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An essential component of ocean ecosystems is coral reefs. In addition to offering food and shelter to marine life, they shield coastlines from erosion and storms. The Mars Coral Reef Restoration Programme has transplanted coral fragments onto a network of interconnected "Reef Stars" (sand-coated steel frames) in an attempt to restore degraded reefs. After just four years, new research indicates that these restored reefs can grow at least as quickly as healthy reefs.

This innovation was noticed in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, which is the site of one of the biggest restoration initiatives globally. “Restoration is increasingly seen as a necessary tool to reverse ecological decline across terrestrial and marine ecosystems,” write the study authors, led by Dr Ines Lange from the University of Exeter. “Considering the unprecedented loss of coral cover and associated reef ecosystem services, active coral restoration is gaining traction in local management strategies and has recently seen major increases in scale.”

The goal of this specific project was to rebuild a reef that was devastated by dynamite fishing thirty to forty years ago. Marine biologists attached tiny, recycled metal scaffolds, or "reef stars," to the seafloor in an attempt to revive it. These would give the coral larvae something to cling to to develop their hard bodies later on. 

They studied the effects of calcium carbonate to gauge the program's effectiveness. "The overall carbonate budget tells you if the reef as a whole is growing or shrinking," explains Lange. "Corals constantly add calcium carbonate to the reef framework while some fishes and sea urchins erode it away."

After four years, there is no difference between the net carbonate budgets and the healthy control sites—they have tripled. Lange remarked, "We saw an incredible speed of recovery." "After just four years, we did not anticipate a complete recovery of reef framework production." However, compared to natural reefs, the overall species diversity of restored reefs is lower because branching coral is the preferred type of coral for reef restoration.

In the end, these discoveries may prove invaluable in repairing some environmental harm. Coral reef growth and decline can now be measured, and the speed at which they recover has also been observed. The researchers do point out that it's more crucial than ever to stop harm from occurring.

They conclude that "strong reductions in carbon emissions are still necessary, and scaling up reef restoration remains a challenge, especially given the higher heat sensitivity of branching corals commonly used for transplantation." However, our research indicates that comprehensive, multifaceted reef restoration initiatives provide quick fixes to restore several critical ecosystem services, enhancing the reef's resistance to regional and worldwide shocks. 

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