Coral Reefs Are One Of The Fastest Failing Ecosystems On The Planet..
An illustration of the pervasiveness and rapidity of collapsing reefs is the Florida Keys, an archipelago of more than 4,300 islands, which has lost more than >90% of its coral cover in less than 30 years (Fig 1). Reefs throughout the world are facing similar destruction, predominantly from stressors such as land-based sources of pollution, over-fishing, and climate change. Unfortunately, there are few examples of successful mitigation of the local or regional forces that are degrading coral reefs. This leaves conservationists and resource managers in a race to identify and manage these stressors against the rapid rate of demise for that coral reef. With over 5,000 known coral species, and over 300,000 sq/kilometers of coral reef communities around the world, it is a race of staggering scale.
Fig.1 Carysfort Reef, once the largest and most luxuriant reef in the Florida Keys, has lost over 92% of its living coral cover from pollution, disease, physical damage, and global-scale threats. Photograph courtesy of Prof. Phillip Dustan.
Coral reefs exist in over 100 countries, and over 80 emerging economies are dependent upon them. Coral reefs provide an essential source for food, a source of revenue for tourism, materials for pharmaceuticals and nutriceuticals, and habitat for fisheries, as well as important ecological services, such as protection from coastal erosion from storms. Economic valuation of these goods and services has been as high as $375 billion per annum with tourism and coastal protection being estimated at nearly $25,000 to $80,000 per hectare of coral reef. About 30 million people rely entirely on coral reefs for their livelihoods. Conserving and restoring coral reefs is paramount if we are to prevent social ills such as poverty, starvation and diet deficiencies, as well as economic and political instability.
Destruction of a coral reef can result from a synergy of adverse forces; forces that need to be identified and rectified. For many scientists, conservationists, and government management agencies, the outcome looks dire. Governments have financed conservation and restoration efforts of over $400 million in the past 10 years with little to show for success. From our failures, two things are clear: (1) we need new methods and strategies for environmental forensic investigation, and (2) we need time to investigate, identify and deal with the local and regional, as well as global, causes of coral reef decline. We have spent the last 15 years developing new forensic technologies and procedures, which have been successfully used in a number of case studies. Unfortunately, what we don’t have is the luxury of time to conduct these investigations and mitigations. Until now…
Whether from the threat of global climate change or failure of pollution management, we cannot react fast enough to manage the stressors that are killing coral reefs..
Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL), a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit organization (NGO), is a world leader in marine biotechnology, marine ecotoxicology, and environmental forensics. HEL has developed and optimised a biotechnology that allows corals to be micropropagated from near-microscopic tissue biopsies (Fig. 2). A piece of coral, the size of your thumb, can generate hundreds of biopsies (also called explants), all of which can be cultured to regenerate into adult corals.
Fig. 2 Coral explant regeneration after explants had been frozen for five days, then thawed, and induced to regenerate into a polyp (adult form of coral).
From these regenerated coral, it is possible to create thousands to millions more corals from the same genetic line. HEL has also developed methods to cryogenically preserve corals so that when they are thawed from their cryogenic state, they are alive and can regenerate into coral. This technology has been awarded both a prestigious Phase I and Phase II Small Business Innovative Research Grants from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The program will set up two international repositories, one in the United States of America and one in the United Kingdom. Both facilities will house identical stocks of coral samples collected from all over the world. Having two comprehensive repositories safeguards the global collection against the calamity of cryogenic failure at one of the facilities. In addition, regional repositories will be established in areas where coral diversity and its value to humans are the greatest. At the regional centres, corals will be collected from the wild, explanted, and placed in a cryogenically preserved state. Triplicates of each deposit will be made with one remaining in the regional repository cryogenic bank, while the other replicate deposits will be sent to the two international repositories. Planned regional repositories include Grand Cayman, Bali, Palau, Hawaii, Dominica, and Australia. Ultimately, we envision establishing over 100 regional repositories around the world.
In partnership with Oxford University and the Zoological Society of London, we have established the Global Coral Repository – A Seed Bank for Restoring Coral Reefs..
Regional repositories will also form a nexus for community groups, local and national governments, and coral reef stakeholders to (1) conduct environmental forensic training and investigations, and (2) to create a centre for regional coral restoration activities. The ultimate mission of The Global Coral Repository (TGCR) is to restore degraded coral reefs. To do this, it has to identify the contribution of stressors that are degrading reefs, and work with local and regional stakeholders to ameliorate these stressors. TGCR will enable local communities and governments to conduct standardized forensic investigations through training, accessibility of world experts, and availability of equipment. By its very activity, TGCR will discover the healthiest reefs in a region, and work with local and international organizations to create marine protected areas to safeguard these reefs. Thus, TGCR is at the forefront in both conserving and restoring coral reefs.