We have been seeing some pretty grim news lately on the condition of the world’s coral reefs. From a cruise ship running aground on the pristine reefs of Raja Ampat, to the massive coral bleaching on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. See our post: Can the Great Barrier Reef be Saved?
Update: Celebrating The Year of the Reef
During 2018 we are celebrating The International Year of The Reef. Over the next six months we will increase the frequency of our articles on the world’s coral reef ecosystems. We will include current news on the health of reefs and the worldwide efforts to maintain and restore them. In addition, we will republish a variety of our past, but still very pertinent and helpful articles on coral reefs. Our hope is that this effort will focus more attention on these very important issues.
Aware of the peril ahead for coral reefs confronted with rising water temperatures and ocean acidification, marine biologists and conservationists are developing innovative approaches in their quest to rescue coral reefs and ensure their survival. Research into coral genetics, growing techniques and new technologies including 3-D coral reef printing hold great potential. And these efforts appear to be paying off.
Growing Them Faster and Bigger
David Vaughan and his team at the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Summerland Key, Florida are concentrating on how to get the damm things to grow faster. Normally coral takes about two years to evolve from golf ball size to baseball size. At which point it can be sub-divided into two or three additional pieces. But can this time intensive process be speeded-up?
50 Times Faster!!
In 2009 Vaughn discovered a method that greatly increased the coral growth rate, by fifty-fold!! Now instead of taking six years to produce 600 corals of a size sufficient for transplanting on a reef, they can now grow 1000 corals in under four months. Allowing these coral fragments to grow and recombine over a two year period will now achieve a size that normally would take 100 years to produce. Of equal importance, these coral colonies had the ability to reproduce, which normally only happens after coral reaches maturity at 25 to 75 years.
Vaughan describes it this way “it’s like saying we produced a hundred little seedlings, but we merged them all together the size of a tree trunk, and then they started producing acorns because they thought they were a tree.”
Growing Coral that can Tolerate a Warmer Ocean
“Instead of planting out the next set of climate victims, we’ll actually be planting out coral that we might expect to be a bit more heat tolerant,” says Andrew Baker of the University of Miami. Baker’s innovative approach is called stress-hardening. Under controlled lab conditions he exposes young coral to warm water and intense sunlight. This partial bleaching induces the coral to switch to the strain of symbiotic algae most resistant to this more “stressful” environment. Baker is now moving his experiment into ocean waters and will be stress-hardening hundreds of coral, if successful he will disseminate his research to other conservationists growing coral. (photo – Burt Jones, Maureen Shimlock)
Taking a different approach Madeline van Oppen of the University of Melbourne is researching the algae coral depends on, plus cross breeding coral species to find new species more tolerant of higher temperatures. Madeline reports that results look promising.
Finding Coral Bleaching Survivors
A coral bleaching event in Hawaii in 2015 allowed Ruth Gates of the University of Hawaii to identify corals that had survived the event, then she bred these survivors together to produce a heat-tolerant coral. So far Gates says that her young corals have fared well in warm waters. (photo – oceanagency.org)
The Promise of Genetic Coral Research
Coral genetics is the new frontier that might hold tremendous promise for saving coral reefs and for their sustainability. Phillip Cleves of Stamford’s genetics department and Hollie Putnam of the University of Maryland are tackling different aspects of coral genetics.
Technology is Not the Magic Wand
However, Miami’s Baker echoes the sentiment of many of his colleagues, who doubt that technology alone will be enough to fix the situation. “There’s no … magic wand where we can wave our technology over the reef and it will all be great again,” “We have to commit ourselves to curating, caretaking these ecosystems … in the same way that we might do [with] a forest.”
“I think corals will be evolving as we speak,” adds van Oppen. “But … it’s unlikely that that natural rate of evolution will happen fast enough.”
Saving Coral Reefs with 3D Printing
Who would have thought? Obviously someone did, in fact a number of someones. What if we could print a 3D “fake” coral reef, that would be less vulnerable to ocean warming and acidification? And if that “fake” coral could have the look, texture and structure of real, living coral? In fact that is exactly what is happening in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Australia and the Persian Gulf where the first experimental installation was sunk off Bahrain in 2012 and Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Cousteau began a 3D project in the waters off Bonaire, last January. (photo – 3D Printing Industry)
The hope is that a “fake” coral reef would offer a sanctuary for fish and a structure that baby coral polyps might attach themselves to. Becoming a home for young, live coral to grow and re-establish themselves on older dead reefs.
3D printing was developed in the 1980’s and its applications have multiplied many-fold since then, making everything from human kidneys to auto parts. And we have been creating artificial reefs, out of sunken ships, old cars, almost everything you could think of. around the world for decades. So it seems a natural that the two should come together. The potential is great because the 3D reef can be made virtually identical to real reefs, offering all the hiding places that fish love with all the light and shade that real reefs afford.
As with any new technology there are many unanswered questions; can it attract live corals and can it withstand the turbulence of hurricanes? We will keep you posted on new developments, as they happen. (photo – globalfuturist.org)
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