Future relief for coral reefs: currents, calcification and cooperation


Credit: Wolf Hilbertz via Wikimedia Commons

Last year, the previous US administration increased the size of the Papahanamokuakea National Marine Monument in the Pacific Ocean by 442,578 miles, encompassing some of the most durable natural coral reefs in the world. Meanwhile, the long-awaited Pixar sequel Finding Dory became the highest grossing animated film of the year, with Ellen DeGeneres lending her voice beyond the title character to voice support for the “Remember The Reef” campaign. One may have assumed that the political and public consciousness would be focused for another year on protecting the habitat of an estimated quarter of marine life. Then the numbers came in.

By mid-June, coral bleaching was reportedly the most widespread and prolonged of all time. Specialists observing this phenomenon tracked the desolating effect of warming ocean currents. Unfortunately, these events coincided with arguably the most significant constitutional and political changes in recent years. The news cycle was busy; nations across the world remained divided along the ideological lines brought forth by the shifting politics of world powers, and the issues of fishing rights and nautical jurisdiction left the fate of the South China Sea coral reefs overlooked.

The insurmountable problems faced today made the future of reefs seem uncertain, especially since coral is slow to establish and thrives only within very narrow environmental ranges. There is hope for corals, however, and this hope lies in the very mechanism that reef-building corals use to grow. Coral polyps accrue minerals dissolved in the water to slowly generate refuge in the form of a calcium carbonate skeleton in which they sit. Corals also thrive in colourful, harmonious symbiosis with Zooxanthellae, an alga that supplies the coral with the vital products of photosynthesis and aid waste removal. During periods of physiological stress, it is common for these photosynthetic organisms to be expelled from the coral. This results in a loss of the plethora of vivid colour associated with coral reefs, leaving behind white calcareous skeletons – hence the term ‘bleaching’.

In light of this, the importance of the ongoing work of the late Prof. Wolf Hilbertz and his partner, Dr. Thomas Goreau, cannot be overstated. Hilbertz and Goreau established the non-profit Global Coral Reef Alliance (GCRA) by developing and patenting the process of applying safe electrical currents in water to calcify pre-made structures, termed “mineral accretion”, in order to accommodate coral colonies. Their work centres on cooperation with local reef-reliant communities to aid the establishment, recovery and maintenance of vulnerable coral reefs. Volunteers from tourist offices, local businesses, and diving companies are trained in the construction, monitoring and repair of the GCRA-designed self-charged scaffolds and are essential for the project. In order to replace over-fishing practices, local communities are also urged to become pioneers of sustainable sea farming with the protection of the reef at the core of this lifestyle. With the mineral accretion process, or “Biorock” as it was later coined, corals have been shown to grow and recover faster, and live within much wider environmental ranges.

Unfortunately, due to the cost of such programmes and the lack of political interest in funding them, the current structures in place are only prototypical and display the potential for greater development. Recent research has made some progress towards accelerating coral growth in microcolony fusion – a process involving the fragmentation of coral, subsequent placement upon an artificial matrix/substrate, then observing a genetic self-recognition and joining process named isogenic fusion, resulting in accelerated spread. However, Australia and the US are fast becoming a losing battleground for saving coral reefs. The US EPA is under serious threat of dissolution and, in Australia, approved dredging may spell the end of the Great Barrier Reef. The solutions to these issues may not be as simple as those found in Disney’s Moana, but the cause can only be aided by the impact of these films, however dramatized, and by making younger generations more aware of the obstacles faced by organisations such as the GCRA.

This article was written by Jack Kellard and edited by Teodora Aldea.

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