Friday Five: 5 Ways Humans Are Working to Save Coral Reefs

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Coral reefs are in a pretty dire situation—many experts believe that coral reefs could be the first ecosystems completely devastated by human activity. Recent increases in ocean temperatures as well as changing conditions have led to numerous mass bleaching events over the past few decades, and if things don’t change soon, nearly 100% of coral reefs will be considered threated by 2050. Oceanit’s environmental scientist, Taylor Chock, notes that “Everything is interconnected. You can’t just think about coral reefs, they’re connected to a lot of other things, including countless organisms that depend on them.”

The single largest threat to coral reefs is climate change. Particularly the warming temperatures, ocean acidification, and large storm events that stem from it. If we’re being realistic, the best way to save coral reefs is to fix our CO2 emissions problem. And, well, we’re working on that.

But while we work to decarbonize human activities, not all hope is lost for reefs. In fact, experts around the world are employing several different methods to protect coral reefs and their fragile ecosystems—some of which anybody can contribute to.

1. Replacing Harmful Ingredients

It turns out, some of the products humans been using for years are actively harmful to coral reefs, so we’re finding better alternatives to replace them with. For example, by now you’ve probably heard of reef-safe sunscreen, which uses “physical barriers” (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) rather than “chemical barriers” like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene. Most sunscreen makers now have reef-safe product lines, and there are a number of brands that only make reef-safe sunscreens. Several places like Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands, and Palau, even have outright bans on the sale of certain chemical sunscreens.

Aside from sunscreen, other products that have undergone environmental and reef-focused ingredient changes include soaps with microbeads and disposable food containers and cutlery.

While we’d like to think that everyone cares about the environment to the same extent we do, it is unfortunately not the case. Many companies aren’t very proactive and will only change their ways when there is a profit incentive to do so. This is where the average person can make an impact—vote with your money! Do your research to pick products that are reef-safe and encourage everyone you know to do the same.

2. Keeping Pollution Out of Waterways

Nutrient pollution is one of the worst types of pollution for coral reefs. Agricultural waste, fertilizers, and human sewage are full of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. When these end up in our waterways, excess nutrients can cause harmful algal blooms (HABs) which negatively impact aquatic ecosystems in a number of ways, including poisoning marine life and smothering coral reefs. This process is called eutrophication, and over 700 coastal areas around the world face varying degrees of impact.

Oceanit built our own version of an Augmented Reality Sandbox to model how runoff is direct into our oceans and waterways – an educational tool that can help students understand how nutrient pollution works.

So, what’s being done? The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include a target goal to “significantly reduce” nutrient pollution by 2025, and in December 2020 they released a substantial guidance document for nitrogen management. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has a variety of efforts and programs aimed at reducing nutrient pollution, including several new resources released in April 2021. Unfortunately, nutrient pollution is a tough issue to crack, especially as intensive agriculture over the last 50 years has stripped a lot of farmland soil of its nutrients. But, the number of visible campaigns against nutrient pollution has increased dramatically over the last few years, which is definitely a step in the right direction.

While the average person has a miniscule impact compared to industrial agriculture or national sewage systems, there are definitely ways for everyone to contribute.

Ensure your trash and recyclables are disposed of properly, and pick up litter and debris when you see it. If you have a yard, try to use compost rather than chemical fertilizers and ensure that you don’t have any exposed soil that could wash away in a storm. Pick up your pet’s poo (even in your own yard), and don’t let yard clippings go down the drain. Also be sure not to flush any medications—even if sewage is treated, many compounds and chemicals in medicines cannot be filtered out.

3. Preventing Physical Harm to Coral Reefs

Perhaps the most obvious way people can protect coral reefs is by not physically disturbing them. Well, that’s easy, just don’t touch them, right? Unfortunately, human-inflicted damage to coral goes far beyond the occasional overzealous scuba diver.

You don’t think of coral as bycatch, but that is often the case with bottom trawling—a form of industrial fishing that uses gigantic nets dragged across the seafloor at depths of 1000 to 3000 feet or more. Trawling was originally developed for shallow waters with smooth seafloors, but increasing scarcity from overfishing have pushed boats farther and farther, into the realms of the most delicate and hard to study coral reefs.

