The world’s coral reefs are under stress due to human activities. Climate change due to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in increased oceanic temperatures. The warming waters are resulting in mass bleaching events, which can result in coral mortality. Climate change, combined with other impacts, such as overfishing, chemical runoff from fertilizer application entering the ocean, and pollution, is causing the world’s reefs to be at a greater risk of extinction than ever before. It is crucial that humans act soon and fast to proactively, and reactively, step in to protect coral reefs.

The first participatory marine conservation project has been launched in the Mediterranean sea. This project, named S.O.S. Corales, is carried out in collaboration with the Spanish non-governmental organization (NGO), Equilibria Marino, located in the Punta de la Mona region of southern Spain. The aim of this project is to assist with the recovery of corals located in this region. Participatory conservation projects can be utilized in the marine environment or on land, and it allows the involvement of local populations by helping the people understand their natural environment, in order to protect it more effectively.

Equilibria Marino was created due to the ongoing destruction of marine ecosystems, and the need to apply scientific solutions that assist in conserving and rehabilitating coral reefs and their associated ecosystems. In addition to S.O.S. Corales, this NGO has also launched initiatives to clean, conserve and protect other marine areas by using a fleet of ships to remove waste from the ocean’s surface and seabed. They also study marine pests and environmental anomalies.

Fishing lines, nets, ropes, fishing tackle and other debris are having a direct negative impact on coral reefs in the Punta de la Mona region, by becoming entangled in the reefs, and damaging and breaking off the coral tissue. During storm events, the corals break and become saturated with sediments. This causes coral mortality, which in turn affects the entire surrounding ecosystem and marine biodiversity.

Two key species of coral that are restricted to a small area of the Mediterranean sea, Orange Tree Coral (Dendrophyllia ramea) and Orange Coral (Astroides calicularis) are considered the “stars” of Punta de la Mona, as they provide habitats to marine species, but are also important ecological indicators of the health of the ecosystem. Both these species, one listed as Vulnerable and the other close to extinction, are being negatively impacted due to human activities in the Mediterranean.

What Is S.O.S. Corales?

S.O.S. Corales is a participatory project consisting of a team made up of scientists, divers, ecologists and other experts. This diverse team of people come together to protect and restore the complex coral reefs in the Punta de la Mona waters. The project was conceptualized as a response to increasing degradation of the marine environment, linked to stressors due to human activity.

The project consists of four phases of action:

  1. Underwater cleaning where plastic debris, fishing tackle and other pollutants are removed from the seabed and reefs. This is done at depths of 30 to 50 meters.
  2. Delicate extraction and removal of fishing lines that are entangled in the coral reefs.
  3. Creation of the first coral nursery in Spain to rehabilitate any pieces of coral that has been broken off due to entanglement. Coral fragments that are still alive are relocated to a nursery, where they are fixed to a solid structure within a favorable location to promote coral growth.
  4. Repopulation – placing the corals grown in the nursery back in the natural reef. The fragments are “glued” to the reef using a special adhesive, and then these areas are studied to determine whether the corals raised in nurseries survive. The transplanted corals are monitored using indicators such as growth rate, mortality rate, bleaching rate or return of associated biodiversity.

The main objective of S.O.S. Corales is to proactively restore the marine ecosystem, and also to provide protection to this region to prevent fishing and other negative impacts on the coral reefs. The goal is to get the area formally protected as a Marine Protected Area in the near future. The project is currently estimated to run for two years, and aims to provide financial support to individuals and companies who are willing to commit to this important cause.

The Punta de la Mona area is home to exceptional marine biodiversity, and the area was declared a natural park in the 1980s. This area and its habitats contribute to the splendor of the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the formal protection efforts by the government, the marine environment, especially the coral reefs, are highly degraded and increasingly threatened by human activities.

The project kicked off in 2020, with the removal of waste from the Special Conservation Zone cliffs and seabed of the Punta de la Mona, in Marina del Este and La Herradura. Divers were supported by boats that cleared any waste that floated to the surface. Waste removal is done using scientific protocols established by the S.O.S. Corales Project. The project also aims to raise awareness among local fisherman, divers and tourists on the problems facing the area, and how they can get involved. The S.O.S. Corales project therefore has an ecological and social dimension by enhancing marine ecosystems and providing local coastal communities with solutions and assistance to prevent the degradation of marine resources.

Who Is Participating?

The project is currently being sponsored by MedPAN and Coral Guardian, with the participation of the Universities of Seville, Cádiz and Málaga, Puerto Marine del Este and Buceo Natura. Other collaborators on the project include Junta de Andalucía, Alnasur and the Almuñécar City Council and the NGO Equilibrio Marino, as well as brands such as Aqualung, Tecline and Málaga Dive.

By being the first participatory marine conservation project involving local communities in the Mediterranean Sea, S.O.S. Corales has the potential to become a training center for future coral conservation projects in the Mediterranean region, as well as in other reef areas.