New coral reef restoration technology aims to reverse damage caused by climate change

Marine scientist Deborah Brosnan recalls “feeling like a visitor to an amazing party” during her diving trips to a bay near the Caribbean island of St. Barthelemy where she swam above the coral reefs with nurse sharks, sea turtles and countless colorful fish.

But on a return trip after Hurricane Irma tore through the island in 2017, she dove into the reef again – and was shocked by what she saw.

“Everything was dead,” she recalled in an interview with Reuters. “There were no sharks, no sea turtles, no sea grass, no living coral. I felt like I had lost my friends.”

Recent research has shown that warmer atmospheric temperatures and rising sea levels contribute to more frequent and destructive tropical storms.

Brosnan’s experience helped spark a mission to create reef restoration technology. The project will span 1 hectare (2.6 acres) of dead reef off the coast of the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda.

The project, known as Ocean-Shot, was announced Thursday at the Global Citizen’s Forum. The technology, funded by American entrepreneur John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of hair products Paul Mitchell, mimics the design and shape of natural reefs to provide opportunities for colonization by corals and other marine life.

The constructed reef modules will also help protect the nearby coastal community from storm surges and sea level rise, project officials said.

Brosnan, whose Washington-based company is leading the effort, said scientists will test new technologies aimed at accelerating coral growth, which naturally takes up to a decade to restore 1 hectare. A nearby coral nursery will also grow several species that will eventually help populate the reef replacement.

Ocean-Shot is launched at a crucial time. Scientists estimate that up to half of the world’s coral reefs have already disappeared and the rest are in danger.

From the Caribbean to the western Pacific, the effects of climate change have led to coral bleaching, a worrying increase in ocean acidification and relentless hurricanes that have wreaked havoc on the world’s reefs, Brosnan said.

It has also been a challenge to draw attention to the plight of coral reefs.

“A lot of people don’t fully appreciate the state of the ocean because they don’t see it,” Brosnan said.

Coral reefs are home to more than 25% of marine biodiversity, including turtles, fish and lobsters, which fuel the global fishing industries. The reef is like an apartment building, Brosnan said, with different species living on each floor, from basement to penthouse.

Serving as protective barriers for coastal communities against wave action, coral reefs allow people to locate homes and businesses closer to the ocean.

Coral reefs attenuate the flow of sand to the beaches, replenishing the sparkling white sand beaches that make the Caribbean a global tourist hotspot. The sand itself is due to coral and a very important local species that feeds on it.

“The white sand beach on a tropical island is actually parrot fish poo,” Brosnan said.

If the world’s remaining reefs continue to die, Brosnan predicts a major financial impact on the fishing and tourism that island nations rely on, which could fuel migration to more developed countries.

“It’s a real concern about where you can live if the coral reef disappears, how you can make a living if the fishing is gone, and where you need to move now,” she said.

After the project is implemented in Antigua and Barbuda, officials hope to replicate Ocean-Shot in other places in the Caribbean and Latin America, Brosnan said, adding that it may be possible to introduce it into other regions.

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