A short drive outside the city of Freeport in the Bahamas, next to a wide canal that leads directly to beaches, the world’s first land-based commercial coral farm will soon begin construction. Inside tanks, the startup Coral Vita plans to grow coral faster than it grows in the ocean, and then begin rebuilding struggling reefs in the area.
To date, coral restoration–the process of installing healthy corals to revive degraded reefs–has happened at a small scale, primarily with nonprofits and academic research institutes. The new farm, which will work closely with those organizations, is an experiment in a new approach that could be replicated globally. “The traditional grant-funded, small-scale model, while it’s doing amazing work around the world in localized settings, isn’t scalable for the threat of 90% of reefs dead by 2050,” says Sam Teicher, who cofounded the company with fellow Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies graduate Gator Halpern.
At the new farm, a team will use a technique called micro-fragmenting–essentially, splitting coral into tiny pieces, which makes it grow as much as 50 times faster than it would on its own in the ocean. The farm will be filled with open-air tanks the size of dinner tables, each growing native species of coral. Two retrofitted 40-foot shipping containers, welded together, will form an R&D lab that can double as storm protection for the outdoor tanks in the event of a hurricane.
The farm can help the tiny corals prepare for warming oceans by manipulating the water–one form of assisted evolution. “Within our tanks, we can crank up the heat and crank up the acidity levels to mimic what ocean projections are supposed to be here in the Bahamas in 2050 or 2100,” says Halpern. “That process stresses the corals out, and then we cool them back down and bring them back to full health, then stress them out and cool them down. That process has been shown to be able to build tolerance within these individual corals so that they get more resilient against those ocean conditions.” The team can also identify genotypes of coral that are particularly hardy in warmer water, and use that coral to seed the next batch that it grows.
In traditional ocean-based coral nurseries, coral farmers grow fragments of coral in an underwater garden, and then trained divers install the coral at degraded reefs. Farming underwater is challenging, as divers have to spend hours underwater maintaining the coral. Working in the ocean risks threats like boats crashing into the coral, or storms; hurricanes destroyed many ocean-based coral nurseries in 2017. By running a coral nursery on land, rather than the ocean, Coral Vita’s process can scale up more easily. It also doesn’t have to happen directly next to the reef that will be restored.
“If we have enough real estate, this lets us continually add tanks so that we have the potential to grow millions of corals from a single site, and supply reefs throughout entire coastline, region, or country from that one farm, rather than having to establish individual ocean-based farms,” says Teicher. The first farm will grow thousands of a handful of key local species of coral, but a large-scale farm could potentially grow the entire range of species present in a particular reef area. Though the number of corals needed to restore a reef varies–it might be completely dead, or only partially degraded–those millions of corals could potentially be used to fully restore reefs along miles of coastline.
The startup has two main revenue streams. The farm is designed as a tourist attraction–the first location, in Grand Bahama, is easily accessible to American travelers and near other tourist sites. Visitors can pay to be part of an adopt-a-coral program. But funding will also come from resorts and other property owners that want to preserve reefs near their properties. In the Bahamas, the Grand Bahama Port Authority, an organization that manages development on the island, partnered with the startup because it saw the benefits for protecting the local tourism and fishing industries. Some real estate development corporations want to support reef restoration because they recognize that healthy reefs boost property values. The insurance industry, recognizing that reefs protect property on coastlines from storm surges, also has an interest in restoration.
After breaking ground on the new farm within the next few weeks, Coral Vita will grow its first batch of coral for six months to a year before it begins planting them in a local reef. Planting at a large scale is another large challenge. At an upcoming X Prize summit, Coral Vita will pitch the idea of a challenge designed to look for new solutions for “outplanting” coral, such as robots that could replace the need for divers working by hand.
Over the next 18 to 24 months, Coral Vita will be raising a series A round of financing to begin rolling out large-scale, land-based coral farms, ultimately aiming to put them in nearly 100 countries. It’s necessary to act quickly, the startup says. A quarter of all marine species depend on coral reefs to survive, including fish that are a critical source of food for humans. Over the last three decades, the world has lost nearly half of its coral reefs. By 2050, without major intervention, we could lose 90%.
“We only have a very narrow window to figure this out,” says Teicher.