17 clever ways scientists are trying to protect coral

Manipulating clouds to protect corals from bleaching

Scientists are currently exploring the possibility of making the clouds above the Great Barrier Reef larger and brighter in the hope that this will save it from further coral bleaching.

Researchers at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and the University of Sydney's School of Geosciences believe that by manipulating low lying clouds over the reef to be more reflective, it will have a chance to cool the affected waters a few degrees, a critical option during any potential future El Niño climate warming occurrences.

Though this strand of research is still in early days, a number of groups are studying cloud brightening as a potential option for altering the climate as a whole. Originally presented by British scientist John Latham almost 30 years ago, the idea is that fleets of boats could spray minuscule particles of salt that have been generated from sea water into the lower lying clouds, inducing them to expand and become denser. These thicker white clouds should then be able to reflect more of the incoming heat back out into space and away from the Earth's surface. Lathem led a study in 2012 at the University of Manchester, which found that this approach could offset the resulting heat from a double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Experts the world over are working hard to find a solution to the grim situation in the Great Barrier Reef, which is still continuing to die off since last year's extreme bout of coral bleaching. It is thought that up to half of the reef may have died, with the number of live corals falling 30% since last year.

Coral nurseries at hotels and resorts

More and more hotels are getting involved with ocean conservation and some of the best luxury nature and eco resorts are home to coral nurseries.

Among them is the Jean-Míchel Cousteau Resort in Fiji. Resident marine biologist Johnny Singh (pictured) started creating the on-site coral farm in May 2013 using fragments of coral colonies naturally broken off due to storms and extreme weather. Those that are swept away and land on the sandy ocean floor rarely survive, so Singh works hard to recover pieces that have been knocked off — specifically targeting corals of the Acropora genus as these grow more quickly than others.

Coco Bodu Hithi in the Maldives also has a coral nursery project, first implemented by resident marine biologist Chiara Fumagalli in 2012. Using scrap metal, her team assemble star-like structures that are lowered to the seabed. They attach broken corals found during snorkelling trips to the frames using cable ties, which are removed as soon as the corals have properly flourished into seemingly natural coral formations — of which there are now 18.

picture: Jean-Míchel Cousteau Resort

Using 3D printing to create new coral reefs

Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, ocean conservationist Fabien Cousteau has been working with 3D printing to create, expand and restore coral reefs in a partnership with the Caribbean island resort of Harbour Village Bonaire.

Speaking to Boat International, Cousteau explained his choice of location: “The advantage Bonaire has is that it has a semblance of a healthy reef because of the protective measures that the government of Bonaire has installed decades ago.”

Made from calcium carbonate, these artificial reefs will closely mimic the shape, texture and chemical makeup of natural coral, with the aim of attracting free-floating polyps to take root and grow into new reefs.

“I think that we need to see this as one of many tools in the quiver in combating things like coral bleaching and acidification issues that are degrading our coral reefs in greater and at faster levels,” he added. “In our projects I hope that we’re able to print a billion coral structures in the long term.”

Similar trials have already begun in Monaco and the Persian Gulf and whilst it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions, the short-term data is encouraging.

Earlier this year, Fabien launched the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center, which will focus on raising awareness, creating educational material and running restoration programs for sea turtles and coral reefs.

Fabien is the grandson of underwater documentarian Jacques Cousteau, one of the most famous sea explorers who changed the world.

pictures: Fabien Cousteau OLC/Instagram (left), Fabien Cousteau OLC/Facebook (top right) / Fabien Cousteau (bottom right)

Using breeze blocks to create new reefs

Breeze block pyramids are being placed on the seabed to encourage reef life to refuge on the surfaces as part of a breakthrough programme being carried out by the privately funded Dive Grenada.

It's one of the best ocean conservation stories this year — each structure is approximately two metres tall and weighs around half a tonne, but the Grand Anse Reef Regeneration Project team has devised a way to transport the towers out by boat to the chosen drop site. As well as creating new ecosystems, these areas of breeze block reefs can be used for training new divers so that natural reefs aren’t damaged.

Dive Grenada is prolific for its marine conservation efforts, and started sinking its breezeblock pyramids into the sea in 2013, with impressive results ever since. It is working in collaboration with the Fisheries Division of Grenada on the island’s first purpose-built artificial reef and the company dedicates its time and money to the Grand Anse Reef Regeneration Project. Its efforts make Grenada one of a few exciting destinations for research and conservation.

pictures: Grenada Grand Anse Reef Regeneration Project/Facebook

Videoing coral to capture bleaching on film

Scientists from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane have managed to capture footage of coral bleaching.

Bleaching is caused by abnormal environmental conditions, such as a rise in sea temperatures, which leads to coral expelling living algae causing it to calcify. There has been mass bleaching across the world this year, parts of the Barrier Reef have experienced the worst bleaching on record.

