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Plant a Million Corals: coral reef restoration foundation by Dr. David Vaughan

With over forty years of experience in aquaculture, Dr. David Vaughan walks us through the courses of action to take to put coral restoration back on the agenda

Coral reef management 

Plant a Million Corals Foundation aims at saving the biodiversity and the genetic diversity of coral reefs around the world, Dr. Vaughan explains, «corals are considered the first organisms to be affected by climate change because they bleach and most of the time are lost. They’re the poster child, showing how bad they’re treated and hopefully even though it’s impacting almost half of the corals we should be able to take the other half that are already resistant. We cannot be burning fossil fuels anymore; we should show people hope by not over utilizing our resources that affect both ourselves and the planet. We need to educate people to do something about climate change first and foremost then save corals at the same time to have some living reefs to continue on». Developing novel strategies for coral reef management have become a conservation imperative to secure ecological and economical services that they provide for the livelihood of millions of people, as the severity of coral bleaching continues to increase, people have been compelled to consider more radical interventions to mitigate the impacts of global warming and other cumulative anthropogenic stressors. Coral reefs like warm and clear water as the algae in their tissue needs to photosynthesize in addition to sunlight being essential, with these narrow conditions any change can affect the condition of the corals and stresses them. As a stress reaction of high temperatures, the algae leave the tissue of the coral causing them to have a bleached appearance; corals are a good indicator of changes happening in the environment. «Corals are unique because of the fact that they are both plant and animal, the algae that lives inside them acts as the host. Just like any plant in a forest uses photosynthesis, fix carbon and provide carbohydrates which it shares to both the corals and marine animals. That energy allows the animal to be able to get carbon and calcium creating a calcium carbonate shell which builds the habitat of the reef for hundreds of species of fish. Most organisms go to reefs to breed, feed or to raise their young. Besides the biological services that it provides it is a tourist attraction as well as a major supply of seafood. They become a shoreline protection in the form of a living organism that has produced a geological protection to protect the high waves».

Plant a Million Corals Foundation’s coral reef restoration

Coral cover has been undergoing a steady deterioration worldwide, with over fifty percent of coral reefs being lost in the last thirty years. It has become apparent that more stringent actions are necessary at both global and local scales to ensure a secure future for coral reefs. Coral reef restoration has been a strategy employed as a management strategy to halt declines in coral cover and support reef resilience. Founder of Plant a Million Corals Foundation, Dr. David Vaughan, who has held positions in aquaculture research and development for over forty-five years. Dr. Vaughan’s increased interest in coral reef restoration is illustrated through his foundation, taking action on putting coral restoration back on the environmental agenda. Anthropogenic disturbances have led to the degradation of coral reef systems globally; coral reef systems that have constituted to cover less than 0.1 percent of the world’s ocean area yet acting as a home and providing food and shelter to more than one quarter of all marine species. Corals, being marine invertebrates, include essential reef builders that inhabit oceans and secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton. «Everybody most of the time targets one species: a fast-growing branching coral called staghorn which looks like a dear’s antlers and they weren’t handling any of the other mass of corals like the brain coral or the boulder corals; the ones that really build the reef. My efforts were focused on trying to see if this could be done at scale for all the other orphan corals attempting to culture corals like I used to culture clams, oysters and fish in a hatchery». While people often think of corals as plants or rocks, in fact coral polyps are small, soft-bodied invertebrates related to sea anemones and jellyfish. These polyps devise exoskeletons that accumulate and connect to one another to form coral reefs; reefs that are under threat from numerous fronts like ocean acidification, climate change, destructive fishing practices, pollution, sedimentation, and coastal development. «It turns out that no one knew anything about the sexual reproduction of corals until 1985, that they even had a sexual cycle, in the hatchery we tried to produce a few handfuls of corals which I call my first test-tube corals but they grew really slow for the first three years, when I went to move one, it broke into several pieces; instead of it hurting them it triggered them to grow very fast like a human response. This sort of technology had to be shown so I retired from the oceanographic institution and founded our own foundation ‘Plant a Million Corals’ which is meant to be able to cultivate corals and show people around the world that it could be done, that it’s our mission and our vision».

