Reef Restoration and Coastal Protection Project
Conservation of coral reefs has become an urgent necessity in almost all tropical areas which depend on the sea in one form or another. In the Comarca (self-governing territory of Indigenous People) of Kuna Yala these needs also exist because by old cultural traditions of the Kuna peoples, who live on small coral reef islands, the expansion of islands, spurred by population growth, is a process achieved stone by stone by those who wish to have a piece of land in the community. On many occasions the materials for the expansion of the islands is provided directly by mining corals growing in adjacent reefs, causing deterioration of reefs, reduction of the fauna and flora, and increased shore erosion.
The project to restore coral reefs and coastal protection at Kwadule Island of the community of Corazon de Jesus in Kuna Yala is a pilot project which will serve as an example to the Comarca of Kuna Yala and will be repeated in other communities with very diverse applications, including breaking wave impacts on the shore, for the expansion of the islands, promoting the accumulation of sand and corals, for the development of facilities for culturing species native to the area (such as lobster, crabs, and fish), and protecting seawalls and pilings.
1. To create a breakwater for protecting the coast of Kwadule Island against erosion caused by waves and marine currents.
2. To create an artificial reef to provide habitat for marine fauna and flora.
3. To provide a project in shallow water suitable for teaching about the ecology and restoration of coral reefs for the education of fishermen, school children, and members of the communities of Corazon de Jesus, Nargana, and other nearby Kuna communities.
4. To create a new tourist attraction that attracts marine organisms and increases the number and size of corals transplanted onto the structure, creating a prestigious ecological and scientific image for an eco-tourism center.
4. To make a model project that can be duplicated and enhanced in future projects for the benefit of the people of Kuna Yala.
5. To demonstrate that it is possible to use this method to produce breakwaters, artificial islands, nurseries for marine species, and construction materials, in a sustainable manner without causing environmental damage.
6. To support Kuna projects in sustainable coastal zone management.
This project uses a new technology called mineral accretion, which uses electricity to make growing limestone rock on metal structures for artificial reefs, and accelerate the growth of corals and other reef organisms for restoration of damaged habitats and creation of new ones.
The method functions in simple way: two electrodes submerged in sea water are supplied with low voltage direct current. The first and larger electrode is the cathode (negative terminal), which is a steel structure on which electrolytic reactions take place that cause minerals naturally dissolved in sea water, mainly calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide, to grow on the structure. At the same time, a broad range of attached organisms like corals and calcareous algae settle on the structure by themselves or are transplanted onto the cathode surface, where they increase their growth rate up to 500% or more, owing to the increased availability of calcium carbonate to grow their skeletons.
The other electrode, in this case the positive terminal or anode, is a structure of titanium to which electrons flow from the cathode. This must be made of a resistant metal because electrodes made of weaker metals like aluminum, copper, or steel will corrode and disappear in a few days, breaking the electrical circuit, ending the electrical current flow, and stopping further mineral accretion.
At Kwadule Island structures were built from steel rods (13 millimeter reinforcing bars) and expanded steel mesh constructed in the form of a half cylinder with the flat face on the bottom. This shape allows uniform growth of minerals on the structure, and because the cylindrical shape is very resistant to stress, it will absorb the force of waves with greater ease. Two steel rods 9 meters long were cross-braced by welding rods of 0.9 meters to form a base with multiple reinforcements on which were bent, in the shape of a half cylinder, the expanded mesh sheets. Four structures, one with 6, two with 5, and one with 4 half cylinders were reinforced with welded steel rods from the lower corners to the mid point of the upper curve (see figure 1). The total length of the structure was 120 feet.
Selection of the site for the structure was based on reducing erosion to the beach near the dock in the access area to the island in the south west. The structure was made in the shape of an “L” with the long side parallel to the shore pointing to the east, reaching from the pier to a natural reef at a depth sufficient for the structure to be covered by water at the shallowest points, creating an enclosed area (see figure 2). This would allow growth of a breakwater on the south east area, reducing erosion of the shore near the pier.
Installation of the structure required extra people because carrying so long a structure required at least 10 people at a time (see figure 3). The structures were placed on the sea floor and then joined together with wires to maintain continuity of electrical current throughout the entire cathode.
The next phase was installation of electrical connections needed to achieve more efficient transmission of electrical energy between cathode and anodes. The last step was collection of naturally broken pieces of coral from nearby reefs, which were transplanted onto the metal structures to grow rapidly, giving the artificial reef breakwater a more natural appearance.
Growth of calcium carbonate by the mineral accretion method provided visible results almost immediately after the start of electrical current flow. First one observes the elimination of rust (which turns from red to grey and black as it is converted to metallic iron) and then the development of a white surface coating on the structure as limestone crystals grow on it, and the clearly visible rising of hydrogen bubbles from the structure. Plates 1-3 show the initial layer of mineral accretion which formed within the first few weeks.
Growth and strength of the limestone coating depends on the surface area and the current applied. Mineral accretion was rapid and formed a strong structure within a few months. The structure at Kwadule grew a uniform limestone rock coating around 5 centimeters thick in four months. At this point, due to circumstances beyond the control of the project, the structure was towed around 100 metres to the south into waters about 15 feet deep by a powerful boat. This broke the electrical connections, stopped further mineral accretion, and destroyed the original intention to create a breakwater to reduce shore erosion. The structure now sits in a sea grass and mud bottom, forming an artificial reef which will be periodically monitored. This structure provides clean limestone surfaces for the rapid settlement of new baby corals and will attract large numbers of fish, creating a new reef in an area where none existed before.
