Scientists in action to save coral reefs

Scientists in action to save coral reefs

The significance of coral reefs to the earth goes far beyond providing fascinating underwater scenery. They can slow the impact of hurricanes on the coastline, bring fisheries and tourism to about 500 million people, and bring hope to the development of anti-cancer and other drugs.

Although the existence of coral reefs is of great significance to mankind, a series of phenomena such as rising water temperature, ocean pollution, ocean acidification, overfishing, and physical destruction have caused deadly threats to coral reefs around the world.

Fortunately, scientists have found diverse and innovative coral reef rescue plans. Recently, scientists released data showing that the correct division of marine protected areas is conducive to the protection of coral reefs.

Genetics is also becoming a large area of coral research, and many scientists hope that heat-resistant corals can be used to help restore coral reefs in the future.

But now, scientists believe that these strategies are symptomatic rather than permanent. All they can do is buy more time for the survival of corals before launching a large number of effective measures against climate change around the world.

Anne Cohen, an expert at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, said that if we do not combine long-term emissions reductions with short-term innovative coral conservation measures, the coral reefs we know may not be restored or may exist.

In Fiji, more than 3,800 square miles of coral are facing threats from climate change, over fishing and marine pollution
Coral are facing threats from climate change, over-fishing, and marine pollution
(Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro)

Establish marine protected areas

One of the scientists’ ideas is to create more marine protected areas-essentially underwater national parks. Scientists believe that the marine reserve is equivalent to a “shelter”.

The prohibition of fishing, mining, and engineering construction in this area can make coral reefs healthier and have stronger self-repair capabilities.

Nice coral reef found in the Chuck Lagoon of the Federated States of Micronesia
Photo credit: Marek Okon

The prohibition of fishing, mining, and engineering construction in this area can make coral reefs healthier and have stronger self-repair capabilities.

It is estimated that about 25% of marine organisms, including 4000 species of fish, depend on coral reefs to survive more or less in their lives. Fish can protect the algae that grow on coral reefs, thereby promoting coral respiration and contact with sunlight.

Although marine reserves cannot protect corals from heat waves, healthy coral reefs can promote the “growth” of fish stocks and benefit fishermen for a long time, thereby ensuring the sustainable development of fisheries in these nature reserves.

Coral reef fish species
Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro

In a lecture hosted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the famous marine biologist Sylvia Earle proposed the idea of ​​building an underwater national park to protect corals. She and her team, Mission Blue have already started implementation.

She said: “Those coral reefs that are protected and that have not been affected by the fishery, but none of the coral reefs around them survived.”

Coral reef assesment

Distribution map of some marine protected areas in Coral triangle
Map of some marine protected areas (Coral triangle)

Recently, an assessment of 1,800 coral reefs in 41 countries and regions found that only 5% of coral reefs have complete by-product value, such as providing healthy fish stocks and enhancing biodiversity.

Experts say that to increase this percentage, new marine protected areas must be gradually established in places far away from human activities.

Alan Friedlander, a chief scientist of the National Geographic’s Pristine Seas initiative and ecologist at the University of Hawaii, said that although this will not save all Coral reefs, it can at least ensure that more coral reefs reach 100% of their potential, not just a small part.

He said: “Without such protection, any technological improvement will suffer the same fate as natural coral reefs because the destructive power of the outside world has not been reduced.”

Identify the “heat-resistant gene” in the coral

Brain coral in Marigot Bay, Saint Lucia
Brain coral (Photo credit: Daniel Öberg)

In addition to establishing nature reserves, some environmentalists are also seeking more “manual conservation” measures to save corals. A research center in the Florida peninsula is exploring a way to conserve corals through “natural selection.”

The coral reef system off the coast of Florida has been severely hit by climate change and disease. This has a great impact on the local area, because Florida coral reefs support a fishing industry worth about $100 million per year.

In addition to the aforementioned blows, corals along the coast of Florida are also threatened by agriculture and sewage pollution, which makes the already fragile reef system more difficult to survive.

Comparison of impacts on coral polyps

To maintain the vitality of the wild ecosystem, Muller and her team are collecting samples of corals that survive the stress of the natural environment, reproducing them by hand, and then re-attaching them to the coral reef.

