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 year’s remaining 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 some of our past, but still very pertinent articles on coral reefs. Wherever appropriate we will add current data into these republished articles. Our hope is that this effort will focus more attention on these very important issues.
Efforts Are Paying Off
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 coral 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 with the technique used at Mote. But can this time-intensive process be sped 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. This method allows coral fragments to grow and recombine over a two-year period. This now achieves a size that normally would take 100 years to produce. Of equal importance, these coral colonies have 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 and cross-breeding coral species to find new ones 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 to produce a “heat-tolerant” coral. So far Gates says that her young corals have fared well in warm waters. (photo – oceanagency.org)
Update: Additional reefs have been discovered that seem to be resilient in the face of rising ocean temperatures. The northern Red Sea is one area that holds hope see: Can Coral Find Refuge In The Red Sea?? Bermuda is another area harboring coral reefs that have survived coral bleaching. Possibly because of its location as the world’s highest latitude coral reefs. See: Does Bermuda Hold the Key to Coral Reef Resilience?
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.
Update: Also being studied is the role of coral spawning in the reproduction of reefs. A better understanding of how, where and when, coral spawns may open up options for restoring health to devastated reefs: Understanding Coral Spawning Brings Hope For Endangered Reefs.
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 3-D Printing
Who would have thought? Obviously someone did, in fact a number of someones. What if we could print a 3-D “fake” coral reef, that would be less vulnerable to ocean warming and acidification? Maybe 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. Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Cousteau began a 3-D project in the waters off Bonaire, last January. (photo – 3D Printing Industry)
Update: Now the world’s largest 3-D printed coral reef has been installed 20 feet deep on the ocean floor in the Maldives. Constructed with hundreds of concrete forms cast from 3-D printed molds. Divers have already started to transplant fragments of live coral onto the artificial reef. See the full story: Largest 3D Printed Coral Reef in the Maldives.
The hope is that an artificial 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.
3-D printing was developed in the 1980’s and its applications have multiplied many-fold since then, making everything from human kidneys to auto parts. We have been creating artificial reefs out of sunken ships, old cars, and many other materials around the world for decades. It seems a natural that the two should come together.
The potential is great because the 3-D reef can be made virtually identical in structure to real reefs, offering all the hiding places that fish love and 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? (photo – globalfuturist.org)
Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
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