The prospect that by 2050 we may have lost all coral reefs is chilling. To lose the reefs would be to lose the planet’s most effervescent habitat – a place which makes even tropical jungles seem barren. Rick MacPherson from the Coral Reef Alliance described perfectly the huge amount of biodiversity on a reef in this quote – “you could walk for kilometres in a rainforest and see a thousand beetles and a hundred birds, but in one square metre of a reef, you could get every animal phylum ever known.” The question now is not whether things will get worse – because it undoubtedly will – but whether we will lose our reefs entirely. This final coral blog will look at the restoration, research and future of our beloved coral reef ecosystems.
Kāne‘ohe Bay was traditionally home to some of the highest numbers and greatest diversity of fish and corals in Hawaii, but over time these populations have plummeted. Invasive algae form thick, tangled mats that are destroying the bay and turning its reefs into a smothered wasteland. The Nature Conservancy developed an innovative approach to the problem: Super Suckers. True to their name, the Super Suckers are giant vacuum cleaners that hoover algae off the reef. For Kāne‘ohe Bay, the Super Suckers are a game changer. Amazingly, over 250,000 pounds of invasive algae have been removed from more than 20 acres of reef, allowing coral to begin to recover – hooray!
Coral frames, just like at our marine centre, are perhaps the most widely used restoration technique to increase coral cover and aid damaged reefs. Reefscapers, based in the atoll next to us, has over 5,000 frames and features over 40 thriving species of corals! Off the coast of Florida Keys, rows and rows of concrete blocks sit in what looks like a giant chess competition on the ocean floor. Atop each block sits a fragment of Acropora cervicornus – or staghorn coral. These corals have been grown to about the size of your thumb in a laboratory, here they are adapted to higher temperatures to help them survive the increasingly warm ocean waters.
Despite years of research, coral reefs are continuing to surprise us. After a failed experiment, Dr David Vaughan abandoned 2 or 3 tiny coral polyps (from the same big coral colony) at the base of his aquarium, assuming they would die. A week later he happened to glance at the polyps and noticed that they had not only lived — they had doubled in size. Think of our skin, it doesn’t grow very quickly, then when you fall and graze your knee the wound heals rapidly. When these corals were broken into tiny pieces, they grew rapidly to repair quickly. This isn’t the only thing he discovered – when close together, corals usually fight for space and food, but these little corals recognised the others as themselves and fused together. After just one to two years they were the size of a 50-year-old coral and started to reproduce, something that would have taken decades and decades in the wild. The eureka mistake provided a breakthrough in coral conservation.
The bad news is that coral restoration and research takes money, education, and expertise. In the end, the fate of coral reefs comes down to global warming. Even though corals are able to adapt, the speed in which temperatures are rising is too rapid. Restoration techniques are all just buying us time to slow the increase in sea surface temperatures. In the future, some of the species that are common today will disappear, but fingers crossed bigger and hardier varieties will survive the unhospitable conditions we are creating.
An article by Jess Kalisiak