Next Generation Science Standards:
Key Vocabulary: ecosystems, population, scalability, coral, reefs, pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity, habitat, restoration, economy
Constructing Food Webs Activity
There’s no doubt about it, the world’s coral reefs are in serious danger. Increasing ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and pollution have devastated these beautiful underwater ecosystems. But Sam Teicher may have found a way to scale up restoring these beautiful underwater ecosystems.
Teicher is the co-founder of Coral Vita, a startup using revolutionary methods for restoring dying and damaged reefs. The initial lab results from their partners at the Mote Marine Laboratory have been extremely positive, accelerating coral growth up to 50 times faster than the natural rate, a game changer for reefs that take hundreds of years to grow. And together with research from the Gates Coral Lab, they’re working to strengthen the resiliency of corals to threats like warming and acidifying oceans. The team is starting its first full-scale commercial farming operations in the Bahamas this year, and if they can replicate their initial success, Coral Vita can potentially rebuild reefs across the planet.
Threats to the reefs
Teicher fell in love with coral reefs upon taking his first scuba diving trip when he was 13 years-old. “It was the most amazing sensation ever,” he says. “I felt like a was an astronaut visiting another planet, only I was right here on Earth.”
Much of what makes these reefs so beautiful is their biodiversity. While reefs comprise only 1% of the ocean floor, they are home to more than 25% of all marine life, providing a habitat for thousands of different species. Sharks, starfish, sea anemones, fish, corals, lobsters, clams, seahorses, sponges, and sea turtles find mates, lay eggs, mature, and find a home in the shelter of the reef. The coral are a symbiosis of a polyp, a tiny animal that looks like an upside-down jellyfish, and a single-celled algae called zooxanthellae. The algae provide food and oxygen for the polyp through photosynthesis and in return the polyp gives the algae carbon dioxide and a place to live. Each piece of coral is a colony of thousands of these pairs living together.
Even as Teicher was taking his first dips into reefs as a teenager, much of the coral was dying. After graduating college in 2012, Teicher lived in the tropical island nation of Mauritius. Even in this remote paradise, the reefs were seriously struggling. In some areas, less than 12% of the reefs were living, down from 60% just a decade earlier. “It’s nothing compared to the pictures and videos of healthy oceans in years past,” says Teicher.
A number of factors have contributed to the reefs dying, but one of the biggest has been a rise in ocean temperatures. As the level of carbon dioxide has increased in the atmosphere, temperatures have risen worldwide. This has increased the rate of photosynthesis performed by the algae that live with the coral (which is what gives corals their array of colors), producing more oxygen. While oxygen is vital to the polyps it is toxic in excess. In an act of self-preservation, polyps kick out the algae to keep from being poisoned by the extra oxygen. As a result, the corals not only lose their brilliant colors becoming bleached and white, but the polyps also lose an important food source, making them more susceptible to bioand starvation.
Ocean acidification is another threat that has devastated the reefs. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gets dissolved in the ocean water, creating carbonic acid. This lowers the pH of the water, making it harder for the coral to build their calcium carbonate homes.
This unprecedented amount of stress has led to over 30% of the world’s reefs dying over the last 30 years. Over 50% of the Great Barrier Reef died since 2016 from spikes in ocean temperature. Even remote reefs in places with little human activity are struggling. Some researchers project nearly 75% of all coral reefs will be gone by the year 2050, wiping out thousands of species that rely on them for their habitat.
Coral Vita’s Solution
Rather than live in a world without reefs, Teicher and the Coral Vita team have come up with a creative solution to potentially rebuild millions of acres of coral habitat. The unique process starts by collecting what Teicher describes as a “coral of opportunity,” a piece of living coral that may have been broken off by storms or a ship’s anchor. The harvested coral is placed in tanks filled with clean seawater in the team’s land-based farm.
The coral is then cut into tiny pieces, via a technique called microfragmenting, and placed in the tank with pieces of the same coral near each other. Corals have a natural process for healing, much like our own scar tissue, and as they heal they fuse together, growing up to 50 times faster than they would on their own. “Another way of thinking about it is like burning away your muscle as you work out to make it get bigger,” says Teicher. Depending on the species, it takes between 6-18 months for the coral to get mature and strong. Once ready, the team plants the coral back into the reef with underwater drills and a non-toxic glue to once again provide a home for the species that live there.
This process makes restoration cheaper and significantly increases the diversity of species that can be restored. Growing the coral on land also allows for large-scale restoration projects and lets the team control the growing conditions, such as temperature and acidity, to build resiliency and has shown to increase the coral’s ability to survive as ocean health deteriorates. And while most habitat restoration projects are run by nonprofits, Coral Vita’s commercial model allows for greater flexibility and larger scalability, an important factor when considering the number of reefs around the world that are endangered. “Tremendous credit is due to the countless pioneers of coral farming around the world, who continue to show reefs can rebound,” says Teicher. “We hope to work with them and reef-dependent communities to take reef restoration to the next level.”
A bright future for our reefs?
Protecting coral reefs is essential to preserving an important aspect of our natural world. But how would losing coral reefs impact humans? Reefs protect coastlines and buildings from the damaging effects of waves and tropical storms, acting as sea walls and absorbing an average of 97% of wave energy. They also provide a vital food source, especially for people in tropical nations. Up to 1 billion people around the world depend on reefs and they generate close to $30 billion annually, powering tourism and fisheries and protecting coastlines from erosion and storm surges. Looking at this value, Coral Vita creates new eco-tourism attractions at their coral farms while selling reef restoration services to the hotels, coastal re-insurance companies, fisheries associations, governments, and other stakeholders that depend on the benefits of coral reefs.
Reefs also interact with other ecosystems and regulate the carbon cycle in the ocean. If altered, there could be significant impacts on our climate. Without coral reefs, millions of people would lose their livelihoods, creating a massive refugee crisis, impacting nations well beyond the coast.
Teicher hopes to one day work with every country in the world that has reefs within their territory. “With our land-based farms, we can potentially grow enough corals from a single site to supply an entire country’s reefs with more diverse and resilient coral,” says Teicher. Coral Vita has its work cut out for them going forward. But Teicher and the rest of the team has plenty of passion for their work. And while the threats to the planets coral reefs remain, Coral Vita is a potential lifeline for these awe-inspiring ecosystems.