Coral in Crisis: Can Replanting Efforts Halt Reefs’ Death Spiral?
By Erica Cirino
Visit a coral reef off the coast of Miami or the Maldives and you may see fields of bleached white instead of a burst of colors.
Coral reefs are in a death spiral. Many of the world's major reefs — which give the oceans life, support fisheries, prevent storm damage, provide medicine and create ocean-based tourism opportunities — are expected to disappear by 2100. Experts say coral decline has numerous causes, including chemical runoff, plastic pollution, disease and overfishing.
But the main culprit is climate change, a crisis with no quick fixes.
As the late Ruth Gates — one of the world's foremost coral experts and former director of the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology — told me two years ago, shortly before her death: "A significant cut in greenhouse gas emissions is required to save corals … not to mention, us. Such an endeavor will require government and public cooperation, and it will take time."
Coral reefs don't have much time, so experts around the world have used whatever tactics were in their reach to try to give corals a fighting chance. Much of their focus has been on top-down, policy-driven approaches like creating marine protected areas, banning toxic sunscreens, and cracking down on the illegal capture of reef fish.
But a growing number of experts, building on efforts by Gates and others, have taken a more bottom-up approach: coral reef restoration, or the process of repopulating deteriorating reefs with healthy coral. And they're tapping citizen scientists to help with the effort — people participating in scientific projects organized by experts.
There's evidence that this type of restoration could solidly support the full range of reef-conservation efforts underway. But given the extent of the crisis and what's at stake, is repeatedly putting new crops of corals into harm's way the answer?
Climate Change Threats
A major coral bleaching event on part of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Oregon State University / CC BY-SA 2.0
Though reefs cover less than 1 percent of Earth's surface, they support more than a million different species, including many types of algae — like sea grasses and sea lettuces — and a broad range of animals from starfish to shrimp to sharks, as well as people. Experts estimate that corals pull $375 billion into the global economy every year, mainly by fostering tourism, supporting fisheries, and contributing to medicine and storm protection.
Despite their value corals have been in decline for decades. Scientists responded by initiating the first reef-restoration efforts about 50 years ago. Since then restoration efforts have been tailored to meet the needs of corals prioritized at specific times and places. In the 1970s, as coastal development boomed, scientists focused on expanding corals' habitat by strategically placing shipwrecks, concrete pipes, tires and other manmade structures underwater on which corals could grow. By the early 2000s, scientists had become more interested in addressing other localized risks to reefs — such as overfishing, irresponsible tourism and invasive species.
But climate change poses an even more far-reaching threat.
Bleaching — a precursor to coral death caused by stressors including warming waters — has left nary a reef unscathed around the world. Most corals thrive in temperatures between 73-84 degrees Fahrenheit. Oceans naturally undergo seasonal warming, which leads to temperature fluctuations high enough to bleach some corals. In the past corals could recover from bleaching events once waters cooled. Scientists say it takes 15 to 25 years for a reef to recover from serious bleaching and become healthy enough to support a rich host of marine life. But today, with the relentless and extreme warming our oceans now face, corals are running out of possible recovery time. It's becoming much harder for them to make a comeback.
Not only does climate change raise the temperature of the oceans, resulting in inhospitable conditions for corals, it deposits excess carbon dioxide into the water — increasing seawater's acidity. More acidic waters can erode hard corals' skeletons and make it more difficult for corals to grow. The cumulative effects have been seen around the planet. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 27 percent of the world's coral population has died over the past three decades.
According to UNESCO, bleaching on coral reefs across the world was first documented in 1983, but since then its frequency and severity has quickly accelerated. In a 2017 report, the organization identified the cause of bleaching on 72% of its so-called "globally significant" reefs from 2014 to 2017 as record-breaking ocean temperatures.
Marine biologist Maria Anderson said a dying coral reef is a painful thing to witness.
"During bleaching, the usual reef hues of browns, purples and greens are replaced by a white ghost town," said Andersen, a resident marine biologist at Ocean Group Maldives who is part of an upstarting coral reef replanting project based at InterContinental Resort, a hotel on Raa Atoll. "Soft corals appear as white blobs that melt off rocks and hard corals turn into fragile skeletons. The only way I can describe it is heartbreaking."
Secret Weapon # 1: The Public
A healthy staghorn coral colony two years after it was planted on a reef in the Florida Keys.
FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
To stem this tide, restoration efforts now mostly involve growing corals in undersea nurseries and transplanting them onto dying reefs that are losing coral. Like saplings being replanted in a fallen forest, young corals can help regenerate an ecosystem that's becoming barren.
But the work can be expensive and labor-intensive. According to researchers it can cost more than $150,000 to restore one reef — a small fortune in low-income coastal communities that may struggle to find funding.
