New coral reef restoration technology aims to reverse damage from climate change

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

But on a return trip after Hurricane Irma ravaged the island in 2017, she plunged back into the reef – and was shocked at what she saw.

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

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

Brosnan’s experiment helped spark a mission to create reef restoration technology. The project will cover 1 hectare of dead reef off the coast of the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda.

The project, known as Ocean-Shot, was announced at the Global Citizen’s Forum on Thursday. The technology, funded by American entrepreneur John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair products, 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 efforts, 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 cultivate several species that will eventually help populate the replacement reef.

Ocean-Shot is launched at a crucial moment. 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 bring attention to the plight of coral reefs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a real concern where you can live if the coral reef disappears, how you can make a living if the fisheries disappear 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 expand it to other regions.

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