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A diver looks under clear blue water at corals.

Esteemed coral scientist to help identify sites for restoration in South Pacific

By Hannah Ashton

Rebecca Vega Thurber's knowledge of the Moorea reefs comes from years of study. In 2018, former lab member Adriana Messyasz, who is now a post-doc at Rutgers University, can be seen examining the effects of nutrient pollution by tracking how enrichment affects the microbes of coral, fish and algae.

Sometimes knowing where not to deploy conservation efforts is the most valuable information scientists can have. Oregon State Pernot Distinguished Professor of Microbiology Rebecca Vega Thurber and her team recently received a $500K grant to help grassroots conservation groups in French Polynesia identify ideal sites for coral restoration.

“We are saying, ‘Hey, you guys had a great idea and you want to understand how you can do it better. That’s our bread and butter. Let’s work together.’ They want to know where the best place is, we can probably tell them to some degree, and then they can take that information to managers,” Vega Thurber said. “So it feels like a really good balance between science and advocacy.”

Along with ecologists from the University of California Santa Barbara, Oregon State researchers will conduct field and lab work at 200 sites across the island of Moorea. They will gather data on biodiversity rates, nutrient levels and more. The research will be available to Coral Gardeners, a conservation group founded in 2017 by local young adults who witnessed coral bleaching first hand.

Vega Thurber and her lab will be focusing on analyzing environmental DNA, also known as eDNA. eDNA comes from cellular material shed by organisms into their environment and tells researchers what species are present.

“My lab is responsible for looking at the stuff you can’t see. The fishes that maybe only come out at night that you are never going to see or shy species that will never be around when people are there,” she said.

Working with local communities is especially important to Vega Thurber.

“Part of the project is to onboard them in taking and analyzing the samples, onboard them in doing all of the parts of science to avoid ‘parachute science,’” Vega Thurber said. “Not just going in, taking the samples, leaving, taking the knowledge with us, putting it in some journal that nobody can get because it’s behind a paywall and probably too obtuse to read anyways, but actually saying this is your data, this is what we think it means, and then getting their input and traditional ecological knowledge.”

Prior to this project, practitioners lacked good knowledge on where restoration practices could be the most meaningful and where they would be a waste of time and money. Vega Thurber and her collaborators will be providing vital data while including local grassroots organizations.

The half a million dollar grant is supported by Oceankind, a group that aims to improve the health of global ocean ecosystems while supporting the livelihoods of people who rely on them.