That's why restoration efforts have grown increasingly reliant on the help of citizen scientists. This has significantly reduced the high price tag of restoration by replacing paid labor with volunteers — without any noticeable decline in success. Research shows the growth and survival rate of the corals planted by citizen scientists is almost identical to corals planted by experts. When handled properly, the corals replanted by volunteers survive at a rate of at least 80 percent, and often exceeds 90 percent, said Dalton Hesley, a senior research associate at the University of Miami Benthic Ecology and Coral Restoration Lab, who led that study.
"Replanting is an investment," Hesley said. "These corals should, in theory, live indefinitely, and you should expect to see growth over the years."
But that's only if we also take necessary action to prevent further degradation of, and ultimately remediate, the oceans, he said. Unless the world addresses climate change, runoff, pollution and development, reefs will continue to decline and risk being lost forever.
At this moment in Earth's history, "I don't think it should be a matter of choosing one over the other," said Andersen. Both large-scale efforts to address the climate crisis and labor-intensive replanting efforts are necessary to give reefs a chance of surviving Earth's current extinction crisis. "We have to meet somewhere in the middle, finding renewable resources while also restoring reefs. We can't just sit around and wait, leaving corals in limbo."
Secret Weapon # 2: Genetics
Choosing coral parent colonies to aid reef restoration efforts.
FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
"On first glance replanting may seem like a distraction from mitigating climate change, which is what we have to do if we want to save reefs," said Andersen. But she says restoration can give corals a better chance — especially when they're coupled with recent efforts to supercharge replanting by genetically identifying the most diverse and resilient species.
A well-planned, diverse reef is probably the best remedy to bleaching, Andersen said.
"I've heard of hundreds of restoration projects around the world, but none that have failed," she said. "But if one happened to fail, I would assume its leaders failed to create enough coral diversity."
Hesley agreed: "With high diversity there's strength."
Thousands of species of hard and soft corals have been identified to date, and each of these species has varying levels of resistance to stressors. Even within a species, scientists have identified different gene patterns that can convey different benefits.
"Some corals grow very quickly, some are less prone to disease, some bleach less, some are hardier during storms, for example," Hesley said. "There's not one coral species or individual that excels across the board, so we must focus on creating high levels of coral diversity."
Larger-scale reef restoration projects, like the program Hesley is involved in at the University of Miami, keep track of coral genetics using DNA analysis, ensuring coral diversity. Smaller-scale programs in rather remote places, like Andersen's project in the Maldives, often do not have in-house access to labs and genetics testing, which can be prohibitively expensive.
Andersen said these challenges require her to go through a complex research process and collaboration with coral geneticists on a different atoll to pinpoint the most and least resilient coral species. Then, she must carefully remove fragments of coral from reefs known to have survived past bleaching events so that they can be used to spawn more hardy corals. After that, she monitors the donor reef and fragments to ensure they stay healthy. These preliminary parts of the replanting process, which require permits and extraordinary precision, are left up to the professionals.
Promise and Challenges
When it comes to giving dying corals another shot, Hesley acknowledged that coral reef restoration is not a perfect solution. He said finding adequate funding, staff and volunteer labor, and addressing the root causes of reef decline — climate change and local stressors to reef health — are lingering challenges.
However, Anderson said the benefits of reef restoration, especially those powered by citizen scientists, are strong compared to their drawbacks. This has led to projects cropping up on reefs all around the world, developed by scientists hired by research institutions and hotels alike.
One of the most exciting she's seen is a citizen-science restoration project led by Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University in Australia, who has developed a backpack-sized inflatable coral spawn catcher and nursery pool in which baby corals can grow until they're big enough to be replanted.
Of course, even volunteers can only do so much. Harrison has also pioneered use of robots to swiftly distribute baby corals onto nearly 7.5 acres of damaged reefs, doing a job in just six hours that would take several human hands at least a week. If perfected, it could put volunteer seeding efforts effectively out of business.
But there's always a role for people willing to help. After corals are propagated, whether it's by hand or machine, citizen scientists can help care for them in undersea nurseries.
All of this requires careful planning. Andersen emphasizes the importance of establishing clearly defined goals for restoration, based around a community's needs and available resources. Another aspect of a successful restoration effort, she said, is an effective and accessible training program that primes citizen scientists on how to participate and, ultimately, care about the future of corals.
And that ties into the fundamental reason why citizen science still matters: because restoration buys time for corals. Experts at the Smithsonian Research Institute have found that the more living coral a reef has when exposed to highly acidic waters, the more likely it is to survive, instead of bleaching and dying.
Meanwhile, the efforts help to connect people to something that otherwise might stay out of sight and out of mind beneath the surface of the ocean.
"I don't think a lot of people who get involved in restoration initially have that emotional attachment to coral reefs simply because they haven't had a chance to care about them," Andersen said. "Restoration gives them the opportunity to make a connection, to really understand how dire the situation is, and to do something that can help."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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