Imagine putting your snorkel on and venturing out into the cool, clear water of an ocean, dipping your face under the surface to see endless schools of fish, their bright and shimmery scales forming a majestic rainbow spectacle.
Now imagine that instead, all you see are the whitewashed remains of coral, not a colorful fish in sight.
Unfortunately, this scene is all too realistic, since marine fish species rely on coral for habitat, food and protection, and coral reefs are currently in rapid decline. In fact, 30% of the world’s coral population has perished already, and scientists predict that this could double to 60% in just 30 years from now. The mass event is called coral bleaching, whereby stressed coral expels the white algae living in their tissue, making them prone to mortality. Bleaching has intensified recently due to warmer ocean temperatures and increased acidification, consequences of climate change.
Why is this an issue? Beyond the aesthetic service that corals provide, the thousands of marine species that they house are a biological wealth providing cures for diseases, and its reefs protect shorelines from the damaging effects of storms and wave action. The commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is over 100 million dollars and coral is worth billions of dollars in tourism. Essentially, without them, we will have lost one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, ensuring biomedical loss, economic consequences and threats to food security.
However, scientists are continuously working to find solutions to the dire state of coral. An impressive technological solution I came across is a newly engineered “super coral,” a coral that can withstand hotter and more acidic oceans. Scientists in Hawaii have been attempting to breed super coral on Hawaii’s Coconut Island, using a theory called assisted evolution. Essentially, they are taking strong, resilient strains of coral and breeding them with one another to raise their ability to survive stress. Some issues with reef restoration such as this are that there is a huge cost and a lot of time involved in planting coral throughout the ocean, so scalability is a withstanding roadblock.
Thus, although technologically savvy solutions have potential to mitigate the harmful effects of coral reef damage, we must also focus on tackling the causes of this damage in the first place; working to reduce human reliance on fossil fuels and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The future of coral depends on it.