Researchers managed to capture the footage by placing solitary corals, Heliofungia actiniformis, into controlled 10-litre aquaria and then heating up the water. It is hoped that the footage will allow scientists to better understand the phenomenon.

“What’s really interesting is just how quickly and violently the coral forcefully evicted its resident symbionts," said the QUT’s Mr Lewis. “The H. actiniformis began ejecting the symbionts within the first two hours of us raising the water temperature of the system.”

The scientists have already used the time-lapse photography to capture other coal behaviours, including how they eat and how they fight over limited space.

picture: Shutterstock

By studying coral “bright spots” to learn from them

Scientists have discovered a series of “bright spots” where coral reefs are flourishing against the odds. It is hoped that these 15 spots, where ecosystems are in a much better shape than researchers had predicted they would be, could hold the key as to how to better protect corals around the world.

Researchers studied more than 6,000 reef surveys in 46 countries, making it one of the largest studies of its kind. The bright spots were mainly found in the Pacific Ocean in places such as the Solomon Islands, parts of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the island republic of Kiribati.

The report said: “Bright spots are characterised by strong sociocultural institutions such as customary taboos and marine tenure, high levels of local engagement in management, high dependence on marine resources, and beneficial environmental conditions such as deep-water refuges.”

The “bright spots” refer to areas that are not necessarily pristine but have more fish than they should given the pressures they are under.

“We wanted to know why these reefs could ‘punch above their weight’ so to speak, and whether there are lessons we can learn about how to avoid the degradation often associated with overfishing,” added lead scientist professor Josh Cinner.

picture: Shutterstock

Monitoring coral health from satellites in orbit

Strange as it may sound scientists are working on techniques using satellites in space to help monitor the health of coral on earth.

The European Space Agency (ESA) sponsored a project, called Sen2Coral, which used the EU's new Sentinel-2a satellite to monitor a region in French Polynesia between February and April.

The satellite is able to look into the water columns and detect changes in sea-bottom radiance. In the case of the study in French Polynesia a change was detected and an on-the-ground field team was sent in and confirmed that the coral was stressed due to high sea temperatures.

At the moment the correlation has not been validated but in the future it could be possible to use the satellite to automate the detection of change in reefs.

picture: Shutterstock

Using social media to help record coral damage

Scientists in the Philippines are hoping that social media might help in the fight to save the region's coral reefs. The Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch has relaunched its online reporting platform, which encourages everyone to get involved in updating scientists and the government on the state of reefs.

Scientists are asking everyone who swims or dives near reefs to report any coral bleaching they spot via their Facebook page. The hope is that the data can then be used to understand the extent of the damage.

“Engaging with an informed citizenry, scientists, together with coastal communities, can be engaged in monitoring the entire Philippines,” said leading coral scientist Dr Porfirio Aliño. “We are relying on bridging science to responsible citizens to submit reports of bleaching or assessment reports through photos of panoramic views of healthy reefs in their areas."

As well as using its Facebook page to help record damage the Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch is also using it to help educate people on the dangers of global warming and how to spot distressed coral.

picture: Shutterstock

Rearing endangered coral species in laboratories to replant in reefs

Scientists in the Caribbean have managed to get coral grown in a laboratory to reproduce in the wild for the first time.

A study published in the journal Bulletin of Marine Science has revealed how the method was successfully used with Elkhorn coral around the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

The coral was grown in a laboratory from cell samples collected by conservation group Secore International in 2011 and then replanted in to the reef a year later. The coral has now grown to the "size of a soccer ball" and has reproduced at the same time as neighbouring naturally grown coral.

Valérie Chamberland, a coral reef ecologist, said: "This event marks the first ever successful rearing of a threatened Caribbean coral species to its reproductive age."

It is hoped that this pioneering technique could be used on other endangered reefs but it is limited to small areas where the coral will be able to survive.

picture: AdobeStock

NASA analysing the world’s coral reefs

Space organisation NASA has stepped in to try and protect the world’s coral and is organising a three-year field expedition to survey endangered reefs. The COral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL) will measure the reefs and create a database so that changes can be monitored.

The new research will see the condition of reef systems in Florida, Hawaii, Palau, the Mariana Islands and Australia recorded using advanced instruments on airplanes and in the water.

"Right now, the state of the art for collecting coral reef data is scuba diving with a tape measure," said Eric Hochberg, CORAL principal investigator and scientist at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science. "It's analogous to looking at a few trees and then trying to say what the forest is doing."

It is hoped that the new data will allow scientists to create a quantitative model that will show why and how reefs are changing because of environmental conditions. However, the large-scale project will cover less than 4% of the world’s coral reefs.

"Ideally, in a decade or so we'll have a satellite that can frequently and accurately observe all of the world's reefs, and we can push the science and most importantly our understanding even further," added Hochberg.

picture: Chumash Maxim

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