Biri Initiative in the News

The following first appeared in the February 2013 issue of the magazine Enrich, published by Mercury Media Corp., and is reproduced with permission.

Innovation in Coral Reef Regeneration

Of all the wonders of nature, not many can surpass a coral reef in full health. These “rainforests of the ocean” are among the most complex ecosystems known to man and are home to over a quarter of all known marine species.

Also, like rainforests, they are mature ecosystems. Evidence suggests they existed as long as 240 million years ago, while a few of today’s systems may have begun to form 50 million years ago. Most are much more recent, but at 5,000 to 10,000 years old, they are hardly new.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has more than its fair share of this bounty, with 27,000 km2 of coral reefs spread around 7,107 islands. Northern Luzon forms the apex of a 5.7 million km2 area known as the Coral Triangle, recognized as the global center of marine biodiversity and a top priority for conservation.

Unfortunately, all is not well in paradise.

“Code Blue”

In 2007, the official, community-based reef monitoring program of the United Nations, the Reef Check Foundation, reported that only 5 percent of the Philippines’ reefs were in “excellent condition.” This was underscored last year, when the country’s Mecca for international tourists, Boracay Island, launched a P60 million reef regeneration project after finding that more than 90 percent of its corals were already dead! Appropriately, the project is called “Code Blue,” a hospital emergency code for a patient requiring immediate medical attention. Project Manager and Boracay Island advocate Ariel Abraham said that the initial stages of the project, which commenced in mid-2012, were an outstanding success. Funding for the project was donated by the Loren Legarda Foundation.

The threats to coral reefs are well known, but they don’t lend themselves to easy solutions and may even be insurmountable. Rising sea temperatures and an increase in oceanic water acidity are two; both of which are results of global warming. The scientific community has its hands full finding solutions to the man-made component of climate change, but are almost powerless when it comes to the role of increased solar flare activity. Another is the world’s growing human population, and the pressure this exerts on coastal ecosystems for food, living space, and, in the age of international travel, recreation.

But environmentalists aren’t giving up, tackling the small stuff in the hope it all adds up to something meaningful. They are teaching the importance of sustainable fishing, establishing marine protected areas, restricting the harvesting and sale of coral, and regulating the numbers of tourist boats and their activities (particularly where they drop anchor). They are also waging war on harmful output from the land, such as agricultural and industrial runoff, sedimentation from land-clearing and untreated sewage.

Environmentalists also want to help damaged reefs regenerate themselves, and now they have a new tool in their bag, in the form of an artificial reef structure known as a “reefbud".

Goodbye Rubber Tires

Artificial reef structures are simply man-made objects placed on the seabed to encourage coral growth, but their performance almost always falls short. Many types have been tried; from simple rubber tires and concrete blocks to scuttling old ships, but they all have their shortcomings. Issues include pollution, lack of local availability and high cost (for those sunken wrecks, for example), and the painfully slow pace at which colonization begins. If you were a baby coral or small fish looking to spawn, would a rubber tire be your first choice?

Reefbuds address all these shortcomings. They are easy and cheap to produce wherever they are needed, they are environment-friendly and colonization begins immediately, without fail.

They are the brainchild of the late Austrian-German environmental geoscientist Dr. Harald Kremnitz, an innovator in all manner of waste-conversion solutions around the world, who chose Batangas as the place to produce his first reefbuds. The processes Kremnitz developed throughout his career are too many to mention, but think of transforming toxic wastes into paint and deodorizers, or municipal garbage into hollow blocks, compost and fertilizer.

Reefbuds

Think also of processes that are cheap and easy to implement. Like reefbuds.

In essence, reefbuds are simply a conglomerate of concrete and a specially formulated biomass derived from waste from human food production. There’s no fixed shape or size, but ease of transportation and maneuverability are operative factors. One design already at work is a pyramid weighing around 500 kg, about 70 cm tall measuring 1.2 m in width along each of the four sides of the square base. On the pyramid’s four triangular faces are holes about six inches in diameter that extend through to the base. These serve a dual purpose: they make it easy to lift the reefbuds on and off barges by winch and chain, and they also provide shelter for fish to spawn and for their fingerlings to grow.

Within just a few weeks of being lowered to the seabed, algae have already formed across the surface of the reefbud, providing food to fingerlings sheltering in the mouths of the holes, a clear sign that spawning has already taken place inside in an extremely short period of time.

Meanwhile the biomass slowly dissolves, providing a nutrient-rich environment for the zooplankton on which hard, reef-building corals feed. It also attracts other plants and animals, such as seaweed, sponges, and mollusks that live and die, adding to the architecture of the new reef. But the best is saved for last. As the biomass disappears, the conglomerate disintegrates, and the concrete becomes one with the sand of the seabed. In time, the entire reefbud is replaced by a new coral colony, and no trace remains that man’s hand was ever involved.

The first reefbuds were deployed in 2007 off Anilao, Batangas, a favorite destination for scuba divers from Manila. Convinced by the results from Anilao and another site off Rosario, Cavite, in 2012 Boracay launched a P60 million project to place 5,000 reefbuds along a two-kilometer stretch of its world-famous white sand beach.

Holistic Approach: The Biri Initiative

In 2013, a holistic project for the human inhabitants and marine environment of Biri Island in Northern Samar is following suit. The non-profit Biri Initiative has a broad set of goals that includes educating locals about sustainable fishing methods and promoting alternative forms of employment, but its cornerstone is rebuilding the island’s reef system, now bearing the scars of illegal fishing methods.

“For reef regeneration to stand the best chance of success, you need to take an ecosystemic approach as far as possible,” explains Scotsman Richard Ewen, founder of Biri Initiative and an inhabitant of the island. Biri currently draws only small numbers of tourists, to view some spectacular rock formations, “so we don’t have the pressures of a major tourist resort to keep the reefs accessible, and that means we can set up protected areas. We don’t need to maintain pristine white beaches, so we can nurture our mangroves and sea grasses. And we will be seeding the seabed with giant clams, the great natural filters of the ocean.”

So where will reefbuds fit into all this? “They’ll just be one part of our reef regeneration program,” says Ewen, “but we know already they’ll be playing an important role. They’re a proven technology. They work!”

 
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