Danny DeMartini, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Kuleana Coral Restoration, a nonprofit organization in Hawaii, said multiple stressors are overburdening corals. “There’s an ecological equilibrium where coral growth rates can withstand some amount of natural pressure from waves, storms, some runoff,” he said. But, he added, the accumulation of human-generated environmental stressors — including pollution, changes in sedimentation from development, increasing ocean temperatures due to global warming, and destruction caused by trampling and anchoring on the reef — has disrupted the balance. “It’s becoming harder for coral growth to keep up.
As the ocean continues to absorb carbon dioxide from emissions caused by human activities, “CO2 is binding with carbonate ions, making them unavailable for corals to build their skeleton,” said Evelyne Chavent, a marine biologist and head of reef restoration at Coral Gardeners. “The corals become more fragile, prone to disease and unable to endure warming, cyclones or other disturbances. That’s why we need to reduce our carbon footprint and help stabilize and restore the reef before it’s too late.”
Coral Gardeners grows resilient “super” corals in its underwater nurseries, then outplants and monitors them to help restore declining reefs in French Polynesia and contribute to global education and research.
Projects in other tropical destinations also aim to protect, monitor and restore reefs while inspiring stewardship. And some are getting visitors involved. Travelers to Bermuda, for example, can work with Living Reefs Foundation to plant or clean the corals in its underwater “garden,” while divers traveling to Koh Tao, Thailand, can participate in hands-on marine conservation courses with the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program. In Australia’s Tropical North Queensland, tourists can help with research and monitoring of the Great Barrier Reef through the Eye on the Reef program.
Although the coronavirus pandemic forced many industries to press pause, it had the opposite effect on some coral restoration efforts. “It gave us an opportunity,” DeMartini said. He and the team went to work in the water, collecting coral colonies that have broken off and, after doing a health assessment, reattaching them to the reef. They’ve replanted 200 colonies with diameters of one to two feet, and they plan to reattach 1,000 to 2,000 more in the coming year. In Hawaii, where corals grow at a slower pace, DeMartini said it would take 30 to 50 years to grow a coral colony of the same size; direct restoration has an immediate effect.
The reef at popular Hanauma Bay on Oahu also benefited from the pandemic pause when Hawaii closed the nature preserve for eight months. Friends of Hanauma BayPresident Lisa Bishop said that, in just a couple of months, it showed signs of regeneration. With no snorkelers kicking up sand or leaching sunscreen into the water, clarity improved by 56 percent, and, Bishop said, they started seeing coral recruitment (the process of coral larvae settlement, crucial for growth and recovery) on the inner reef.
Seizing the moment in this rare tourism intermission, Friends of Hanauma Bay proposed a coral restoration pilot project in July 2020. The Board of Land and Natural Resources approved it in September, and in October, corals — grown at the Hawaii Coral Restoration Nursery — were outplanted in Hanauma Bay, inspiring a private foundation to provide funding for endemic corals to be outplanted in the bay to restore corals destroyed by marine debris. “Collaboration is the gateway to achievement,” Bishop said.
Hanauma Bay reopened in December with coronavirus-related restrictions: reduced hours of operation, reduced capacity (720 visitors per day compared with 3,000 to 6,000 per day pre-pandemic), an increased entrance fee for nonresidents and a reservations system. Although the state made these changes to protect human health, Bishop said continuing them beyond the pandemic would help protect the reef and improve the visitor experience, too.
In the Maldives, Reefscapers, a team of consultants and marine biologists that partners with hotels on reef restoration projects, was able to salvage 5,000 branching colonies and 2,500 massive colonies from Gulhi Falhu in the South Malé Atoll that would have otherwise been destroyed by development. During the summer of 2020, Reefscapers relocated the colonies to the lagoon and dive-center area near the Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort on Furanafushi Island. According to Thomas Le Berre, a coastal oceanographer and co-founder of Reefscapers, this was no small task at a time when the pandemic had sent many international biologists away and restrictions prevented the team from going ashore on Furanafushi Island. The replanted corals have already attracted marine life to the lagoon, and guests at the hotel can sign up for workshops and snorkeling tours led by a Reefscapers marine biologist.
Since the start of the pandemic in French Polynesia, Coral Gardeners placed more than 5,000 super coral fragments in its nurseries and transplanted 755 super corals onto the reef, grew its team and partnered with Silicon Valley engineer Drew Gray to develop the first ReefOS.
One of the challenges of reef restoration projects scattered around the world is a lack of cohesiveness. ReefOS, if scaled globally, has the potential to change that. According to Gray, this technology uses an artificial intelligence computer vision model and in-situ physical and chemical sensing — underwater cameras and sensors monitored by the team. “Our technology is providing an in-depth look at the biodiversity of the reef ecosystem at a level of detail that’s impossible for a human to accomplish. It’s like having a marine scientist watching the reef at every second of the day.”
And ReefOS will help Coral Gardeners achieve another goal: “We exist to revolutionize ocean conservation and generate collaborative action worldwide to save the reef,” founder Bernicot said. Coral Gardeners will collect data to share with the larger conservation community, and “with the live stream launching in October, we’ll essentially be able to connect the world to the corals growing in front of my house, and create immersive experiences for our [global] community.”