by Emily Green
In our ever changing world, as habitats and ecosystems continue to face destruction as a result of human actions, it is imperative we develop creative solutions to combat the destructive effects of our actions. You have heard of planting trees to improve air quality, increase oxygen production, and provide habitats for a variety of organisms, but what about planting corals?
That’s right, planting corals!
This form of habitat restoration has developed over the last several years, as more and more conservation organizations are taking on the task of replanting coral populations. One such group is the University of Miami’s Rescue a Reef, a citizen-based science project that supports coral reef research and restoration efforts by leading individuals on recreational dives or snorkels to "replant" staghorn coral populations in South Florida. Several weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to partake in one of these scientific dives, helping to monitor and restore these coral reef ecosystems. This process begins at the coral nursery by cleaning the coral “trees” to encourage healthy growth and obtaining small fragmented samples that are ready to be outplanted. Then, at the reef restoration site, these collected fragments are zip-tied onto nails that are driven into the reef. As I learned during this mission, this process is no easy task, but the benefit and hope it provides for these ecosystems make it well worth the effort.. After several months, these outplanted corals begin to grow healthy tissues, covering the nails and zip ties, and becoming a natural part of the ecosystem. So far, the Rescue a Reef program has documented a very high success rate, as their 10,000 out-planted corals continue to survive and prosper, repopulating reefs that have previously faced degradation due to human actions.
Coral degradation is caused by two major environmental changes: global warming and ocean acidification. These environmental changes decrease the calcification rates of coral, increase the susceptibility of disease, and cause coral bleaching. Just like humans maintain a stable internal body temperature in order to carry out their day to day biological functions, corals need a stable external environment in order to survive and prosper. An increase in two degrees of the outside air temperature may not seem too drastic to us; but for corals, a two-degree increase of the ocean temperature is detrimental. In addition, the ocean acts as a huge carbon sink, absorbing excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. As the carbon dioxide is dissolved in the ocean, the conditions become more acidic. These increased ocean temperatures and acidity place the corals under high levels of stress, causing the symbiotic zooxanthellae that live within the tissues of the corals to die or leave. When these symbiotic organisms are not present, the coral is deprived of its vibrant colors and food source. This causes the coral to become more susceptible to serious diseases, threatening their survival.
Coral reef degradation is a critical issue our oceans face because of its cascading impact on the world as a whole. Over one billion people on this planet rely on coral reefs for the food they provide. Coral reefs also generate 36 billion dollars a year into the global economy from the fishing industry and tourism. In addition, healthy coral reefs protect our coastlines from the strong forces generated by tsunamis and hurricanes. If these coral reef populations continue to degrade at the current rate, our world will face increased starvation, decreased economic prosperity, and many coastal cities, including the one I hold near and dear to my heart, Miami, will disappear due to erosion and flooding. According to studies conducted by the team of scientists that dedicated their efforts into developing and producing the influential documentary, Chasing Coral, we have lost over 50% of our coral reefs in the last 30 years. Based on these trends, over the next 30 years, almost all of the coral populations that currently exist in our world will be gone.
This past year, I have been honored to help organize and run the University of Miami’s annual Ocean Awareness Week (OAW). OAW is a student-run organization dedicated to reaching out to students, faculty, and the local community to educate them about the beauty and importance of our oceans. Each day during the week, we hosted educational events and activities, such as beach cleanups, documentary viewings, and career fairs, to promote awareness and conservation about topics such as shark conservation, plastic pollution, climate change, and coral bleaching.
During the week, we raised money through food sales, raffle ticket sales, and generous donations. Thanks to our generous donors and sponsors, including Happy Earth, we are thrilled to say we raised a total of $2,100 during the week, all of which we donated directly to the Rescue a Reef Foundation; helping their mission to improve marine ecosystems, further research, engage the community, and increase awareness about pressing ocean conservation issues.
Looking for ways in which you can get involved in marine conservation? Join a beach cleanup at your local beach. If you don’t know of one already organized, start one! Make the switch from plastic to reusable shopping bags. The sea turtles will thank you for sparing them from mistaking those plastic bags for jellyfish. Carpool; use clean energy sources; eat locally produced food. ANYTHING that will reduce your carbon footprint. Elevated global carbon dioxide emissions is a leading cause in climate change and ocean acidification - major threats to the coral reef ecosystems. And PLEASE stop using plastic straws! They’re so unnecessary and pollute our oceans with plastic, leading to their ingestion by many marine animals.
I challenge you, my readers, to pledge to make at least one small change or action every day. Help us turn the tide toward a brighter future for these coral reefs, our marine ecosystems, and the world as a whole.