the Crest). The aim of ARC is to cut 25 years worth of coral growth time down to 5 years, while stabilizing the slope of the reef to prevent slippage of dead coral rubble from “landsliding” and smothering live coral..

Culkin explains the evolution of the Bottle Reef from its initial experimental form to the ARC Reef. “We’re still using glass bottles in our ARC Reefs – their function now is to make ARC Reef structures lighter by reducing the amount of concrete required for each one. We’re also utilizing the idea of having the ARC Reefs interlocking, with the coral growth forming the “glue” between them. We’ve been experimenting with this lower down in our House Reef slope for a while now and we want to bring the concept up to the reef crest,” he says, referring to the highest portion of the reef, which bears the brunt of waves and protects coastal lands from storms. “The reef crest is what maintains the island’s shape and size. Without it we’ve seen the sand and rubble collapsing down the slope at unprecedented rates, causing mass smothering of everything growing in its path.”

Later in the day, Lykke Li’s “I Follow You, Deep Sea Baby” saturates the cooling 4:30 p.m. air as a group of volunteers, hailing from Belgium to Brazil and a lot of places in between, mix concrete for a batch of old style Bottle Reefs, which were still in production until fine tuning of the new ARC Reef structures was completed for a June release. One part Portland cement, three parts sand, one part aggregate, one part micro silica; plus six parts sweat and four parts laughter. Molly, 29, from Scotland and Anna, 50, from America sit nearby soaking glass bottles and scrubbing the labels off. Ana, Harvey, and Farhana — from Brazil, China, and Malaysia respectively — cover the cleaned bottles in a thin layer of cement — this reduces reflection and smoothness, neither of which are liked by corals, they explain.

photo of volunteers making bottle reefphoto by Elizabeth FittVolunteers cover whiskey bottles in concrete to reduce reflection and create a rough surface that corals can bond to.

Creating a rough surface makes it much easier and more likely for coralline algae and eventually coral polyps to attach. More volunteers take turns making sure the concrete mix is thoroughly integrated before pouring it into simple wooden molds. Everyone pushes the bottles into the wet concrete bases, six to a unit. Then they all retire to the jetty for a well-earned sunset beer, or in some cases, cup of tea. They joke that they are “Drinking for Conservation” as they explain that the bottles housing the beer and whiskey they consume are the bottles they use to make Bottle Reefs. “If we don’t drink at least a bit, then we’ll run out of bottles,” laughs Borja Gonzalez, a volunteer from Spain. Everyone hopes that at some stage a beverage company with a heart and an active corporate social responsibility program will come along and rescue their livers by donating empty bottles. “It hasn’t happened yet — we tried to get San Miguel [Brewery] to help, but they told us they recycle all their empty bottles themselves, which we know they don’t because we’ve got a load of them down here on the house reef. They didn’t want to give us full ones, which we were rather sad about — we like San Miguel,” he chuckles.

So far, TRACC has installed 850 Bottle Reef units incorporating more than 6400 bottles on their House Reef alone, and more at other test sites around Pom Pom Island. And they’re thriving. A fish and invertebrates survey carried out by masters student Allia Rosedy, 27, in 2017 found 245 species of fish and 167 species of invertebrates present in an area of the House Reef that, like the desolate reef I dove with Naulaerts, was largely a barren coral rubble field in 2011 when the project began. The Bottle Reefs are gradually becoming encrusted with hard corals, soft corals, and sponges. Most of these have been planted by volunteer Coral Gardeners, but there is also evidence of “self seeding” where coral polyps in the water column have chosen to settle on Bottle Reefs and grow into a colony naturally. And perhaps most telling, the TRACC House Reef is now home to coral catsharks and bamboo sharks, evidence that it is healthy enough to support apex predators.

The people who have come here from all over the world to volunteer have made a clear difference to this corner of the ocean and TRACC hopes to roll out its methods to benefit other areas and communities in future. It feels inspiring and hopeful, with sense of purpose that is contagious.

Editor's Note: Shark Stewards, a project of Earth Island Institute, partners with TRACC on its work on Pom Pom Island. Read more about Shark Stewards' work.

Elizabeth Fitt
Elizabeth Fitt is a photojournalist specializing in environmental and sustainability issues and the human impact of conflict. She currently works out of Borneo, having spent 2017 in Iraq. She likes her eggs poached and crochets hats to unwind.

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