Scientists help Fijian villagers conserve coral reef while earning a living from it

July 19, 2005

In the South Pacific islands of Fiji, coastal villagers are beginning to reap much-needed financial benefits from conserving the beautiful tropical environment they treasure as a family heirloom.

In a unique project that combines environmental conservation, economic development and drug discovery research, scientists and policy experts led by the Georgia Institute of Technology are collaborating with the villagers of Tagaqe and the University of the South Pacific to explore, protect and generate income for islanders from their coral reef. The project is funded primarily by the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Instead of breaking off pieces of live coral reef substrate - called "live rock" - for sale to the saltwater aquarium industry, villagers planted a crop of synthetic rock that becomes naturally covered by desirable species. Villagers recently harvested it. The project, devised and negotiated by the researchers, is intended to reward villagers now for conserving the reef they need to make a living in the future - including potential income from the discovery of drug compounds in reef organisms. Other Fijian villages are interested in starting similar efforts, researchers said.

The project calls for villagers to keep half of the profits and reinvest half to start another crop. A Fijian aquarium company, Walt Smith International, has agreed to buy the synthetic rock and market it as a "green" product to individual and public aquariums around the world. Studies at the University of the South Pacific have shown that the organisms that live on cultivated rock are as effective as those on live rock in purifying aquarium water.

The Georgia Aquarium, scheduled to open in Atlanta on Nov. 23, has confirmed that it plans to use the cultivated rock in its exhibits. Founder Bernie Marcus said, "This is a great way to promote conservation of coral reefs, help generate the economy for local villagers of Fiji and provide the aquarium with valuable 'green' live rock." An added benefit is the possible discovery of new drugs in Georgia Tech studies of Fijian coral reef organisms, Marcus noted.

Georgia Tech Professor of Biology Terry Snell, who helped lead the conservation effort in Fiji, said: "The villagers have been enthusiastic about the project. They want to conserve the reef so they can pass it on to their children so they can make a living in the village."

Conservation of coral reef ecosystems is also important because the study of organisms inhabiting them holds significant potential for the discovery of new drugs, including antibiotics and anti-cancer agents, researchers believe. In particular, reefs in tropical, less developed countries, such as Fiji, hold the greatest promise because of high species diversity and the tendency of organisms in these habitats to fight back against predators, competitors and pathogens by evolving chemical defenses, explained Georgia Tech Professor of Biology Mark Hay, the project's principal investigator. But species are being lost at dramatic rates as live rock is harvested and reefs are damaged by environmental stress and the effects of overfishing. Researchers are evaluating the effects on the Fiji reef as part of this project.

"As species are lost, we also lose the ability to discover disease cures they may hold," Hay explained. "To prevent that loss, we can't just say, 'preserve the reefs,' to the locals who must depend on these reefs for food and for income to provide more than the bare necessities of life. Thus, we are trying to connect the value of the drugs discovered with efforts and rewards for conservation of biodiversity."

In a unique project that combines environmental conservation, economic development and drug discovery research, scientists and policy experts led by the Georgia Institute of Technology are collaborating with the villagers of Tagaqe and the University of the South Pacific to explore, protect and generate income for islanders from their shallow fringing coral reef. Here, tourists are being lead to a reef flat to view an area where researchers and villagers are culturing coral reef substrate, called "live rock."
Photo Courtesy of Julia Kubanek
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Financial benefits to the villagers from drug discovery may occur many years later - or even not at all if no drugs are marketed - but the project to grow synthetic rock on the reef rewards villagers now for conservation, Hay noted.

The project is a collaboration orchestrated by Snell, Hay, Associate Professor of International Affairs Kirk Bowman and Assistant Professor of Biology, Chemistry and Biochemistry Julia Kubanek. They joined forces with Bill Aalbersberg, a chemist and environmental policy expert from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, to negotiate the agreement with Tagaqe Chief Ratu Timoci Batireregu in summer 2004.

About $2,000 in funds from Hay's professorship endowed by Harry and Linda Teasley was used to purchase 5,000 pumice "blanks" that were suspended on wires above the shallow reef flat and lagoon of Tagaqe's fringing reef to prevent ecosystem damage. The synthetic rocks were then naturally colonized by seaweeds and reef invertebrates. These 8-inch live rocks were ready for harvest and sale after about eight months.

The researchers have applied for renewal of their NIH grant this fall to extend their research and conservation efforts another four years. Plans call for similar reef conservation projects in five other Fijian villages. Also, Bowman hopes to start an adopt-a-coral program so tourists in Fiji and concerned people around the world can make a donation to have a piece of coral planted in their name on the reef. The proceeds from these plantings will be used for coral reef conservation in Fiji.

Researchers are optimistic about the continued success and expansion of the live rock project in Fiji. "If we get this started in numerous coastal villages, there will undoubtedly be some that prosper better than others, and these 'locally grown' best practices can be evaluated for the various situations where each works best, and the different villages can learn from each other regarding different methods, harvest frequencies, etc.," Hay noted.

Meanwhile, Georgia Tech researchers continue to study extracts from the marine plant and invertebrate animal samples they collected with care from the Fijian coral reef in June 2004. To date, they have discovered 10 new molecular structures found in a species of red seaweed. Some of these chemical compounds showed the potential to kill cancer cells, bacteria and the HIV virus, Kubanek said.

In fact, two of the new compounds exhibit anti-bacterial activity towards drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus at concentrations worth pursuing, Kubanek noted. Researchers don't know yet whether the required concentrations of these compounds would be harmful to humans.

"We're only at the test-tube level so far," Kubanek explained. "The next step is to discover how these compounds work and then to study them in a more complex model."
Georgia Institute of Technology
75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 100
Atlanta, Georgia 30308 USA

1. Jane Sanders (404-894-2214); E-mail: (; Fax (404-894-4545)
2. John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail: (
3. Donna Fleishman, Georgia Aquarium (404-720-8149); E-mail: (

1. Mark Hay (404-894-8429); E-mail: (
2. Terry Snell (404-894-8906): E-mail: (
3. Julia Kubanek (404-894-8424); E-mail: (
4. Kirk Bowman (404-894-6435); E-mail: (
5. Bill Aalbersberg, University of the South Pacific; E-mail: (

WRITER: Jane Sanders

Color photos are available from the Georgia Tech media relations contacts listed above.

Georgia Institute of Technology Research News

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