Historically, coral conservationists have focused their efforts on protecting these invaluable marine resources from direct environmental threats, like land-based pollution and damaging fishing practices. While these efforts continue, researchers are now also looking at ways to tackle coral reef restoration more proactively.
Individual corals build reefs over thousands of years, but environmental stressors, and damage from events like ship groundings or storms, can destroy a reef in mere decades—or even less. Since the 1980s, episodes of coral bleaching have been happening more often, meaning that corals don’t have time to recover between these events. That’s why, to help save the corals, and the benefits they provide, conservationists now want to give more active assistance.
Over decades, conservationists learned how to grow corals in nurseries to repopulate damaged reefs. Coral “farmers” nurture small, found pieces of coral on underwater structures until they can be replanted on existing reefs, stimulating recovery of these ecosystems.
On average, the fastest growing hard corals (or stony corals) grow naturally at about the same rate as human hair—about 10 centimeters a year. Many only grow at fraction of that rate. This slow growth rate makes recovery from mass death events, such as bleaching or disease, challenging. But, in the low stress environment of a nursery, conservationists can grow corals much faster, giving the reefs a fighting chance.
And, perhaps even more crucially, conservationists can manage the diversity of the coral population in nurseries. Not all corals are created equal. Some corals are able to withstand or recover from stresses better than others. Fostering diversity among corals means the overall population will be more resilient to changes in its environment, such as warming ocean waters.
Coral nurseries started out as a way to rebuild reefs that had been damaged by ship groundings or major storms, but the investment in coral nurseries has grown beyond that. These days, researchers are looking at ways to actively build the resilience of corals through coral nurseries in the ocean and in the lab.
Scientists want to know what factors allow corals to adapt to a changing climate—and how they might intervene to help the corals. For example, how do stress and location affect corals? Can corals that overcome stresses during their lifetimes pass these adaptations down to offspring? Or, might gene editing be more effective?
More research will help scientists answer these questions and take efforts to save coral reefs to the next level. In the meantime, conservationists continue to improve their ability to grow corals in nurseries and repopulate reefs.
At NOAA, the Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP), along with NOAA Fisheries and others, is engaged in research to try and better understand the challenges corals face and how coral conservationists can address them going forward.
The CRCP provides funding and technical expertise to groups to establish coral nurseries. In 2017, the CRCP gave the Guam Bureau of Statistics and Plans funds to work with the University of Guam Marine Lab and community partners to establish a coral nursery at Cocos Lagoon. At this nursery, they’ll grow corals to be replanted on reefs damaged by bleaching events.
And, the CRCP invested in multiple projects in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to grow and plant on established reefs well over 10,000 corals, which they expect to result in acres of restoration in a few short years.
Researchers still have a lot to learn about why certain corals thrive under different ocean conditions, or not. But, researchers recognize the urgency of the situation, and the pace of study has picked up.
The next step for nurseries is scaling their activities up, growing more corals that are more resilient to be transplanted on struggling reefs. The technology that can help corals overcome the challenges of a changing ocean is out there. Now, it’s just a matter of bringing it to the corals.
Here’s some things you can do to help protect corals: