Tioman coral reef gets an electrical current boost

A coral reef shapes up in Tioman – with the help of electrical currents.

IT IS AGAINST the bleakest of backdrops that a team of scientists ready themselves to turn on the Biorock power switch at Tioman Island’s Tekek Bay. All they are waiting for now is a custom-made fuse box, some electrical bolt terminals, and a brand new transformer. Once those essential components have arrived, the team will gather at the beach, put on their masks, strap on their air tanks, and descend into the sea to assemble a fully functioning circuit.

After the switch is flipped, a small electric current will pulsate through a submerged network of steel bars. These bars run through the rubbled reef, contributing an eerie ugliness to the damaged and broken ecosystem which has been suffocated by sedimentation brought about by infrastructural upgrades in response to burgeoning tourism at Kampung Tekek, the busiest village on the island. An explosion of life and colour is expected to rise from the steel structure, on which coral fragments have been attached. With the help of the electricity current, the corals are expected to flourish and grow at unprecedented rates, six times what would occur naturally.

The Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) has obtained the licence to build and operate this piece of coral rehabilitation technology from the Global Coral Reef Alliance. Funds from Berjaya Cares Foundation made the project possible.

MNS’s Biorock structure at Tekek Bay isn’t the first in Malaysia – there is already one at Gayana Eco Resort off Kota Kinabalu, Sabah – but it will produce the first detailed feasibility study on the effectiveness of the technology in Malaysian waters, thanks to a partnership with scientists from Universiti Malaya. Tekek Bay will serve as a test site and case study which other parties interested in starting up Biorock projects in Malaysia may reference.

For Pulau Tioman, the reefs further out and away from the effects of sedimentation at Tekek Bay are doing quite well, especially considering the devastation caused by the unusually high ocean temperatures of 2010, which triggered a mass coral bleaching event. However, don’t let the occasional presence of dive boats and pretty holiday pictures fool you. According to Reefs Revisited In The Coral Triangle, a recent report published by the World Resources Institute, 99% of Malaysia’s reef ecosystems are threatened by human activities, of which 40% are classified as under “high” or “very high” threat.

It has long been assumed that coral reefs are resilient, and capable of recovering from devastation. But that can happen only if continued threats are kept to a bare minimum. Among the most destructive and prevalent of threats are over-fishing and destructive fishing practices. Keeping these activities away from sensitive coral habitats, such as by creating Marine Protected Areas, has been the standard strategy deployed by policy-makers and funding agencies. The trouble is, only 7% of Malaysia’s reefs fall within protected areas, according to the report.

Promoting resilience

The Biorock technology was invented by architect Wolf Hilbertz in the 1970s. The initial idea was to invent a way of “growing” calcium carbonate (also known as aragonite) as a replacement for concrete to create low-cost structures at remote locations. It wasn’t until the 80s, when Hilbertz met marine biologist Dr Thomas Goreau, that the immense potential this technology had for the construction of coral reefs was realised. The technology was eventually patented as Biorock, and is managed by the Global Coral Reef Alliance, the non-profit founded by Goreau and Hilbertz (who passed away in 2007).

While earlier coral reef rehabilitation methods involving reef balls and other concrete structures provide a substrate for coral larvae to settle on and start growing, Biorock serves not just as a substrate but exposes the coral to an enriched environment, as the electrical charges attract a concentration of ionic minerals which boosts coral growth.

To know if the steel contraption beneath the water at Tekek Bay is working, the scientists just have to look for bubbles. When the current has been switched on, little air pockets forming and budding off from the surface of the steel structure are indications that an orchestra of chemical reactions has begun. The low voltage running through the structure transforms the steel bars into electrodes and induces electrolysis of seawater, hence attracting minerals such as calcium and carbonate ions. These are the building blocks of calcium carbonate, which polyps – individual corals – use to create their cylindrically shaped exoskeleton, a hard rock-like outer shield which protects their soft, delicate bodies. This vast increase in the concentration of ionic minerals around the polyps reduces the amount of energy spent on active ion uptake, performed in order to secrete their calcium carbonate shells. In effect, more energy is freed up for other crucial processes in the polyp, like growth and reproduction for example. Accelerated growth rates have occurred in Biorock installations, at least during the early phases of growth.

To date, 250 Biorock projects have been initiated in 20 countries. Indonesia, home to 16% of the world’s reefs, alone has 160 Biorock projects. The Karang Lestari project at Pemutaran in Bali, has received special awards from the United Nations. Goreau says Bali fishermen have credited the project for increased fish abundance, and data gathered worldwide for over 25 years show that Biorock has greatly increased growth, survival, and resistance to stress for all kinds of marine organisms.

“We want the technology to be used wherever it is the best and most cost-effective solution and generally help community-based groups and non-profit organisations in developing island nations for free (in terms of licensing fees),” says Goreau.

Preparatory work

At Tekek Bay, the 8m x 8m steel framework, constructed at a cost of RM50,000, was submerged a year ago and MNS has been fine-tuning the system since. During this time, challenges unique to Tioman have been identified. The main hurdle, says MNS senior conservation officer Faedzul Rahman Rosman has been power supply. Solar panels, it was decided, would be too much of a risk due to potential for theft, so the Biorock’s power source comes from the island’s main electrical grid. But whilst current supplied by Tenaga Nasional Berhad generators is fairly constant, electrical spikes sometimes occur, which has resulted in short circuits in the Biorock fuse box. Hence, the final step before official deployment of the project is to install custom-made components designed to withstand any potential electrical spikes.

At Tekek Bay, Biorock is expected to help in a number of ways. For one thing, restoring the reef will also mean restoring the island’s buffer against erosion due to wave action.

Faedzul, a marine biologist by training, says it would be expensive to deploy Biorock structures in a routine manner. “But if the technology is proven to help coral regeneration, then it can be a good alternative to rescue or revive damaged reefs, such as those from ship grounding or natural disasters.”

It is precisely situations where the reef faces pressure from coastal development, watershed-based pollution, over-fishing and destructive fishing practices, that Biorock comes in useful. Faedzul says the time needed to establish a reef would depend on the species planted – fast-growing species could lead to faster reef formation. In some documented cases, a difference in the Biorock can be seen in six months. The electricity must be turned on all the time but the current is too weak to impact fishlife.

Of course, MNS maintains that “prevention is better than cure”, which is why the Biorock scheme is just one component of its Restore Our Awesome Reefs (Roar) project which also covers reef conservation workshops and school programmes.

The children of Kampung Tekek, for example, will get to do beach audits, where they analyse the types of trash washed ashore, so as to better plan future recycling strategies. They will also play detective, with river quality monitoring kits. The Biorock project will also involve the local community, such Marine Park staffers. The overall objective is to give everyone on the island, including its younger generations, a better understanding of environmental issues and a greater sense of ownership.

Unsustainable fisheries, damaging coastal development, coral bleaching and ocean acidification are tricky issues to tackle, but by helping to increase coral resilience to all these threats, Biorock is an extra piece of ammunition in the fight to save our coral reefs.

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