From the biological point of view the structure began to be covered with marine life almost as soon as it is installed, allowing rapid growth of calcareous algae (which produce sand and form reefs). The most rapid growth of corals (while the current is applied) results in an increase in the number of corallivore species (coral eaters) like butterfly fish, which are greatly appreciated for their beauty. Creation of solid structures attracts fish and other marine creatures which come in search of hiding places from larger predators and rough weather conditions. Small fish began to inhabit the structure within hours, followed by larger ones, turtles, and a nurse shark.
From the human sociological point of view the creation of artificial reefs attracts the attention of all by making an unusual habitat for human beings to appreciate, touching the ecological sensitivity which all carry inside themselves. Because the project improves the environment using clean technology which is completely safe, it will always be attractive for tourists. Its greatest importance is for the Kuna people, because it shows for the first time that they can protect and expand their islands by increasing coral growth rather than destroying it, protecting their islands and increasing the amount of lobster, fish, crabs, and octopus on which they rely for food and income.
A very important factor to take into account is the educational component. Promoting the creation of projects of this type is always accompanied by talks in the community which contribute to understanding new technologies and the importance of education in environmental restoration and protection which will serve to stimulate similar projects by indigenous communities (see figure 4). Members of the community participated in all phases of the project and learned how to design and construct such projects. As a result of this project the Saila (chief) of Corazon de Jesus requested help with a project to create a mariculture enclosure, the Sailas of Corazon de Jesus and of Nargana asked for a project to protect the pilings of the bridge which joins the two islands, a project to create an artificial island using solar panels near Playon Chico is underway, and members of several other communities expressed strong interest in mineral accretion projects for erosion control, reef restoration, and expansion of islands. The Asociacion Oceanica de Panama and the Global Coral Reef Alliance will provide technical assistance and training to all Kuna communities and environmental organizations who wish to develop such projects.
Building a submerged structure connected to a source of electrical current is able to cause a little fear in people who don’t understand the concept. It is important to explain to them that the electricity used is completely safe direct current of 6 volts, half that produced by a conventional car battery, and that all the current flowing between the structure and the anode is incapable of damaging living organisms. Fish and marine organisms are attracted to the structure, and none is observed to avoid it.
The presence of a rusty metal structure in the sea produces a negative visual effect, especially in tourist areas. This problem is temporary as the structure loses the rust within a few days after the electrical connection is established, and in less than a week it turns completely white as the result of minerals growing on the structure. Afterwards the growth of corals and the large number of fish and other marine organisms around it produces a visual attraction. In addition the structure has a striking and unusual geometric shape.
The presence of sharp metal points at the very start can cause cuts to tourists and bathers who are not careful. This was taken into account during construction, as the sharp edges of expanded mesh were placed on the bottom sand and were wired to the base of the structure so that natural forces like waves and currents could not eventually change their position. These sharp edges are quickly smoothed by more rapid growth of minerals on sharp edges.
A certain risk exists of skin scrapes if bathers rub against the corals and limestone rock surface on the structure. We recommend that swimmers do not touch the living organisms they encounter, whether on the artificial reef or on the natural coral reefs. In case of minor cuts we recommend washing the cut with plenty of fresh water and soap and applying antibiotic cream if the cut person feels this is needed.
1. Prepare written signs about the project.
2. Prepare documents explaining the project in Spanish and English for curious visitors.
3. Visit the area periodically to measure the growth of the structure and corals transplanted and naturally settling on it, document the biodiversity, and check and maintain any functioning electrical connections.
4. Prepare documentary videos on the development of the project in Dule, Spanish, and English for public education.
5. Provide training and technical assistance for Kuna communities developing mineral accretion projects. Although the mineral accretion method is patented by Wolf Hilbertz and Tom Goreau, they have agreed that the technology will be provided to the Kuna for free because of its exceptional importance for the survival of their unique culture.
1. That visitors who swim in the area not touch the structure, the corals, or other living organisms on and in it in order to prevent damage to them and prevent cuts which can cause scars.
2. Keep electrical wires and connections away from possible damage by waves or damage by or to visitors by burying them out of sight in the sand, and enclosing the power source.
3. Maintain the electrical current flowing for the longest time possible to reach a rapid growth of the structure and corals on it, and preventing corrosion of the metal by not disconnecting the energy source.
4. Arrange for interested members of the Kuna communities to see the project and evaluate its potential to meet their own needs.
5. Promote the development of similar projects to reduce further damage to corals in Kuna Yala.
This project would not have been possible without the generous help of many people. Each of the sponsors below has contributed in an important way to the project and we wish to acknowledge their help for this unique ecological project.
The Saila and community of Corazon de Jesus for their permission to develop the project, help with logistics, and assistance in construction and deployment of the project.
Hotel Kwadule for providing accommodations, transport, logistics, and personnel during the project.
King Crab Corporation for logistics, air transportation of materials and personnel.
Materiales PASCO for donation of materials.
Casa Montero for logistic help.
Instrumentos Panama for donation of materials, tools, and hardware.
Mr. Juergen Rey for donation of soldering materials.
The members of Asociacion Oceanica de Panama and the Global Coral Reef Alliance for providing volunteer labor.
Laura Ceballos for untiring help with logistics and accomodations.
The Pew Foundation for an award to Thomas Goreau which provided support for shipping materials and for the underwater video camera used to document the project.
The Leslie Jones Foundation for an award to the Global Coral Reef Alliance which provided funds travel and purchase and transport of materials.