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Simply dividing a single piece of coral the size of a golf ball into 25 or even 100 smaller fragments dramatically increases the speed of growth – up to 40 times the normal rate.

Saving Coral

9 October 18


A particular quirk of their biology: while most people think corals are plants (or even rocks), they are in fact animals.”

From the BBC: Fully 16 percent of the world’s tropical reefs died in 1998, and 2016 was worse. “The most shocking thing about watching this crisis unfold was having to hear people say again and again that if we just put big boundaries around the world’s reefs - enclosing them in national parks, marine protected areas and ‘no-take’ areas - they would be fine,” says Dr Ruth Gates, Director of the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology.

Well, 2016 taught us starkly that this isn’t true: that is the best managed reef in the world, and we lost a full third of it in one summer.

Is there any hope? Yes, says Dr. Gates, if we let go of outdated ideas about wildlife conservation and start to actively intervene. “We have to stop thinking that if we leave nature alone and treat it with the utmost respect that is sufficient. It’s not,” she says.

Not all hope is lost, she says: we just need to apply the science, ingenuity, manpower and – above all – money, while we still can.

Why are corals are so vulnerable?

A particular quirk of their biology: while most people think corals are plants (or even rocks), they are in fact animals. Not just animals, but clonal organisms that live in clusters of genetically identical units, called polyps. Adding to their complexity, those polyps live in symbiotic relationships with algae that reside in their tissues and photosynthesize sunlight like plants, functioning as tiny cellular batteries.

Human Assisted Evolution:

“We simply need to understand what makes some corals thrive, see if that can be applied to other species, and try to develop corals that are bred to be one step ahead of climate change – this is just harnessing basic biology,” says Dr. Gates. “We are simply accelerating what nature can already do.”

One of the most promising areas of research: cultivating strains of coral that are adapted to higher temperatures. At the simplest level this can be done by growing arrays of different species and strains in exceptionally warm tanks of water, identifying the ones that thrive, and then breeding those en masse to out-plant in the wild. “I’ve been surprised at how easy it has been,” says Dr Gates.

In 2015, she published a call-to-arms outline for how to breed such “thermally tolerant” corals in the journal PNAS, subsequently launching a five-year plan to aggressively pursue “human assisted evolution”, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Simple techniques can save corals right now:

There are shockingly simple techniques we can already use to help save coral reefs right now. Dr Gates points to the work of Dr David Vaughan of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida who has been working on a technique called “microfragmentation”.

Simply dividing a single piece of coral the size of a golf ball into 25 or even 100 smaller fragments dramatically increases the speed of growth – up to 40 times the normal rate, says Dr Vaughan.

The trick is to arrange those tiny pieces in a grid an inch or two apart – the distance they would grow during that period of accelerated growth. Because coral are clonal animals, microfragments will fuse together when their edges join, forming one single mass of coral.

PHYSICAL RESTORATION - WORKS NOW UNDERWAY:

Coral plantations, nurseries, metal coral “spiders”, low voltage electrical currents (“you can hear the reef come to life”), biorock structures . . .

READ ALL ABOUT THEM HERE

 - AUTHOR: ZOE CORMIER

 - SOURCE: BBC NEWS

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