Efforts have been underway for some time now to find a way to save the world’s coral reefs. Coral, which is often thought of incorrectly as a marine plant, perform an essential symbiotic role in our oceans that often benefit other organisms. Their incredible diversity allows them to replicate in a variety of environments and makes them essential to the world’s oceans. Home to more than 800 types of coral, the world’s coral reefs alone support the existence of more than 4,000 species of fish, many of which provide essential food for human populations. Other coral communities, such as those in the Red Sea, are also essential to marine life.
So, finding a way to stem the decline of coral has been a priority for marine scientists for the past several decades – at least since the late 1990s when scientists attempted unsuccessfully to replant coral in the Great Barrier Reef. According to the World Resources Institute’s 2011 report, Reefs at Risk Revisited, 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs face extinction from climate change, coastal development, pollution and overfishing.
And they are more than a form of marine animal. Often likened to the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, “coral reefs are harbingers of change,” the WRI states. The increasing extinction of coral is a clear indicator of the future of the world’s oceans.
The good news is that after years of research, scientists in Israel may have found a way to repopulate coral reefs. Dr. Baruch Rinkevich, senior scientist at Israel’s Institute of Oceanographic and Limnological Research, and Dr. Shai Shafir, chair of the department of Natural Science and Environmental Education at Oranim Academic College, have developed a means by which to regrow coral and replant it in its natural habitat.
“We grow corals on mid- water nurseries in the Red Sea,” Shafir explained in a recent interview. At the present time the coral is being grown individually in the nurseries and then replanted “one by one” in the communities in the Red Sea.
Shafir refers to coral as “’the rain forest of the sea.’” Like trees, they root themselves in the earth’s floor, becoming a natural habitat for other species. The coral reforestation not only helps regenerate coral communities, but they also provide a vibrant marine ecology for those around them.
“Basically, what we’ve done here is copy the forestry concept,” Shafir said, “and the idea is really taking hold around the world because you can use it almost anywhere.” In fact, the idea has shown so much success that the Jewish National Fund has gotten behind the project, which has opened doors for a new angle on marine reforestation. Shafir said the North American Friends of the IOLR have also been instrumental in promoting and funding their work.
The concept of regrowing and replanting declining species has been around for a while in terms of kelp reforestation, but not in terms of successful replanting of coral beds. It’s an idea that will benefit not just marine areas around Israel, but also worldwide.
“It’s not just about conservation, but also about active restoration,” Shafir said, who noted that the team are also working on an idea that would allow groups of coral to be grown in “carpets” or squares that could then be integrated into the marine setting. The process is still in research stage, however.
Coral replantation techniques dovetail with another form of reforestation called passive restoration, which has been in the works for years and takes much longer to accomplish. Marine protective areas, which are seen throughout the world and take decades to recover, fulfill this purpose. Active restoration, however, takes just two years to start.
Its success, and of course the speed of reforestation however, will still depend heavily on aspects of human habitat: whether we can find the impetus and mechanisms to halt climate change, marine encroachment and, of course, overfishing.
Gratitude is extended to Dr. Shai Shafir and Dr. Baruch Rinkevich for additional information and photos.
Images of mid-water coral nursery, Red Sea courtesy of Dr. Shai Shafir.