Mapping the Efforts to Preserve the World’s Best Coral Reefs

This study by Ocean Science & Technology discusses the future of our oceans' reefs, along with the global restoration projects that aim to preserve them. Feature Article by Ocean Science & Technology
Mapping the Efforts to Preserve the World's Best Coral Reefs
Follow OS&T

Coral Reefs: A Promising Future

Vibrant, diverse, and teeming with life, coral reefs provide shelter for many marine species and contribute significantly to our planet’s health and biodiversity. To assess their impact on our planet, we’ve put together a campaign that focuses on the human element of why they are so important.

Using data on rising ocean temperatures and where some of the most prominent rescue efforts are taking place right now, we’ll highlight the very important work taking place all over the world and what goals are trying to be achieved. We’ve considered where the new best area for coral reefs might be in the next few years and what the ocean could look like if positive changes are made.

The Future of Our Oceans’ Reefs: Global Restoration Projects

From Australia to the Bahamas to Japan, many projects are underway to protect the future of our reefs. Experts from different disciplines are taking varied approaches, all with the same goal of long-term coral reef health. Here are seven of those projects that we’ll be drawing attention to.

Coral Reef Restoration Organisations

#1: Mission Blue: Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

Mission Blue is led by the esteemed oceanographer Sylvia Earle, with the vision to create “Hope Spots” in our oceans. These are akin to national parks but for marine ecosystems — a sanctuary where aquatic species can thrive undisturbed.

Mission Blue focuses primarily on areas where only 5% of reefs function fully. By safeguarding these regions, the project aims to enhance ecosystem services like fish stocks and biodiversity. The goal isn’t just about immediate protection, though. It’s about long-term sustainability and resilience.

That’s where Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) come into play. These designated zones are designed to grow sustainable fisheries through what are known as spillover effects. Spillover effects occur when adult fish move from protected areas into fishing grounds, thereby boosting local catches outside the MPA boundaries.

#2: Mote Marine Laboratory Coral Reef Restoration

Steered by Dr. Jason Spadaro, the Mote Marine Laboratory is on a mission to revive Florida’s Coral Reef, which has suffered significant depletion over the years. Their strategy involves cultivating coral genotypes in nurseries that show resilience against threats like Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) and other climate-related stressors.

The team’s efforts are already paying off with impressive results. To date, they’ve successfully restored more than 216,000 corals back into their natural habitat. In addition, some of these newly restored species are now demonstrating reproductive success post-restoration.

#3: Identifying Climate-resilient Corals for the Future of Reefs

Climate-resilient corals could be the key to saving our reefs, and leading these efforts is Ross Cunning from Shedd Aquarium. His work primarily involves identifying genes in corals that enhance their thermal tolerance or ability to withstand higher temperatures. The reason this is important is that increasing ocean temperatures due to climate change have been a major factor in coral bleaching.

Cunning collaborates with a number of different partners all with a shared goal of breeding and spreading these resilient corals. To identify these temperature-tolerant genes, Cunning’s team collects samples across the Bahamas for genetic analyses. Their findings are then used as a roadmap for conservationists, guiding where they focus restoration efforts.

#4: NOAA Coral Reef Watch Satellite Monitoring and Modelled Outlooks

Imagine having the ability to predict environmental stress on our oceans’ reefs. That’s exactly what NOAA Coral Reef Watch does by utilising advanced satellite data. This innovative system provides us with a global outlook on potential climate impacts that could affect these delicate ecosystems.

One of its key tools is the Bleaching Alert Levels. These alerts act as an early warning system, indicating when corals are under severe climate-induced stress and potentially at risk of bleaching, a devastating event that can lead to widespread reef death.

#5: Carbon Capture and Ocean Acidification Mitigation by Seaweed Farms

This project, partially funded by NOAA and directed by Andreas Andersson, is pioneering research into how seaweed farms can contribute to carbon capture and counteract ocean acidification.

The project is using three farms in Florida and Japan’s Okinawa to explore the carbon capture capacity of seaweed farms, by using cutting-edge monitoring tools alongside advanced modelling techniques. This helps researchers understand how effectively seaweed farms sequester carbon from the environment, potentially creating a holistic solution to coral reef health.

#6: RangerBot

RangerBot is an innovative solution hailing from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology. This autonomous robot is a new line of defence for our ocean reefs, specifically designed to safeguard coral ecosystems against threats.

One such threat comes in the form of invasive species like the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish commonly found around the Great Barrier Reef. The starfish feed on corals and can cause significant damage to reef systems if left unchecked. Thanks to RangerBot’s precision targeting system, these harmful creatures are identified and neutralised without damaging surrounding marine life or habitats.

#7: MARS: 3D Printed Coral Reefs

Another innovative idea from Australia is the Modular Artificial Reef Structure (MARS), developed by Alex Goad in Melbourne. This system could promote coral transplantation and growth through the use of modular ceramic components, a material that not only mimics natural reef formations but encourages native marine life recruitment.

The MARS system has already proven its effectiveness in deep-water environments, specifically in the Maldives where it was first implemented. Here, these artificial structures have shown their ability to support and nurture growing corals, while protecting against potential threats at the same time.

Global Sea Surface Temperatures are on the Rise

To understand how climate change impacts coral reefs, we must first examine historical temperature trends. There has been a notable uptick in global sea surface temperatures of approximately 0.6°C over the past forty years, yet this increase is not uniform across all regions or across different years.

infographic 2 – Ocean Surface Temperatures Around the Globe

The variability in these rising temperatures can be traced back to phenomena like El Niño and La Niña events, which cause fluctuations in weather patterns on an inter-annual basis. These natural occurrences contribute to periods of extreme heat or cold, which further exacerbate changes within oceans.

Present-day conditions show that tropical seas often record temperatures exceeding 25°C, a threshold linked with increased risk for coral bleaching. This heightened vulnerability stems from corals’ sensitivity to sudden shifts in their environment, as they thrive best under stable conditions.

infographic 3 – Ocean Temperatures

With higher sea surface temperatures come more frequent bleaching events. These stressors take a toll on corals’ resilience and whether they can adapt quickly enough, and they leave them devoid of nutrients necessary for survival.

In addition to decreased reef biodiversity, prolonged episodes of bleaching can damage human communities. Many communities rely on coral reefs for food security, and the positive economic impacts they can bring through tourism.

How Ocean Temperatures Could Look in 50 Years

If the trends of the last 40 years remain stable, it’s plausible to expect an increase of around 0.75°C in sea surface temperature over the next 50 years. According to five-year average trends, the ocean is set to heat up an average of 0.2°C globally, and 0.2°C to 0.3°C in Europe, suggesting that things could be moving quicker.

infographic 4 – How Could Ocean Temperatures Look In The Next 50 Years

These projections aren’t straightforward due to things like El Niño and La Niña events, they highlight the importance of conservation. Coral species have shown incredible resilience and adaptability throughout history. Even though there’s no denying that warmer oceans pose a threat to our world’s coral reefs, with collective action today, we hold power over what future generations will see beneath those waves tomorrow.

Methodology and Sources

Posted by Abi Wylie Connect & Contact