The world’s coral reefs are in perilous danger due to overfishing, pollution and climate change. But a team of scuba-diving scientists has developed a groundbreaking method for speeding up coral growth in hopes of stemming the underwater crisis.
Dave Vaughan is Executive Director of the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Summerland Key, Florida. He is also the manager of the Coral Restoration program and manages the Protect Our Reef Grants program. Dr. Vaughan directed research and education programs previously at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution and the Oceanic Institute.
David Vaughan works on the Florida Reef Tract, the third largest coral reef in the world and a vastly important ecosystem for sustaining underwater life. He and a team of scientists are working to combat the crisis in the world’s coral reefs—that is, that human beings have lost 25 to 40 percentof the world’s corals in recent decades due largely to seawater temperature rise and continued acidification of the ocean.
Vaughan has developed a technique called “microfragmenting” that allows corals to grow more than 25 times faster than normal, which could rapidly restore the dwindling population of healthy coral reefs. The Atlantic went inside the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Summerland Key, Florida, where Vaughan is the executive director, to uncover how the process works and understand how much hope there is to reverse the damage caused by humans.
Source: theatlantic.com / a coral reef revival
For the past few years, he and Mr. Page have focused on “massive” corals, the species that create most of the structure on a living reef. These corals have proved less susceptible than other species to the effects of rising ocean temperatures, pollution and changes in water chemistry. But unlike fast-growing branching corals, massive species like brain, star, boulder and mounding corals naturally grow less than two inches a year — so slowly they are nicknamed “living rocks.”
Scientists and marine aquaculturists are successfully growing staghorn and other branching corals in offshore nurseries for replanting in the wild. But until now, the slow growth rate of massive corals has stymied all efforts to produce these species in sufficient quantities for reef restoration.
Dr. Vaughan stumbled upon the microfragmenting idea about 10 years ago. He was transferring colonies of elkhorn coral between aquariums in his lab. He reached to the bottom of a tank to retrieve a colony growing on a two-inch concrete puck.
“Part of the coral had grown over the back side and had attached to the bottom of the aquarium,” he said. When he grabbed it, “it broke off and left two or three polyps behind. I thought I just killed those. But oh, well, I moved the puck over.”
A week later he happened to glance at the abandoned polyps — the individual hydra-shaped, genetically identical organisms that make up a coral colony — on the bottom of the aquarium. “I noticed that those one to three polyps were now five to seven polyps,” he said. “They not only had lived — they had grown and had doubled in size.”
Will coddled corals survive in the wild?
Early tests have been encouraging. More than a year after they were transplanted to offshore test sites, 134 of 150 colonies grown from microfragments continue to flourish, Mr. Page said. Last year he planted eight fragments of brain coral on 18 dead coral “heads” — colonies of genetically identical polyps — each about two feet wide.
“They’re doing well,” he said. “They’re sheeting over the entire structure really nicely. In a year or maybe two from now, you will see one continuous colony that would have taken 15 to 30 years to grow” in the wild.
The goal, Dr. Vaughan said, is to create “in a very short period of time a reef like the reefs we remember” from decades ago. They plan to use their nursery-raised corals to restore other degraded reef sites throughout the Keys and train others to set up their own coral factories.
Time is running out. “This may be our last, best chance,” he said.