Coral micro-fragments planted in the field

The issue of climate change and ocean acidification

Corals date back to 400 million years in one shape or form and with each global temperature rise that the earth has undergone, corals have adapted, but never as quickly as they must today. Climate change poses an eminent threat and due to the rise in temperatures of the water, carbon dioxide gets absorbed in the ocean causing a change in the pH levels of the water becoming more acidic and creating what is called ocean acidification. Dr. Vaughan divulges further, «depending whether you have a near shore pollution, overfishing or destructive forms of fishing such as fishing with chlorine or dynamite called blast fishing: blowing up the habitat in order to get a few of the stunned fish. While we do not have that problem in some areas, there are other areas where blast fishing is their number one stressor and it is hard to think of an increase in one or two degrees Celsius when someone is using dynamite on the reef». Dynamite fishing is a common yet destructive way to fish, many countries acquire chemicals, placing them in plastic bottles with a fuse going into the water and explodes. This method kills the fish and causes them to all float on the surface of the water. The explosives leave the blasted areas and decimated corals in ruin, destroying a three-dimensional house-like structure that is home for thousands of marine species. Corals are often described as the canary in the coal mine as they have sensitivities to changes in their environment, and if the problem digresses further and keeps being ignored scientists believe that we may see the disappearance of corals within our lifetime. «What we usually find on land is that people take areas of land and put them under some sort of reserve or protection; we are used to a wildlife protected area, a state park or a national park. Now we are finally realizing that we have to do the same things underwater, calling them marine protected areas. In many countries, a substantial percentage is being preserved so that they are not over exploited. We can go a long way in regulations to try and protect it but we have to use the regulation of the dollar; know the economic benefit value these things really have and make it an economic incentive to actually protect our corals».

Coral fragments growing together in land based nursery

The relationship between diversity  and productivity of the oceans and mankind survival

Oceans provide at least a sixth of the animal protein people consume, living oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce climate change impacts. The diversity and productivity of the world’s oceans is a vital interest for humankind; mankind’s security, economy and survival all require healthy oceans. Invisible and unattainable goals make it all the more difficult on humans to grasp the depth of the environmental issue that is being addressed; it is onerous for people and policy makers to comprehend the three-dimensional underground world when one cannot see what happens below the waterline. «The fact that corals are hidden under water makes protecting these species difficult and unless you are scuba diver or have seen some of Jacques Cousteau’s specials you would not know what we are losing. It is difficult when something is out of sight for the majority of the world population to try and save it. It was Jacques Cousteau that said, «we cannot save what we know or understand».. When people see upfront and personal things like whales or dolphins, they are more likely to try and save those; corals have become forefront now in the news of how bad it is but maybe if everybody understands how beautiful they are and why we shouldn’t risk losing them it may have the ability for us to slow down our overabundance of burning of fossil fuels as it is not just the corals that will be affected but other organisms including us». Founder of Plant a Million Corals foundation, Dr. Vaughan states that in order to turn this course around and to make a positive impact is by focusing on restoration in smaller areas but to work on that specific area intensely as opposed to dispersing corals over a larger area where it would reach full maturity in a hundred years. «Because it is looked at as too large. When you put something on a track that is next to impossible to show success it is hard for people to have hope, you need to drive a scenario that is not all doom and gloom. Put hundreds of corals in an area that people used to know to restore it again in a few years in their lifetime».

Dr. David Vaughan

A well-published aquaculture scientist, who has had over forty years of experience in designing, building and operating a multitude of marine projects and businesses since he received his Ph.D. in Botany and Plant Physiology from Rutgers University in 1982. He has formerly worked for and with several other marine science organizations over the span of the years but has now retired from those organizations and is representing his foundation: Plant A Million Corals.

Farah Hassan

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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