Producer Spotlight: Coral Vita
An Innovative Model of Large-Scale Coral Reef Restoration
“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. It is expected 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.
What is coral?
Although they appear like plants, corals are actually sessile animals that “take root” in the ocean floor. They’re considered animals, because unlike plants, 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, and it in turn 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.
What is coral bleaching?
When coral is stressed, it expels the algae that helps it to survive and turns white. This is known as coral bleaching. If the coral remains in a stressed state for too long, the algae do not return, and the coral eventually dies. According to NOAA, there are four main causes of coral bleaching:
- Change in ocean temperature,
- Runoff and pollution,
- Overexposure to sunlight, and
- Extreme low tides.
The first is often a side effect of increased ocean temperatures due to climate change—and the most damaging of all.
Why is coral so important?
Coral reefs have tremendous impact, not just underwater, but above it too. They’re responsible for supporting Earth’s most diverse ecosystems and keeping our shores safe. Thousands of animals, including turtles, fish, crabs, shrimp, jellyfish, and many more, depend on coral for survival. Reefs provide food and shelter, and 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.
How is Coral Vita making a difference?
In the early 2000s, Dr. David Vaughn discovered that he could help coral grow faster through the process of microfragmentation. The process 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, but reef regeneration was not happening fast enough to make a difference.
Halpern and Teicher revolutionized this process and created a high-tech coral farm like no other. Several elements set Coral Vita apart from other reef restoration efforts. They have developed the fastest possible microfragmenting technique, they have the world’s first land-based coral farm, they employ assisted evolution, and they have found a way to get businesses and people to care.
With Dr. Vaughn as an advisor, Coral Vita has 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—rather than ocean-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, the corals can be protected from such events, because their environments can be controlled. 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, and she developed the process of assisted evolution. Not only can the corals grow faster, they can also be taught to adjust to harsher conditions. By changing the settings in their tanks to mimic a warmer and more acidic ocean, researchers managed to train corals to be more resilient.
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.”