The perfect storm of climate change, failed policies, and damaged ecosystems began brewing in the late 1980’s and came to full force in 2013 as the coral bleaching epidemic descended on the world’s reefs. Since then this storm has only gained momentum fueled by accelerating climate change, as it continues to wreak havoc on once pristine reefs. A flurry of factors convened in 2013 including elevated sea temperatures, an unusual patch of warm water in the Pacific, increasing pH levels, pollution, overfishing, sedimentation, the list of attacks on coral reefs goes on and on. Too many reefs have been stripped of their former glory and left to fade to a barren white landscape. Though it’s easy to get caught up in the gloom and doom headlines and be overcome with a sense of hopelessness, groundbreaking solutions and innovations are being developed in an attempt to quell this storm and protect vital corals. A small group of scientists from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, led by Dr. Ruth Gates, have set out to investigate and conquer the problem of bleaching reefs. Sure, everyone’s heard of decreasing carbon emission, creating marine protected areas, but how about growing ‘super corals’ in conditions that simulate the ocean in 2050 and then replanting them on dying reefs? I bet not many have considered this out of the box approach that could prove to be a quintessential tool in combating mass bleaching events, as the climate continues to warm.
Coral’s Natural Superpower
Corals are naturally resilient animals, and it turns out that they also have a really good memory. Scientists now know that when corals experience a certain event and acclimate to changing conditions, they will remember this and be better prepared to recognize a similar event in the future and survive it. For example, corals who survive a bleaching event that was catalyzed by a sudden increase in temperatures or drop in pH, are able to recognize when conditions become similar to these and are equipped to change or acclimate in order to survive the fluctuations in environmental factors. It is projected that by 2050 all coral species will be endangered and near extinction if the corals and the ocean continue to travel down their current path.
Corals have proven to be resilient and even have the ability to flourish after being nearly completely decimated from coastal reefs. For example, the Hawaiian city of Kane’ohe used to dump raw sewage into the bay which led to massive overgrowth of a non-native algae that coated the reef and suffocated the corals to death. Unbelievably, today there is 100% coral coverage in the bay, thanks to the invention of the Super Sucker that vacuumed up the algae off the reef. This technological fix coupled with the relocation of sea urchins to the reef to keep the algae at bay allowed the corals to come back and flourish. This is just one example of hundreds that prove corals are naturally resilient and can come back to life from death’s doorstep. Their biology naturally lends itself to weathering the tumultuous storm, which gives Dr. Gates hope that with a little help from humans, corals have a solid chance at not only surviving the threats of climate change but making a comeback in regions that have already fallen victim to bleaching.
Creative Science: Breeding Super Corals
The basis of Dr. Gates project is the fundamental idea that corals can adapt and evolve to withstand certain conditions, but the clock is counting down on how much longer the average coral can tolerate increasing temperatures and acidity. Gates and her team has already seen the devastating effects of climate change on Hawaii’s reefs, as Maui alone has lost 25% of its corals. Coral loss not only hurts the ecosystem, but it has dramatic effects for local fisherman, ecotourism, surfing, and other economic extensions of the reef. This is why Gates and her researchers select finger and rice coral fragments from the reefs in Kane’ohe Bay, and then raise them in her lab. They select the coral fragments based on where they are located and what condition they appear to be in. If they are located in an area that was bleached, but seem to be healthy, or if they look like they are recovering from a bleaching event they are prime candidates for Gates’s experiment. This way, the researchers already know that these corals have naturally selected traits that help them survive temperature changes. In the lab, coral fragments are grown in large tubs of circulating seawater that are pumped in from the bay. In the experimental tubs, the water temperature is 2-3 degrees Celsius higher and the pH drops to simulate conditions that corals in 2050 might be exposed to. Gates asserts that, “Our goal is not to kill them; it’s to give them an experience so they can learn to withstand those stressful conditions when they’re exposed to them again”.
Once the corals are “trained” to tolerate and potentially thrive under such conditions, Gates hand picks the best of the best and breeds them with each other to create extremely strong offspring that will inherit the traits that allowed their parents to survive. Gates’s lab is like an eharmony or tinder site for corals, matching the most tolerant and strong corals with each other in hopes of producing offspring that will be able to withstand the environment of the ocean in 2050. This process is called assisted evolution. It requires that humans intervene to pick out traits and accelerate evolution through the perpetuation of specific traits through selective breeding.
Once Gates has proven that her methods work to create super corals that can survive in extreme temperatures and acidity, she hopes that she will be able to scale up her project. Right now, many doubt that will be logistically possible. On the other hand, she believes that through technological advance, it will be possible to heat a reef up 2 degrees for 48 hours in order to train wild corals and facilitate the mating of best fit corals with one another. Long term goals for the project include: replanting the supercorals on degraded reefs, reviving dead reefs with lab-bred corals, and even planting the corals on cement that has been poured in coastal areas to combat rising sea levels. On a local scale, in the bay of Kane’ohe for example, this is certainly possible. Once super corals are bred and grown in the lab, farming them in the bay and then implanting them on failing reefs is a very achievable goal. The thinking is that these corals will naturally repopulate the reef with other corals resistant to changing environmental conditions, thus making the entire reef immune to coral bleaching events in the future.
Scientists Playing God?
Gates boundary breaking project has drawn sharp criticism from other scientists and conservationists who take issue with the ethics of accelerating evolution, a naturally occurring process. Naysayers complain that what Gates is doing is unnatural and unethical. They claim that Gates should not choose which corals mate with other corals and influence the survival of their offspring. In response, Gates argues that she is solely a facilitator rather than a true matchmaker. On a dying reef, the surviving healthy corals may be too far apart to effectively mate and create strong offspring to repopulate the reef. Gates argues she is providing the space for the corals, who already have traits that have been naturally selected to improve survival rates, to reproduce and for those offspring to grow. She argues that the current policies and conservation work is simply not sufficient to effectively save corals and promote restoration of reefs, which is why she turned to breeding supercorals.
Though she admits that coral reefs will never fully return to their former glory, she can’t sit by and wait for more corals to be endangered before starting to act. The most persuasive argument in favor of Gates methods, is that humans have used unnatural technology and methods to exploit the earth at the cost of the environment, so it will take an unnatural way to preserve what remains. A colleague of Gates responds, “I justify it like this; the way we’re messing with the Earth and ecological system is unnatural. So maybe it’ll take an unnatural way to preserve it”. In essence, the approach Gates is taking to coral conservation can be likened to fighting fire with fire, and that might just be what it takes to secure a stable future for coral reefs as ocean conditions continue to deteriorate.
Photo 1: State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources
Photo 2: Jaime Craggs
Photo 3: Surfer Magazine, Shield