San Rafael scientists help coral reef restoration project – Marin Independent Journal


Could the answers to preventing the death of the world’s coral reefs be found in deeper ocean waters or in a lab-created reef?

San Rafael residents Rebecca Albright and Pim Bongaerts, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences, are exploring these possibilities as part of the academy’s global initiative, Hope for Reefs. Launched in 2016, the project aims to both restore reefs and make them more resilient to warming and more acidic ocean waters that have killed around half of the world’s reefs over the past three decades.

Researchers expect the remaining reefs to disappear before the turn of the century if drastic action is not taken globally, which would have lasting effects on 25 percent of marine life and hundreds of millions. people who depend on it for their livelihoods, savings and protection.

Bongaerts and Albright are enlisting the help of new technologies such as creating 3D maps of reef biodiversity, lab-controlled reefs, and robotics in hopes of finding these solutions, but both say such efforts cannot. go further.

“Yes, it’s very exciting that there are these emerging technological solutions, but I don’t think any of them will be the silver bullet,” Bongaerts said in his academy office in San Francisco. “It is really important that while we are working on these important avenues, the big issue that we have to tackle if we are to preserve coral reefs is climate change.”

Deep reefs

Bongaerts joined Hope for Reefs last year to explore whether deep reefs could be a refuge for their shallower cousins. These deeper habitats are still not well understood, but Bongaerts said there have been some promising finds so far.

“Most of what we knew was pretty anecdotal,” Bongaerts said. “So what we’ve done is try to figure out how well these reefs are actually protected and if there are other disturbances that are affecting these deeper reefs that we don’t know about. “

Pim Bongaerts (Courtesy California Academy of Sciences)

So far, research has indicated that deep reefs may be more resilient to the impacts of climate change and that there may be an overlap between shallow and deeper species at depths of around 100 to 150 feet.

Using a combination of underwater 3D mapping tools and improved gene sequencing technology, Bongaerts and his colleagues seek to determine where and if this overlap of coral species exists and identify species that are more resilient than researchers can potentially use it to repopulate other reefs.

Getting there is easier said than done, Bongaerts said. The diversity and scale of coral reefs will force researchers to collect a large amount of samples in a short time and at the lowest possible cost.

Using divers alone would be too expensive, too long and potentially dangerous in these deep habitats, he said.

This is where robotics comes in. Hannah Stuart, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, and her graduate student Monica Li are working to design a technology for Bongaert’s research with a goal in Head: Collect as many coral samples as quickly as possible with the least possible impact on the environment as possible.

Stuart is no stranger to robotic ocean exploration. As a doctoral student at Stanford University, she helped design the hands of a humanoid robotic diver called Ocean One, who studied the wreck of the ship La Lune in the Mediterranean Sea.

Stuart said the ocean is an incredible source of technological design inspiration, and deep reefs are no different.

“Lack of easy access to the deep ocean, and therefore a lack of knowledge about how the ocean works, makes mitigating damage to these environments an intractable problem,” said Stuart. “I think the real power of remote robotic technology is that we can gain new knowledge about places we haven’t been able to explore quickly before. “

Li has since designed prototypes of a type of robotic gripper that would collect the coral samples, with testing coming next month on the Caribbean island of Curacao. Stuart said this robotic device is supposed to be his own hardware that can be attached to different remote control vehicles as needed.

Reproductive resilience

Hope for Reefs is developing techniques to rebuild coral reef colonies en masse, but it will be pointless if these young corals cannot survive the changing waters of the ocean.

San Rafael resident Rebecca Albright is a coral reef researcher at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. (Alan Dep / Marin Independent Journal)

Albright, whose research has focused on ocean acidification and warming, said as the ocean becomes more acidic, it undermines the ability of corals to reproduce and reduces their growth rates.

“If those two things don’t happen, the system will just fall apart,” Albright said.

The ocean has become 30% more acidic over the past century as the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide, the rate of acidification increasing to alarming levels before the turn of the century, Alrbright said.

Albright built a coral spawning lab with the academy with the goal of determining how corals can continue to breed in acidic waters. The ability to spawn coral in a laboratory environment has been limited by technology so far, Albright said, as factors such as lunar cycles and seasonal temperatures can play a role in the coral’s reproductive cycle. .

“Once we can do that, we can see if there are ways to help corals reproduce more efficiently and then translate them into the field,” Albright said.

One of the problems caused by the deaths is that the coral reefs have become less dense, which has resulted in the release of eggs and sperm from the corals at different times.

“If they don’t reproduce at the same time, they are effectively missing each other and then never have a chance to be successful,” Albright said.

Albright said they are looking into whether coral populations need to be relocated so they can have better reproductive communications or bring corals into the lab to induce reproduction.

More information on the Hope for Reefs initiative is available online at calacademy.org/major-initiatives/hope-for-reefs


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