When a new farm opens in the Dominican Republic next year, it will grow coral, not vegetables. Using recently developed techniques, a startup plans to grow pieces of coral as much as 50 times faster than it can grow in the ocean—and then use it to help rebuild coral reefs.
The startup, Coral Vita, will use a method called “micro-fragmenting” that splits coral into tiny pieces, spurring it to grow to repair itself. By placing the pieces of coral near one another, they can merge together, quickly forming a larger section.
“It basically translates into growing coral in months, not decades,” says Sam Teicher, who co-founded the company with fellow Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies graduate Gator Halpern. David Vaughan, a researcher who previously developed the technique at the Mote Marine Laboratory, serves as an advisor for the new company.
It’s an attempt to help stem the rapid death of reefs around the world, driven by problems such as warming water, acidification, and overfishing of species that benefit the coral. 93% of the Great Barrier Reef is damaged. The longest mass bleaching event on record has now reached reefs in at least 38 countries. By midcentury, an estimated 75% of coral reefs will be gone.
Researchers and nonprofits have tried coral farming in the past, but in the ocean, at a smaller scale. Ocean coral farms work with a limited number of species, and can’t easily cover the massive area of reefs that need help.
“To scale the current ocean-based farming model to restore all the Dominican Republic’s reefs, you would need to set up nurseries for literally hundreds of miles of coastline,” says Gator Halpern.
With a land-based coral farm, it’s possible to grow enough coral to supply an entire country. It’s also possible to control conditions to help breed coral that are better adapted for changing oceans.
“Within a tank where we have a few hundred coral, we can adjust the condition in the water, making it warmer and more acidic to mimic what ocean conditions will be like in 10, 15, 20 years, and we can see which individual coral actually fare best within those situations,” he says.
The hardiest coral can then be bred together to produce the next batch, so each set of transplants has the best chance of survival. Ruth Gates, a pioneer in helping enhance coral resilience to climate change, also serves as an advisor to the startup.
“What we’re doing is using land-based coral farms to scale up reef restoration, in order to take this process, apply it commercially, and really make a massive ecological impact that to date hasn’t really been achieved,” says Teicher.
The startup hopes to eventually build large farms in every country with coral reefs, beginning with those that are already making attempts at protection–where the newly planted coral is most likely to survive.
The first pilot, in the Dominican Republic, will sit on the beach in a small area–roughly 90 by 90 feet–with several tanks that use pumped ocean water, and shade to keep the corals cool. In a year, the pilot farm will be able to grow several thousands of corals.
It will be next to a resort, and that’s by design. Beyond their ecological importance, reefs are an important part of the global economy; tourism is a piece of that. “Conservatively, reefs generate around $30 billion annually through tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection,” says Teicher.
As part of the resort, the farm will serve as a tourist attraction itself, inviting visitors to both learn about the reefs and try planting coral themselves. It will also serve as an educational center for local fishermen and students.
After the pilot is proven, the company hopes to quickly scale up. Full-size farms, which may cover an acre or more, will be able to grow hundreds of thousands of corals. Because corals can’t legally cross international borders and be put back in the ocean–and because the company is taking care to respect local ecologies–each country will have its own farm. Nearly 100 countries have coral reefs.
They expect to have a variety of customers: governments, international development agencies, nonprofits, resorts, and even the reinsurance industry (coral reefs can help prevent flooding of coastal property).
On its own, the project can’t single-handedly save coral reefs, but the startup believes it can play an important role. “You can’t be entrepreneurs without being optimists,” says Teicher, while acknowledging the scale of the challenge.
“If you give oceans the chance to recover, they’re pretty resilient,” he says. “We feel that by bringing this adaptation piece into the equation—by really making reef restoration a financially and ecologically viable tool—together with better management practices and mitigation policies, that we really can help preserve reefs for the future.”