Sparks

How to save the coral reefs

 By Livia Formisani

Coral reefs help produce the very oxygen we breathe, host 25% of all marine species and contain a number of active substances we use in our medicines. And yet, they could disappear due to climate change. That’s why marine scientists and engineers worldwide are working on finding new methods and more robust species of coral to restore the reefs before it’s too late…

According to a 2017 UNESCO study, the majority of coral reefs in World Heritage sites could disappear in 30 years’ time. And by 2100, if no strong action is taken, most reefs will have died. The rainforest of the sea is under constant threat “by human activity both on land and on the sea”, as reported by a 2012 study. As for most environmental issues, the list of causes is long and varied. Climate change is the main culprit, as it brings about rising water temperatures and ocean acidification, both directly causing coral bleaching. Indirectly, they make it easier for coral diseases to spread, and spur outbreaks of coral predators (such as crown-of-thorns starfishes). In addition, pollution, overfishing and coral mining take a massive toll on coral health.
As coral reefs are very important for biodiversity, their disappearance also puts a significant amount of fish species at risk, which in turn has a direct impact on the livelihood of other animals, as well as of millions of people. But not all hope is lost: researchers worldwide are working on a number of solutions to help conserve and repopulate coral reefs. We examined three new breakthrough technologies designed to help rebuild those precious underwater ecosystems.

new-coral-reef-restoration-techniques
Coral bleaching in the Maldives (Catlinseaviewsurvey)

Micro-fragmentation and fusion

One fateful day in 2016, Dr. David Vaughan, Senior Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratories in Florida, went to grab a coral in the lab’s nursery. Unknown to him, the coral had attached to the bottom of the tank, and it was accidentally crushed. Over the next three weeks, much to Vaughan’s surprise, the remaining fragments grew at incredible speed—up to 40 times faster than usual. Typically, growing corals takes years, but in his case, it took mere weeks. What’s more, when the resulting corals were placed in close proximity to one another, they reattached themselves, forming one big organism. Thanks to his discovery, Vaughan was able to grow in a couple of years’ time corals in sizes that would have normally taken 25 to 100 years to develop—a huge breakthrough for restoration efforts. After being tested on all species of coral present in the Florida Keys, the technique, called micro-fragmentation and fusion, has been implemented to restore the local reef, currently threatened by a coral disease with an 80% mortality rate.
Restoration programs at Mote Marine Laboratories are continuing to use micro-fragmentation and fusion, and researchers worldwide are following through. In June 2019, Coral Vita, the world’s first commercial coral farm for reef restoration entirely based on micro-fragmentation, opened in Grand Bahama. Dr. Vaughan himself recently started the Plant a Million Corals Foundation, helping scientists around the world to apply to this technique.

Living coral reefs break the storm waves, the surges, and the hurricane damage, and actually allow us to live along the coast that we love. Without those coral reefs being alive and growing as sea level rises, we will not be able to breathe, eat, have jobs or live near the coast

Dr. David Vaughan
President and founder of “Plant a Million Corals Foundation”

Coral NICUs: LarvalBot

According to a recent report by Australian authorities, the hard coral cover in the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef is at 14% of its original size—extremely close to its record low. The biggest living organism on Earth has been heavily impacted by rising water temperatures, ocean acidification and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish—so much so, in fact, that the bleached corals are well visible from above the water, even from space. Developed by scientists and engineers at the Queensland University of Technology, LarvalBot is an autonomous underwater drone that helps baby corals develop in a protected environment and subsequently recolonizes specific parts of the reef. As corals reproduce by spawning, releasing tiny eggs and sperm into the water in a synchronous event, the scientists collect and gather them into floating enclosures near the reef, where they have the time to grow, undisturbed, into coral larvae. Once these have developed, LarvalBot gathers and delivers them on the most damaged parts of the reef to repopulate them—a process known as “larval restoration”.

Reef Rangerbot becomes 'LarvalBot' to spread coral babies

IT to the rescue: MERMAID

Corals are complex creatures, and as we have seen, their livelihood depends on many factors. Until now, coral scientists were required to gather data manually, a process that took weeks, months and even years. Afterward, even more time was needed to analyze and share the data with other scientists around the world, so that disturbance patterns could be further studied on a global scale. That’s where MERMAID comes into play. As an acronym for Marine Ecological Research and Monitoring Aid, MERMAID is an open-access, web-based tool that allows scientists to upload and share in real time data about the reefs’ health, both online and offline. Developed by WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society and SparkGeo, MERMAID is able to proofread data, saving scientists a considerable amount of time. It can also create charts and reports, allowing researchers to gain an overview of global coral health. The tool aims to speed up threat detection and create new collaborations. Scientists are at work to study even more ways to help coral reefs, and many more projects are currently underway. One of them is the recently launched Allen Coral Atlas, started by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2017, consisting in a platform that maps the world’s coral reefs from space to monitor bleaching levels in real time and provide vital information to conservationists and scientists. With the future of these precious ecosystem at stake, we can only hope to see governments and activists work together to further support research on restoration technologies and make coral reef conservation a priority.

READ MORE: How is climate change affecting oceans? by Anna Volpicelli

about the author
Livia Formisani