“Trawling and overfishing kill a lot of corals,” says Taylor, “and at those depths, they’re extremely slow growing, which makes it even harder for them to recover.”

Bottom trawling is unfortunately extremely hard to manage as much of it occurs in international waters. While many nations have restrictions on trawling within portions of their jurisdictions, there is little regulation beyond that. Of course, there are a number of international resolutions and frameworks aimed at better fishing regulations, but until widespread intergovernmental cooperation happens, bottom trawling is likely to continue.

This is one area where consumers really do hold the key. Be picky with your seafood. Use databases like the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide to determine what kind of seafood are the most sustainable, or look for certifications from groups like the Marine Stewardship Council for wild caught fish or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council for farmed fish.

4. Supplementation with Artificial Reef Structures

Using artificial reef structures might sound like we’ve already given up hope for coral reefs and that we’re now simply looking to replace them. But in fact, artificial reef structures can encourage new coral growth in areas that may otherwise be inhospitable—think flat, barren areas or places that have been dredged or degraded.

Technically, almost anything manmade that’s sunk into the ocean can act as an artificial reef. Shipwrecks, decommissioned oil rigs, and old subway cars form some of the most interesting artificial reef structures. There are even a number of underwater art installations that function as artificial reefs, including a 16-acre representation of Atlantis where you can personally contribute to the structure by having your cremated remains turned into a plaster starfish or column.

In recent years, engineers and designers around the world have begun to incorporate artificial reefs into erosion- and sea level rise-fighting coastal designs. Pulling from his own extensive experience, Oceanit coastal engineer Mike Foley says, “Artificial reef technology is being reinvented with modern understandings of coral reef ecosystem function and the stark predictions of climate change impacts on our society. Engineers are developing new methods, materials, and designs for coastal structures that can enhance the resilience of critical infrastructure along the shoreline, while maintaining and restoring ecosystem function. This is an example of multi-purpose blue-green infrastructure, which is the wave of the future.”

As for what the average person can do to contribute—one of the benefits of artificial reefs is that because they can be so unique looking, a lot of people want to see them, which can relieve tourism pressure from natural reefs. So, if you’re ever planning a scuba vacation, maybe choose the artificial reef dive spot over the natural one. It’ll be just as breathtaking and you’ll be contributing to the protection of natural reefs.

5. Coral Restoration Efforts

Unfortunately, most of the above rests on changing people’s habits and actions, which is incredibly difficult to do. Plus, even if all of that changed overnight, we’re still in for significant warming for years to come. That’s why many scientists are placing the most hope (and effort) into coral restoration research.

Researchers are employing several different methods and strategies to enable coral to have the best chance at surviving the coming decades. Coral transplantation involves moving coral from inhospitable locations to areas where it has a better chance of survival. Coral nurseries have popped up to rehabilitate fragments of damaged coral and re-place them back where they used to be. One of the more pessimistic measures is coral sperm banking—saving the genetic material of various types of coral to counter a potential future loss of genetic diversity in the wild. “Coral die-offs like we’re seeing often lead to a genetic bottleneck effect,” explains Taylor. “Less genetic diversity can make corals more susceptible to disease.”

Perhaps the area with the most reason for hope, however, is selectively breeding or genetic engineering coral to better handle the effects of climate change. Some efforts are working to identify coral species that seem to be more resistant to heat and cross breed them with other species to try to encourage adaptations for heat tolerance. Other efforts are focusing on the algae that live within coral and how to genetically engineer symbiotic algae that can prevent corals from bleaching.

Of course, scientists would much rather not have to do any of this at all. But until we manage to reverse climate change and halt our destructive resource exploitation, this is what we’ve got. The best thing humans can do to protect coral reefs and their expansive ecosystems is to ramp up our environmental protection policies, put pressure on the big companies creating the largest chunk of our emissions and pollution, and reassess our place within nature.