Producer Spotlight: Coral Vita
Coral Vita: Innovating Reef Restoration in the Bahamas
“Reefs exist in nearly 100 countries and territories, conservatively generating $30 billion annually through tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection while sustaining the livelihoods of up to one billion people and 25% of global marine life. The reefs and people who depend on them need help everywhere. We plan to sell restoration services to resorts, developers, governments, coastal insurers, and everyone else who depends on these benefits. Simultaneously, our farms function as eco-tourism attractions, where people can experience coral farming, adopt corals for restoration, and even plant corals with our teams.”
If you’ve ever been scuba diving, chances are you’ve seen the colorful underwater structures of coral reefs and the vibrant ecosystems that form around them. Sadly, coral reefs are dying all across the world. Scientists predict that by 2050 we will have lost 90% of the world’s reefs, largely due to climate change.
Coral Vita, the world’s first land-based coral farm, founded in the Bahamas by Yale graduates Gator Halpern and Sam Teicher, hopes to prevent that.
Coral: Plant, Animal, or Mineral?
Although they appear like plants, corals are actually sessile animals. Like plants, they “take root” in the ocean floor. Unlike plants, however, they do not possess the ability to make their own food. To survive, they maintain a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae (plant-like algae). The coral provides protection for the algae. In turn, the algae feeds the coral and gives it its colorful palette.
Reefs are made up of thousands of tiny corals, both dead and alive, called polyps. Polyps are soft-bodied, but they secrete a hard limestone skeleton that attaches to rocks and the skeletons of other dead polyps. These polyp colonies grow, die, and regenerate, slowly shaping the reef through the repetition of this cycle over the span of many decades.
The Critical Importance of Coral
Coral reefs play a tremendous role–underwater and on land too. They are responsible for supporting Earth’s most diverse ecosystems and keeping our shores safe. In the ocean, thousands of animals, depend on coral for survival. Reefs provide food and shelter to turtles, fish, crabs, shrimp, jellyfish, and many other species. Their demise puts all these animals at an even greater risk of extinction than what they already face.
Furthermore, the reefs are economic powerhouses generating $30 billion dollars annually through fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection. Reefs serve as natural barriers against storms, because they absorb 97% of the waves’ energy. Without them, coastal communities become more vulnerable to the tides.
So what is causing the demise of the reefs?
When coral is stressed, it expels the algae that helps it to survive and turns white. This is coral bleaching. If the coral remains in a stressed state for too long, the algae do not return, and the coral eventually dies. Changes in the ocean temperature often are the cause of coral bleaching. It can also happen due to runoff and pollution, overexposure to sunlight, or extreme low tides. Climate change is the main factor in increased ocean temperatures. It is also the most damaging.
How is Coral Vita Making a Difference in the Bahamas?
In the early 2000s, Dr. David Vaughn discovered a process to help coral grow faster. Microfragmentation involves breaking coral into tiny pieces to stimulate faster growth and then reattaching the grown coral to the ocean floor. This is what coral restoration projects had been doing across the globe. However, even with these efforts, reef regeneration was not happening fast enough to make a difference.
Halpern and Teicher revolutionized this process and created a high-tech, land-based coral farm like no other. Several elements set Coral Vita apart from other reef restoration efforts. They have developed the fastest possible microfragmenting technique. Theirs is the world’s first land-based coral farm, and they employ assisted evolution. Most importantly, they have found a way to get businesses and people to care.
With Dr. Vaughn as an advisor, Coral Vita developed a technique that allows corals to grow 50 times faster than they would naturally. By using cutting-edge technology, they can help different coral species reach maturity in months instead of decades.
This provides a viable solution to counter current degradation rates!
Being a land-based farm also provides advantages. Ocean-based growth rates are significantly slower than those on land. In addition, ocean nurseries are vulnerable to storms, boating accidents, warming events, and other such variables. On land, it is possible to control their environments and keep the corals are safe from such events. It also allows for the production of a range of native corals tailored to the needs of each restoration site.
Coral Vita’s late advisor Dr. Ruth Gates saw the advantages of being able to control the environment in which the corals are grown. She developed the process of assisted evolution. Not only can the corals grow faster, they can also learn to adapt to harsher conditions. For example, by changing the settings in their tanks to mimic a warmer and more acidic ocean, researchers managed to train corals to be more resilient.
Saving the Reefs is a Shared Effort
Almost as impressive as their cutting edge-technology and innovative techniques, is Coral Vita’s ability to gather support from local governments, businesses, and communities. Education is an important piece of their project. Their farm is an ecological attraction that encourages visitors to get informed and get involved. Their for-profit model sells restoration services to all stakeholders who might benefit from healthy reefs—hotels, insurance companies, governments, fisheries, conservation groups.
This business model will allow Coral Vita to develop an industry that can support the large-scale restoration that is needed if reefs are to survive past 2050. Their vision is to expand to the point where they can, “produce billions of corals from [their] farms each year in order to maintain these magical ecosystems for generations to come.”