Coral gardening is a method of actively restoring reef ecosystems through coral propagation. Small fragments of coral, broken off by natural causes such as storms, are attached to man-made structures providing a stable environment for growth. Every 6-12 months the coral colonies can be propagated again to expand this coral nursery. Colonies are eventually planted back onto the seabed where they continue to grow, reproduce and build up the reef.
From the late 1980s, local residents Ditchay Roxas and her husband Philippe Girardeau witnessed the decimation of coral reefs in Daplac Bay. They were suffering the same fate as many other reefs across Palawan: over-fishing and illegal use of dynamite and sodium cyanide was killing off corals and siltation from agricultural run-off was smothering any survivors.
In 2011, after extensive research and advice from international marine scientists, they launched South Sea Reef Rehab, with financial support from Palawan Cove. They adapted techniques used successfully in other countries to suit local conditions and make use of available materials – aiming to design a low-budget coral restoration project which would be replicable all over Palawan.
To combat the effects of run-off from slash-and-burn agriculture (kaingin), vetiver grass was planted along the hillsides and waterways to prevent soil running into the bay. Then the first coral fragments were attached to submerged structures which were welded on site and have since been adapted for changing weather and wave patterns. Marine heatwaves are a growing threat so some structures have already been moved to deeper, cooler waters.
A team of divers from the local fishing community staffs the project – welding new structures, monitoring coral growth as well as checking for disease and parasites. With coastal rangers now protecting the area from illegal fishers, Daplac Bay has become a haven for marine life with thriving communities of fish, young reef sharks and marine turtles. “Life attracts life,” says Roxas.