Save Corals, Save the Ocean

Learn about coral and why it's just so damn important to the planet.

HERON ISLAND, AUSTRALIA, FEB 2016 CREDIT: THE OCEAN AGENCY / XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY
EVERYONE should care about corals and know what some amazing organizations are doing to save them around the world.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CORALS

What is a coral?

The way I like to teach about corals is to start by asking a simple question, is coral an animal, a plant, or a mineral?


They are indeed an animal BUT these majestic beings rely on an aspect of all three to survive.


Coral is loosely related to sea anemones and jellyfish, meaning yes that some of them can sting. What makes them unique is that they build a skeleton made from calcium as they grow (that is the mineral). Corals are covered in tiny soft polyps (the animal) that eat food like an anemone would. However, inside the skin of each coral polyp are tiny little colorful cells of algae that are responsible for providing corals with 90% of their energy. The food is made by the algae using sunlight and is then transferred to the coral! They also give corals their next level colors. So there you have it, natures anomaly, an animal, a plant and a mineral. The most complicated yet simple creatures on the planet and above all, critical to a healthy ocean.

CORAL UNDER UV LIGHT CREDIT: RAMONA OSCHE

Corals have existed for millions of years, slowly growing (at about the rate of human hair, approximately less than 2mm per year) and expanding over the earths warm tropical regions. With thousands of species, and still many undiscovered, they can be recognized as a biological haven for all kinds of marine life. Coral reefs (a collection of corals that have grown together to form a physical structure or barrier off-shore) not only provide food and habitat but also protect shorelines from storms & erosion.


Corals globally only cover less than 1% of the earth, yet are home to 25% of ALL marine life. It is estimated that coral reefs are valued at approximately 9.9 TRILLION dollars annually, including fishing, ecotourism, coastline protection, medicines and more. They are quite literally the rainforests of our ocean.

Current State of Corals
THE MALDIVES, MAY 2016 CREDIT: THE OCEAN AGENCY / XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY

It's not good people. Despite outdating humanity by about 230 million years, corals are disappearing at a rate never before seen in human history. And like most of environmental issues today, it's primarily due to our lifestyle. Corals around the world are bleaching, aka experiencing extreme stress, turning white and dying off (fast).


Scientists have learned that rising ocean temperatures are causing corals to bleach and die around the world. This is a direct effect of climate change and is causing a state of alarm for our oceans. As our coral reefs disappear, there are going to be serious long-term effects on our planet, both in the ocean and on land. Despite the gloomy state of our oceans there are beacons of hope shining from all parts of the world! Here are a few organizations that are changing the game of coral restoration.

WHAT'S BEING DONE ABOUT IT

Coral Restoration

Coral restoration is a fast growing approach to restoring some of the world's most valuable reef systems. This process uses science, aquaculture and conservation techniques to grow and out-plant new corals onto degrading reefs, and it's working! Scientists have been monitoring coral reefs for decades and have documented the fast decline of our reefs since the 90's. Since then corals around the world have experienced multiple “mass beachings”, resulting in more than 19% mortality of coral reefs GLOBALLY, with the added threat of this number growing each year.


On a more positive note, it is estimated that about 45% of corals are still healthy, which leads us to the importance to coral restoration! Scientists and conservationist are working tirelessly across the globe to return these underwater forests in attempt to preserve our vital oceans.

The Process
Here I'm helping clean a coral tree at the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, Florida.

Corals are relatively slow growing but scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory have discovered new ways of growing, cultivating and planting these animals. Using innovative techniques these scientists have learned that corals can be cut into small pieces (down the size of even just one or two individual polyps- 1-2 mm) and grown in a specialized tank. Here, the corals receive ideal growth conditions (corals are picky) until they are about the size of a quarter. These small pieces are then placed in underwater nurseries located in the Florida Keys, where they will continue to grow.


You can think of it in the same way you are able to propagate a cutting of a plant in your nursery and then once it is of size you plant it in the garden. Well this is essentially the same idea, just applied to corals in the ocean! A number of organizations, like Coral Restoration Foundation, are using what are called "coral trees" to raise and monitor the corals before they are planted on the reef (depicted above). These PVC pipe structures are used to suspend the coral fragments in the water column, allowing them grow in their natural ocean environment.


VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK CREDIT: SHAUN WOLFE

Divers continuously monitor and clean these trees, scrubbing off any unwanted algae and measuring their size. When corals are large enough they are removed from the trees and strategically planted throughout the barrier reef using a special technique, with numbered tags for continuous monitoring. Every day scientists and conservationists are working hand in hand to share knowledge, resources and tools for restoring corals around the world.

How Will New Coral Survive When Existing Ones Can't?

A common question is that if corals are dying from changing ocean conditions, what is to stop these new corals from also dying? Scientists have asked themselves this same question, why should one spend so much effort on planting corals that might also die from stressful conditions? DNA is helping to answer this question. Scientists have found that some genetic strains of coral are more tolerant of stress than others, there are also certain species that provide the a higher ecological benefit in certain regions.


CORAL TRANSPLANTS IN THE SEYCHELLES CREDIT: THE OCEAN AGENCY

Once again conservationists and scientists have teamed up to identify these resilient corals, take small fragments from the parent coral and propagate these stronger corals in their labs. The idea behind this is that corals that are being out-planted onto the reef are going to be able to survive more stressful conditions, allowing reefs to survive while we tackle the global issue of our changing climate. Though this is not a perfect solution to the problem of our bleaching reefs, it is one amazing step towards preserving these valuable ecosystems.


GET INVOLVED

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

90% of atmospheric heat is absorbed by our oceans and 26% of global carbon pollution is absorbed by our oceans. These are both directly linked to our dying reefs. Our oceans are warming due to the burning of fossil fuels for transportation, food, electricity and industrial production. For most of us, this is directly linked to our lifestyle choices. Visit the Nature Conservancy to calculate your Carbon Footprint and learn ways you can cut down your impact on our planet. Every change matters.


Volunteer & Support These Organizations

Every conservation organization NEEDS and relies on passionate volunteers and community support. Visit this website to learn about amazing ocean conservation efforts and discover way you can get involved with coral restoration efforts around the world!


Please go check out Chasing Coral, it's an AMAZING documentary that takes you into the magical world of corals and what is happening in our oceans right now.


Thank you for caring about coral! Spread the word and share this article on your social media to help others learn about Coral Caretakers.


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