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Coral scientist sees new tide of hope to protect Hainan reefs

By Ma Zhiping in Sanya, Hainan | China Daily | Updated: 2017-10-03

Restoration of the precious resource and ensuring its survival is Chen Hong's lifetime mission

What lies beneath has intrigued Chen Hong since childhood and he has devoted his life to exploring the mysteries of the seas, especially the "lungs of the oceans", coral reefs.

"Look, these are coral seedlings we planted in Xisha in April 2014. They are growing fast," said Chen, a 52-year-old oceanic scientist, showing recently taken pictures, smiling like a veteran collector who has struck gold.



"After more than 10 years of experiments, we have mastered at least six kinds of technology for growing coral under different environments and the survival rate of corals such as goniastrea (resembling a sponge) is as high as 90 percent," Chen, director of the Hainan South China Sea Institute of Tropical Oceanography, said at his new 1,500 square-meter laboratory at Yazhou Bay, Sanya.

Coral reefs are the forest of the ocean and are at the top of the biodiversity system where almost all kinds of living marine categories have representative species living among them.

Charles Darwin, the father of modern biology, described coral as "one of the most wonderful things in the world". Healthy reefs attract fish, algae and other marine life forms, gradually evolving into a biological supermarket and eventually "an undersea city".

Reefs account for less than 0.25 percent of sea area, but shelter and nourish more than one quarter of the oceans' fish resources.

"Global warming, land-based sewage, illegal fishing activities, wild multiplying of thorn starfish predators and too much tourism are threatening the coral reef ecosystems. My heart was broken seeing many of them turning white in response to stress," said Chen.

He explained that as sea temperatures rise, zooxanthellae parasitic plants, vital for the coral's survival, are expelled.

Without zooxanthellae, bleaching occurs and the reefs will die.

In 2003, Chen set up his research institute in the wake of a large area of albino coral, after years of research work in Sanya at the southern tip of tropical Hainan island, dubbed "China's Hawaii".

As a young man Chen was inspired by a United States' documentary showing Jane Goodall's research into African wild gorillas. "It fascinated me and made me yearn for a lifestyle of pure research into nature and a report about the development of the Sanya Ocean Experimental Station attracted me to this dreamland of Hainan after graduation from Zhejiang Ocean University in Zhoushan in 1986," said Chen.

Since then he has acted as a Chinese "Don Quixote", as some people call him, spending most of his earnings on research and losing himself in the laboratories studying the growth of various corals and leading his teams in monitoring the waters in Hainan, with support from local governments and institutions.

The sometimes harsh conditions are not to everyone's taste, said a friend, but Chen has overcome a host of problems.

"People have their own values in life. I can lead a very comfortable life with my technology. But I want to do more for society and the ecosystems. The only thing I feel ashamed about is that I have made no contribution to my family," said Chen, uneasily.

As a participant of a number of Hainan's sea ecosystem research projects, he has gone to Xisha with his teams about 20 times, planting more than 9,500 corals, tridacna clams and large-size seaweed.

During his exploration in Xisha, he found new coral species and a seaweed bed ecosystem, which have enriched Xisha's ecodiversity. He also tried laser measurement equipment and coral transplanting devices he himself has developed.

"Our restoration efforts also led us to discover that with global warming, shell algae can grow and cling on coral chippings to form small coral reefs, inspiring a new technical solution to the ecological restoration of reefs.

"And it is amazing to see that soft coral forms a relationship with shellfish, with the latter helping clean harmful tiny seaweed and soft corals to provide living space for the shellfish," said Chen, adding these findings could have a global impact.

"It is very hard to plant the coral. We have to bind the coral seedlings in a net and then dive to the sea bed and pin the net on rocks with steel nails to keep them from being swept away by waves," said Chen.

After that, checks and monitoring must be conducted in the following days and even months or years to make sure they survive.

Xu Daoning, a local fisherman was so moved by Chen's hard work and determination that he often helped him.

"A normal diver can stay under water for 90 minutes a day, but he has dived several times a day each for 90 minutes, planting as many as 500 corals in one day."

Chen has won a number of awards for his scientific research in safeguarding the coral.

He has grown 60,000 corals, 200,000 coral-accompanying species and constructed demonstration zones covering 6.7 hectares for coral reef restoration over the past 10 years.

"We are now able to replant all kinds of hard coral through asexual reproduction of a single polyp and this can effectively solve the problem that asexually reproduced corals are not able to survive strong typhoons. This year, we will grow another 200,000 corals," said Chen, who has a blueprint to grow one million corals in Hainan's sea waters in the next few years.

Chen is planning to build "coral gardens" as demonstration zones in waters around Phoenix island in Sanya Bay.

The coral gardens will help construct an ecosystem that encourages fish, shellfish and sea plants to form a completely new ecological landscape.

"I will continue diving to explore but speed up my development of robots that will function as coral growers and I will then be able to concentrate more on research," said Chen, who is in talks with domestic robot-making companies.

"China is comparatively weak in basic research on coral resources but is catching up quickly and taking a leading position in fields such as coral reproduction, transplantation, disease control and ecosystem monitoring," said Chen.

"Coral reefs are becoming more and more vulnerable and the coral reef systems need more and better protection. The mission is important and I will keep on doing my duty, bit by bit," said Chen, adding that he has given a number of lectures to local fishermen.


(China Daily 10/03/2017 page5)