At any time, 46,000 corals grow in underwater plastic trellis in the breeding hotbed of the center. So far, the center has reproduced more than 70,000 corals from 5 different species on damaged coral reefs.

In the Bahamas, Ross Cunning, a researcher at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, works on corals with “robust” genes that are the best natural candidates for restoration projects.

He recently published a study on two coral reefs in the Bahamas, one of which seemed to survive the intense heatwave of 2015, while the other did not.

Canning said: “This laid the foundation for the identification of “heat-resistant genes.” He hopes that finding such genes will help scientists one day cultivate more heat-resistant corals.

Two key elements that protect corals

In Massachusetts, Cohen’s research discovered two key elements that protect corals. The first is the internal waves under the ocean surface.

These waves bring cold currents into corals affected by high temperatures, which can cool them down when they are exposed to high temperatures. The second is adaptability, which is a characteristic found in corals in Palau’s warm lagoon.

Chicago coral Shedd Aquarium
Chicago Shedd Aquarium

She said: “We found that these corals have always lived in hotter water.” Usually, the water in these lagoons surrounded the corals whose temperature is two degrees Celsius higher than the outside.

“We think they have genes that adapt to slightly higher temperatures, which makes them capable of fighting the threat of heatwaves.”

She also found evidence that corals have accelerated their evolution in response to rapidly rising water temperatures in the past two decades. Cohen said the main question scientists are investigating now is whether there is an upper limit to the water temperature that corals can adapt to.

Red Sea clown fish inhabiting  the corals
Clownfish inhabiting the corals (Photo credit: Michael Bernander)

Cohen calls these thermally adaptable corals “super coral reefs” and, like Friedlander, advocates the use of marine reserves to protect them.

The Race against warming

Muller points out that their research on Florida coral reefs can help them stay away from what she calls “functional extinction.”

At the same time, she also believes that only when the environment of coral reefs becomes more suitable for survival, they will eventually recover their potential.

All the scientists interviewed for this article pointed out that mitigating climate change is the only solution that can sustainably protect and restore coral reefs in the long term.

Although the global “self-quarantine” and the sharp decline in emissions due to the epidemic, the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide in May still reached a record high.

Greater barrier reef hit by major bleaching event.
Greater barrier reef hit by major bleaching event

Kristopher Karnauskas, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder (the University of Colorado Boulder), recently published a study of the physical causes of the 2016 event.

He believes that global warming is increasing the background temperature and it coupled with the frequent heat waves, which has increased the damage to corals.

The ocean absorbs and stores heat very efficiently. As the earth warms, the ocean absorbs more than 90% of the heat generated by humans’ excessive emission of greenhouse gases. But their heat absorption capacity is not unlimited, too much heat will only cause marine life to die one after another.

Climate change in the history of corals

In the history of evolution, the history of coral can trace back to 400 million years ago. Corals have successfully adapted and survived every time global temperature changes in history. But they have never experienced such rapid climate change today.

Coral observation and examination in advance
Coral examination

“The reason we know this is because, in the past, major coral reefs have gone extinct six times and disappeared quickly. The causes of their deaths are all related to ocean overheating and ocean acidification.” Cohen said, “coral reefs will always reappear. It will take tens of thousands of years to return.”

Now, the temperature rise due to climate change is faster than every time coral has experienced in history, Cohen believes: “We don’t have so much time to wait.”

Overview

Facing the threat of climate change,

Coral took off its colorful clothes,

Showing the skeleton of white flowers,

Finally disappeared…

Even though scientists have multiple remedies,

It can also temporarily relieve the status quo,

Cannot save corals permanently.

And the only way,

Is to act together globally,

Work together to mitigate climate change.

So, as a citizen of the world,

What can we do to save corals?

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The pictures in this article are taken by unsplash.com and nationalgeographic.com

Rajitha Dissanayake

Researcher in the field of Marine Mammals and Bio-acoustic

I'm a Master’s student in marine mammals and bio-acoustic laboratory, Institute of Deep-Sea Science and Engineering (IDSSE), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and focusing on the sustainable environmental application, conservation, and exploring all aspects of the ecology and behavior of marine mammals.

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