Some of the most abundant, biodiverse ecosystems on our planet are the rain forests of the sea: coral reefs. Sadly, our ocean rain forests are enduring the same crisis as our land rain forests: over 10 percent of coral reefs have now been destroyed beyond repair while most reefs have suffered a 50 percent coral loss in just three decades. This is tragic for our coral reefs not only provide food and resources for over 500 million people around the world, but they also provide sheltering homes for 25 percent of all marine organisms including about 4000 species of fish. Coral reefs contribute over $30 billion to the global economy each year by means of fishery and tourist industries along with the protection of coastlines. These colorful and magical ecosystems are now threatened by pollution, excessive and destructive fishing, diseases, warming oceans, mindless tourism, coastal development, acidification and hurricanes: all of which are prompting the need for new innovations for saving our coral reefs.
While many people mistakenly tend to think of coral as being a plant, they are animals called polyps that cohabitate and grow together in massive colonies. These tiny polyps feed on plankton, in particular an algae called “zooxanthellae”, with which they create a symbiotic relationship whereby the polyps provide a host home for the zooxanthellae that grants the coral polyps their magical colors. This algae nourishes and feeds the polyps; the polyps discharge nutrients for the algae’s photosynthesis needs; and the polyps use the organic components to synthesize the calcium carbonate by which to build their limestone skeleton homes: the wonder of coral reefs. This delicate exchange of survival nutrients is limited to warm, shallow tropical and subtropical ocean waters wherein changes in temperatures and salinity create the stress that causes the polyps to expel zooxanthellae, resulting in “coral bleaching”. The reef can survive this effect in the short-term, but longer durations cause the coral to die from starvation. Coral bleaching is amplified by global warming trends and an increase in hurricanes due to changing weather patterns like El Nino.
Further man made threats to the health of coral reefs are the result of increased over fishing that causes reef suffocation from an abundant growth of seaweed no longer being eaten by plenty of fish, and the subsequent decrease in oxygen. Oxygen depletion and loss of light for coral reefs is exacerbated by the pollution from coastal construction and fertilizer runoffs, oil spills, boating fuel leaks, toxic trash and even sunscreen chemicals from wastewater systems that finds its way to the sea. The increased emissions from fossil fuel industries is trapping CO2 in the oceans resulting in acidification that drastically stunts coral growth.
Clearly, mankind is going to have to change his ways with an increased awareness of our symbiotic relationship to ocean life if we expect to redeem all the many gifts we receive from coral reefs. Tiny coral polyps undergo quite a journey to find their future home, and once they do, it is their forever home. Our continual, mindless destruction of endangered coral reefs will undoubtedly come around to threaten our own forever home here on the Earth.
We can be thankful for those with the courage to care who are taking innovative steps to preserve the beautiful necessity for our coral reefs. One such innovation is the technological creation of 3D-printed reefs whereby artificial reefs are being submerged into tropical waters to replace damaged and dead reefs. While this is an attempt to provide new sheltering homes for fish species, it remains to be seen as to whether the coral polyps will take to these imitations as lasting forever homes. The lengthy evolutionary process for coral polyps requires a fragile balance with its oceanic environment for which an artificial substitute can never replace the real thing of a living coral reef. In lieu of a substitute for living coral is the hope for the adaptive resilience of coral to survive upon their current reef homes. Here in Florida, marine biologist David Vaughn is giving a little help to our coral friends by bringing them onto land where he encourages their repair and regeneration. His process, micro-fragmentation, involves splitting the coral into tiny pieces whereby they begin to regrow; and then merge with one another into larger sections for transplanting back into the ocean for regenerating their dead home. Vaughn is having far more success with this method than previous reef regeneration attempts done underwater, and boasts a 90 percent survival rate when the land-regenerated coral is returned home to the ocean. He affirms this success to the availability on land for monitored conditions that allow for breeding hardier coral. It is hoped that these new “super corals” will adapt to the changes in ocean temperatures, acidification, salinity, decreased oxygen and even pollution that threaten to leave a barren wasteland of coral skeletons across a once flourishing ocean teeming with color, beauty and life.