Coral Reefs are essential to millions of plant and animal species in our marine ecosystem. Over the past three decades, coral reefs in the western Atlantic and the Caribbean have been damaged by diseases, storms and coral predators as well as ocean warming, pollution and ocean acidification. Warm ocean temperatures have bleached out the coral and additional ecological decline has caused sea urchins and plant eating reef fish to vanish to be replaced by snails and worms that bore through coral skeletons. Reefs around the globe are being degraded by overfishing, pollution and coastal development. Many reefs are in decline with losses of up to 90 percent for some species. At the end of August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the listing of 20 new coral species as “threatened”.
Scientists have been working on this problem for years. Some researchers have developed extensive underwater coral nurseries off shore of the coast of Florida and the Caribbean. There threatened coral species are grown for seeding or replanting on decimated or damaged sections of the reefs. However, massive corals are slow to grow which has made it difficult to produce them in the quantities needed for reef restoration.
Dr. Dave Vaughan is a marine biologist and Executive Director of Mote Laboratory’s Tropical Research Lab on Summerland Key in the Florida Keys. A main focus of the research there is the study and restoration of Florida’s coral reef system. Vaughan with Christopher Page, a staff biologist, is excited about a quick grow technique they discovered called microfragmenting. They think it may make it possible to mass produce reef building corals for transplanting onto dead or dying reefs. Using this new technique Dr. Vaughan has grown different species of coral from 25 times up to 50 times faster than their normal rate.
In a recent article in the NY Times, Billy Causey, a coral expert who oversees all federal marine sanctuaries in the Southeastern United States, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that while there are other efforts around the world to grow new coral “this is easily the most promising restoration project that I am aware of.”
Inaction on coral decline is not an option. Reefs protect fragile coastlines by absorbing energy from waves during hurricanes, prevent erosion and property damage. Financially, the reefs are important to the multibillion dollar beach tourism and commercial fishing economy. While new techniques may slow the loss of corals until we address ocean warming, pollution and ocean acidification the problem will continue.