Underwater and Under Threat: Restoring the Coral Reef Ecosystem in Mauritius
Coral reefs are present in under 1% of the world's oceans, yet they support a quarter of marine species and provide food, a livelihood, safety, and a beautiful tourist destination for at least 1 billion people.
However, pollution, overfishing, and rising sea temperatures caused by climate change are threatening their survival. According to the UN, the continuous rise in water temperatures led to the destruction of 14% of the world's coral reefs between 2009 and 2018. And researchers believe that if current trends continue, 90% of the world's tropical corals will be wiped out by 2050, along with all the ecosystems that depend on them.
The coral reef ecosystem running parallel to Mauritius stretches 150 kilometers and reduces wave energy by up to 97%. The reef frames a 243-square kilometer lagoon that is home to a rich array of aquatic life, including 61 species of macroalgae, 110 species of coral, 132 species of fish, and a wide range of endemic species. Moreover, as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), Mauritius relies heavily on its coral reef resources, especially its fisheries and tourism industries - tourism accounts for about 8% of the island nation's GDP and 10% of its employment.
But overfishing, rising temperatures, unsustainable coastal development, destructive anchoring practices, high-density tourism, pollution, and changes in the composition of seawater due to the removal of mangroves and seagrasses continue to threaten the health of the reef ecosystem.
When coral meets technology
Fortunately, coral reef aquaculture is flourishing in Mauritius. Microfragmentation is a relatively new, breakthrough technique whereby coral fragments are planted on seabed nurseries made of concrete, galvanized structures, and natural basaltic rock to stimulate regrowth.
Before and after coral regeneration in a seabed nursery
Under the Tech4Nature initiative launched by IUCN and Huawei, Huawei Mauritius teamed up with local partner EcoMode Society in 2021 to implement a three-year conservation program at Pointe-aux-Feuilles off the east coast of Mauritius.
Coral observation platform
The project aims to grow 50,000 coral fragments in coral nurseries, which will then be transplanted back into degraded reefs in the site area as donor or mother coral to restore the 5,000-hectare reef cluster around Pointe-aux-Feuilles by 2023. To achieve this, the partners created an innovative technical system that enabled large-scale coral planting coupled with data collection, transmission, and analysis.
The key scientific and technological innovation of the project lies in the real-time monitoring of data on the seabed coral reef ecosystem. The project team deployed solar-powered buoys on the sea surface, under which underwater sensors were hung at different depths to measure environmental data, including weather conditions, water quality and nutrients, and the population distribution and behavior of marine life. The data is sent in real-time to a data center on shore via GPS receivers and a 4G network. The data is then analyzed on a cloud platform and studied by researchers at the University of Mauritius.
The buoys were also equipped with surface and underwater video and audio recording equipment, with the underwater cameras fitted with special lenses to monitor the growth and survival of coral fragments in the nursery, including monitoring the situation around the nursery. Different species of algae tend to grow on nursery frames and ropes which need to be manually removed by project personnel.
Project staff perform nursery maintenance and cleaning
Coral fragments restored and transplanted
New coral fragments are being propagated
By August 2023, 25,000 coral fragments had been transplanted from the coral nursery to 20 square kilometers of degraded reef at Point-aux-Feuilles off the east coast of Mauritius, while another 1,890 coral fragments are being propagated in coral nurseries.
The underwater nursery
"The project makes Mauritius one of the first countries in the Western Indian Ocean region to develop and apply a technology-based coral reef restoration and monitoring system for its highly threatened coral reef ecosystems, which will also apply the IUCN Green List criteria as a locally managed marine area or protected area in the near future." — Luther Beuys Anukul, IUCN Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa of IUCN.
"Cooperation between public institutions and the private sector is increasingly important when tackling complex environmental challenges. We want to better apply technological innovations in the process of protecting the ecosystem. The Mauritius Coral Reef Conservation Project illustrates how cooperation and mainstreaming can help halt biodiversity loss." — James Hardcastle, IUCN Protected Areas Program Director.
"This is the first TECH4ALL project we have invested in in Mauritius, following Huawei's dozens of successful experiences in protecting different species and protected areas around the world using innovative technologies such as cloud, artificial intelligence, and connectivity. The role of the tech industry in addressing environmental challenges is critical. Only by working with committed strategic partners can the goal be truly achieved." — Zheng Kui, CEO, Huawei Mauritius.