Building new reefs with nature

Photography: Shutterstock

Innumerable coastal systems throughout the world have been seriously damaged by trawling, pollution or the construction of ports and cities. Wageningen University & Research (WUR) marine scientist Tinka Murk and her team have started a REEFolution: a possible way to mitigate this problem through a unique form of ‘building with nature’ in collaboration with local inhabitants.


Coastal areas are losing ecological and economic value because of the destruction of the coral reefs and the life that depends on it.


Stimulation of biodiversity, fisheries and ecotourism through the construction of artificial coral reefs and smart fisheries management.

“Our project is aimed at restoring the damaged reefs in every respect,” says Professor Murk. “This starts with growing healthy coral from small, broken pieces gathered on the ocean floor. You have to regularly clean the branching coral fragments to remove algae and seaweed, which would otherwise smother them. On a natural reef, this is done by ‘housekeepers’, such as certain sorts of fish and sea urchins.”

‘This could be an exemplary project that will be followed all over the world’

“This is also important when the new corals are planted on a reef designated for repair. Along the coast near Shimoni in Kenya, we are testing various structures on which we can plant the corals and attract the right fish and sea urchins. These structures are the basis of the experiment, and crucial to achieving a balanced ecosystem. This is important not only for a healthy reef but also so that the fishermen can continue their work in a sensible fashion. On this Kenyan coastline we are looking for the best coral growth conditions and whether our structures attract the right animals. A ‘layered cake’ seems to work well, with many hiding places where animals can live. We also attach new pieces of coral that can grow further and finally cover the cake structure. This coral reef restoration helps revive the coastal area and makes responsible fishing possible again, while creating new opportunities for tourism.”


5 years


Pilli Pipa Dhow Safaris (Kenya), Kenya Wildlife Service (Kenya), Kenyatta University (Kenya)


Along the Kenyan coast

Funds needed


A researcher takes notes on coral reefs. Photo: Ewout Knoester

The first pilots have shown that such a project can be successful only if the local inhabitants are actively involved. “You have to make good agreements with the village elders and fishermen to prevent them from immediately capturing the first fish that return and thus damaging the coral again,” explained Murk. “We are happy that we have been able to make agreements about a ‘no-take’ zone with the local beach management unit. At the border of this area, we plan to build structures where fish, crab and octopus can easily live. Outside the no-take zone the fishermen can catch their fish. We now have permission to work in an 800-meter coastal stroke. That may sound like a small area, but do not forget: this stroke is a nursery for a much larger adjacent part of the ocean.”


This new ecosystem offers chances not only for nature and fishing, but also for tourism. “We are working together with a local diving school to train local people and develop ecotourism,” says Murk. “Tourists who come to dive and help build and develop the reefs will also learn a lot about the importance of reefs and reef restoration.”

How can we restore the coral reefs in our oceans? Marine Researcher Tinka Murk is finding solutions in Kenya.

Two local people have been trained as certified divers. They help with the restoration of the reef and can tell their fellow villagers what they see under water and how important the reef is for the people and animals around it. As certified divers, they can also earn money by giving guided tours to tourists. As a result, our project is gaining value in all sorts of ways, for both nature and people.

“Now that we have optimised coral mariculture and vital reef building, we need to upscale the activities. This will be costly, however, and require things like buying a boat, training more local inhabitants, recruiting scientists and students from Kenya and Wageningen for work on location, and substantially expanding the small piece of reef that we have successfully built and planted. At the same time, I really believe that this could be an exemplary project that will be imitated all over the world. It would be a real-life application of the WUR principle ‘Science for Impact’, and give us and local inhabitants room to learn and take responsibility for the future. It would also be situated at the cutting edge of the fields of expertise in which WUR feels at home: nature, technology and society.”



Professor Ecology of Marine Animal Ecology, Wageningen University & Research


Offshore, Maritime, Ecology, Toxicology, Risk analysis, Embryonic development, Endocrine disruptors, Marine environment, Ecotoxicology, Marine biotoxins

Photo: Gea Hogeveen




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