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How coral farms are helping restore reefs after destructive bleaching

On this week’s special episode of ‘World Changing Ideas’ for World Oceans Day, we’re talking to a ‘chief reef officer.’

How coral farms are helping restore reefs after destructive bleaching
[Photo: Harry Lee/courtesy Coral Vita]

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Climate change is devastating coral reefs. As ocean temperatures rise, coral bleaching is no longer a small-scale problem; numerous mass bleaching events have wiped out swathes of coral in recent years. The Great Barrier Reef alone has suffered six of these catastrophic events since 1998.

[Photo: Harry Lee/courtesy Coral Vita]
But there is some hope. On today’s episode of World Changing Ideas—a special World Ocean’s Day installment—we talk to the founders of one of the projects working to restore coral reefs and toughen them up to withstand the far-from-optimal conditions they might face in the coming years. It’s also the first time we’ve had a “chief reef officer” on the show.

Coral Vita restores coral—on land. That may sound counterintuitive, but the organization restores the coral inside a large collection of water tanks, currently on the island of Grand Bahama. The coral will eventually be released into the wild, and attached back to the reefs.

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Sam Teicher [Photo: Harry Lee/courtesy Coral Vita]
On the podcast, Sam Teicher, Coral Vita’s chief reef officer, explains how it works: they gather fragments of coral, like cuttings from a flower, which may have shed and begun floating along the seabed. “If they don’t attach, maybe they get buried by sand, [and] they could die,” he says. “We call those fragments of opportunity.” They cut those into one-inch micro-fragments, and restore them to health in the tanks.

[Photo: Harry Lee/courtesy Coral Vita]
They’re also preparing them for potentially hard lives back in the sea. “We can give corals the spa treatment—or we can take them to the gym,” Teicher says. In what they call assisted evolution, they create harsher artificial conditions in the tank that will “stress-harden” the coral and allow them to bear the effects of climate change.

[Photo: Harry Lee/courtesy Coral Vita]
That’s important because things are bad down in the deep blue. Coral reefs are the beating heart of many ocean ecosystems, on which fish rely for food. But bleaching is stripping coral of its microalgae, reducing it to its “limestone skeleton,” which also eliminates the food for fish. That problem goes up the food chain, erasing nutrition for the creatures that eat the fish, including humans.

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[Photo: Harry Lee/courtesy Coral Vita]
Restoring coral should help. “We can now grow corals to the size of dinner plates or basketballs,” Teicher says. “That, in nature, might take decades or centuries. We can now grow them in months and years.” They will then return them to the ocean reefs, attaching them back with a nontoxic glue, and hopefully see the reefs come back to life. They’ll continuously monitor them to assess changes in fish life, abundance, and diversity.

On the podcast, Teicher talks more about how Coral Vita works with companies that are investing in protecting local reefs, and how the work aims to involve the local community. Ultimately, he says, it’s all about messaging, in making sure people and businesses care and take action. If they’re not so bothered by the environmental issues, they might be by the economic effects; about a half a billion people’s livelihoods depend on the coral reefs, which generate $2.7 trillion a year through tourism, fisheries, and other industries.

“In many ways the loss of coral reefs is infuriating,” Teicher says. “But it also should be really scary for humanity, because we depend on these healthy ecosystems so much more than we realize.”

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You can listen and subscribe to World Changing Ideas on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to more accurately characterize how the group collects and monitors the coral.

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