Bringing the coral reef back to health: The case of Kiribati, the island country where the corals are threatened by climate change
Stephen Palumbi is a scientist who is looking for what he calls “super reefs.” These are the areas of the ocean with unusual coral. The coral species are stressed when the ocean is warm. That leads to a phenomenon called coral bleaching, where these invertebrates begin to expel the algal communities that typically live harmoniously within them. The coral becomes white due to the result of this.
Foster says even if you transplant thousands of healthy corals onto damaged reefs, it won’t be enough. We need to deploy corals at a larger scale. Sounds like a job for machines.
Half a billion people worldwide depend on the corals for their food and water. And with climate change threatening coral’s survival, marine scientist Enric Sala had a goal that might have seemed impossible.
Sala said that they wanted to go back hundreds of years and see the coral reef that used to be there.
The goal was, in essence, made possible during an expedition that Sala led in 2009 with National Geographic Society. The team traveled to a corner of the South Pacific Ocean, to see if the vibrant and virtually untouched reefs there held any clues to bringing damaged reefs in other parts of the ocean back to health.
The reef had been filled with life and color even though it was reported to have been damaged. Sala and his team were elated. This resurrection is something that Sala says can be traced to two key factors.
His team presented their findings to officials in the island country of Kiribati. The Kiribati government took steps to protect the waters from fishing and other human activity, but between 2015 and 2016, record levels of ocean warming decimated half the coral reefs the team had been studying.
They lost hope in the health of coral reefs after hearing about the increase in temperature. But, the study continued, and last year, they went in for another dive. Sala, dreading what he was about to find, jumped in with no gear.
“It has an abundance of fish that is off the charts. In the Caribbean, they eat the algae that smothers the dead coral skeletons and make it impossible for the corals to come back, which is what happened in this case.
Sala said that if countries wanted a future for the fisheries, they need to manage their fisheries in a way that helps regenerate the rest of the ocean.
The Coral Maker skeleton: A dome-shaped plastic structure for production of coral fragments and other food scrapes in the Great Barrier Reef
In the Great Barrier Reef, for instance, coral growth has slowed in recent decades, partly because during heat waves the corals expel the tiny algae that live inside their tissues and provide them with nutrients, causing them to bleach. The loss of coral reefs is bad news for fish, crabs and other animals that rely on them to get shelter and food due to the risk of disease and starvation.
The first prototype of the Coral Maker skeleton is dome-shaped with six plugs where coral fragments can be placed. The skeleton design takes inspiration from nature: Many species such as brain corals grow in a dome shape, while branching or plate corals grow upward from a solid base. But there are also challenges with dome-shaped skeletons, says Foster. “They’re not as easy to manufacture as something with a flat surface, they’re not as easy to pack on a pallet, they’re not as easy to glue stuff on.” Foster is continuing to modify the design so that the machinery can produce 10,000 pieces per day for a few dollars. The process could then be replicated in other factories.