• | 11:55 am

This startup raced to save coral reefs as ocean temperatures spiked this summer

Coral restoration company Coral Vita had to work quickly during the summer to remove coral from warming oceans before they bleached.

This startup raced to save coral reefs as ocean temperatures spiked this summer
[Source photo: Harry Lee/Coral Vita]

In July, the team at a coral reef restoration startup in the Bahamas watched the news as the ocean off the nearby Florida coast heated up to as much as 101 degrees—as hot as a hot tub—and starting killing coral.

“It hit Florida before us,” says Sam Teicher, cofounder of the company, called Coral Vita. “We saw what was happening to the natural reefs and to restoration projects, how heartbreaking and catastrophic the damage was, ahead of time, before it came to the Bahamas. We decided to do whatever we could proactively to protect corals.”

They’d known even earlier that heat would likely be a problem this summer, as NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch put out warnings. But as temperatures surged in the water off Florida, they jumped into action, collecting samples of different species that could be taken back to tanks on their land-based coral farm on Grand Bahama Island.

As they went out to local reefs, a coral scientist on the team, Katelyn Gould, discovered that one species of coral was already starting to lose color. This process, called “paling,” is a step before full bleaching, the point when coral expel the algae that live inside their tissue and the coral skeleton turns white. The biggest cause of bleaching is hotter water. When coral bleaches it doesn’t instantly die, but if a bleaching event lasts long enough, the coral can’t survive.

The team traveled over a range of reefs, quickly collecting diverse samples—150 genetically distinct coral colonies, representing 13 different species. “We went and looked for the healthiest, largest pieces of corals that maybe also weren’t bleaching quite as quickly—maybe they had naturally more heat-tolerant genes,” Teicher says. They collected coral fragments ranging from pieces the size of a thumb to the length of an arm, and took them to their farm, where they were quarantined for a couple of weeks before going into temperature-controlled tanks.

Inside its tanks, the company can help coral recover in cooler water, and then can gradually increase temperatures to help the corals slowly adjust. “Corals have an ability to adapt,” Teicher says, but the situation in the ocean is “deteriorating so quickly they can’t keep up.”

When it works with coral at its farm, the company also studies how different fragments perform as the water gets hotter. Using an indoor spawning system, it can also breed the specimens that seem most resilient. While coral naturally spawns just once a year, under a full moon, the indoor system can be used up to four times a year, from morning to night.

The samples that were saved from the ocean this summer could later be replanted as they are, or broken into tiny fragments to help them quickly grow and increase the scale of restoration.

The work happened just in time. “About three or four weeks after Florida really got punched in the face, we then started seeing widespread reef bleaching in the Bahamas,” Teicher says.

Before the summer rescue mission, over the last year and a half, the company planted nearly 10,000 corals in the Bahamas. The company is about to undertake an even larger project, backed by the new Global Fund for Coral Reefs and a local hotel, covering a few acres of reef. (The farm can grow between 30,000 and 60,000 corals a year at its current size.) The team won’t start planting again until at least November, when the water is cooler and hurricane season has ended.

The work is a race against time: Already, the ocean is heating up to temperatures that groups like Coral Vita didn’t expect to see until later in the century. A U.N. climate report in 2018 said that if global warming reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius, coral reefs could decline between 70 and 90%. A more recent study suggests that at 1.5 degrees of warming, more than 99% of corals would disappear. The world is on track to pass 1.5 degrees within the next decade.

With that looming deadline, Coral Vita is working to quickly scale up beyond the Bahamas. The company will operate a new large coral farm planned by Kaust University in Saudi Arabia, and is working with DP World on another project in Dubai. Coral Vita is also exploring work in Florida and in the Maldives. “Our vision has always been scaling globally,” Teicher says. “Every nation on Earth that has coral reefs needs large-scale, high-tech, land-based coral farms.” Other company are developing technology that can help speed up the process, including robotic systems to plant coral.

It’s not clear if the industry can grow quickly enough. In the Bahamas, before Coral Vita company opened its first farm, perhaps 60 to 80% of the corals had already died. The area has faced multiple heat waves, along with a coral disease that began to spread a few years ago. The current bleaching event has been extreme, and it’s unknown how many corals will survive.

But it’s critical to try to do as much as possible. The loss of coral reefs wouldn’t just be the loss of a beautiful ecosystem, but would damage fisheries that depend on coral to support fish. As much as a quarter of all marine species rely on coral reefs at some point in their lives. Losing reefs would also make coastal cities more vulnerable to storms; reefs absorb 97% of the energy from waves.

“It’s heartbreaking, and infuriating, to lose such an incredible ecosystem,” says Teicher. “But we’re also talking about one that protects coastlines from storms and saves people’s lives, shields property and infrastructure against storm damage, that powers tourism economies, and that feeds people around the world.”

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Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley. More

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