By Reef Check Italia's Filippo Bargnesi
In 2015, Reef Check Italia organized its EcoExpedition to the wonderful Bangka Island (North Sulawesi, Indonesia) surrounded by the huge biodiversity of the Celebes Sea. Held October 26 to November 2, participants received courses on coral identification and coral reef monitoring, including, for the first time, a specific class on soft corals.
Activities with the students were conducted in three steps. After an introduction on soft coral biology and ecology, some organisms belonging to the most common taxonomic families were collected and maintained in aquaria for some days to see the main morphological characteristics of the different genera. At the end, polyp morphology was analyzed under a stereomicroscope and sclerites (a species-specific calcium carbonate structure made by these organisms) were extracted and analyzed under an optical microscope for better classification.
Soft corals are very interesting for monitoring the health of a coral reef because they are pioneer organisms in the secondary colonization of destroyed and degraded reefs, due to their high growth rate and high resistance to adverse conditions. They also are valued for reef restoration due to this high growth rate and the fact that they can easily be grown on submerged farms which can provide organisms that can be transplanted on impacted reefs.
When you consider conservation and people's awareness of environmental sustainability, it is also interesting to note that these organisms are in demand in the aquarium trade. Growing them at specific sites could potentially decrease wild harvesting of soft corals and could also give to local economies an alternative to destructive practices like bomb and poison fishing.
In the end, we would like to thank the Coral Eye management for giving us the opportunity to use the facilities of their Indonesian outpost, such as the wet laboratory (with nine 15l tanks and sea flowing water) and the dry lab, where we made use of microscopes, stereomicroscopes and reagents.