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SALT LAKE CITY — The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium has launched a coral reef restoration program in celebration of World Oceans Week, the organization announced Friday.
Their efforts seek to address the decline of coral reef systems globally through coral farming, a proven method which utilizes underwater coral farms to grow and replant to establish healthy reefs, according to a press release from the aquarium.
More than a quarter of the world’s live coral has been lost over the past 30 years as a result of climate change and mass coral bleaching, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This puts up to 25% of the ocean’s marine species, which live in these reefs, at risk, NOAA says, and it hurts the $3.4 billion industry surrounding coral reefs, including fisheries and tourism.
“The initiative is to restore coral reefs in what is referred to as the Coral Triangle’” Brent Andersen, CEO of the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, told KSL.com, "which is basically the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and just in that area — which is one of the most biologically diverse, from a species standpoint, in the world.”
The reef restoration program will be utilizing a coral farming technique successfully executed in the Caribbean, according to Andersen. Divers gather fragments from existing coral, generally around the size of a finger, which have broken off due to storms. They then suspend them on coral trees that are attached to the seafloor, and the suspension causes rapid growth of the fragments into full-fledged corals.
“Coral reef systems are in decline,” the press release said. “Without change, scientists estimate we will lose 70 to 90% of reefs in the next 30 years. To help prevent this devastating loss, The Living Planet Reef Restoration Program is taking action.”
These sites are able to accommodate 20 coral trees, thus creating a nursery, according to the news release. Six hundred new corals grow per year on each tree, making it possible to grow 12,000 new coral fragments per year in one nursery.
The key to their efforts is the speed at which coral grows under the new conditions. The coral has been fragmented so it has an injury response prompting it to grow faster, according to Andersen. It is also suspended, and it knows it is not anchored to the bottom, so it grows at a much more rapid rate because it’s trying to find a place to anchor to.
“So when we suspend the coral on these trees, the rapid growth rate that results in each fragment, we suspend growing to the size of a cantaloupe over the span of about six months," Andersen said. "It also can produce about five additional fragments that we can then transplant.”
Those coral fragments are planted to create healthy reef ecosystems, the news release said. Even better, the fragments are genetically suited to handle rising ocean temperatures, a gene they pass along to future generations.
“We’re choosing the corals that are surviving best in the warmer temperatures,” Andersen explained. “They wind up doing better; and then when we transfer those fragments and plant them onto the sea floor and coral reefs, they grow and mature, and those genes are now reproducing naturally throughout the system. So we’ve reproduced that timeline that would happen naturally over time, and made it through artificial selection so that corals which can handle the temperatures and acidity increases are the ones getting reproduced.”
Andersen hopes their reef restoration project will help restore struggling coral reefs, but he recognizes that numerous things need to be done to address the problem effectively.
“Even if we stopped adding carbon dioxide today, it’s kind of like a train where it’s gonna keep rolling and temperatures are gonna keep rising for several decades,” Andersen explained, acknowledging that rising ocean temperatures due to climate change are one of the biggest causes of coral reef decline. “We’ve got to figure out what we can do in addition to lowering CO2 and not polluting. We can take steps knowing what’s going to happen in the next few decades.”
“Our team is in the Philippines now on an expedition,” Andersen said, "they’re literally getting in the ocean this morning for another lap to install additional coral trees. We’re actively down there and looking to expand with public support.”
The aquarium is a nonprofit and the reef restoration program will largely be funded through donations, so Andersen asked that interested people look into their options for helping the program.
“You can adopt a coral fragment, which can fund the project through adoption of individual fragment, tree or entire nursery,” Andersen explained. “There’s also the option to fund a marine biologist in that part of the world, which only costs about $7,000 per year. You can even come and participate on one of the expeditions with us.”
Read more about the program on the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium’s website.