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The US has proposed to protect 12 critical coral species in the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean, which- if implemented- would protect nearly 16 000 sq km of critical coral habitat.

Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, and they also serve as economic lifelines to millions around the world. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), their annual economic value in the US alone exceeds USD$3 billion. 

What is Happening?

While Andrew Baker, a marine biologist with the University of Miami who specialises in the impact of climate change on coral reefs, praises the proposed protections, he calls them a “necessary but insufficient step” for helping coral species. He says, “The critical habitat designation in and of itself isn’t going to protect corals from climate change directly, but it does prevent certain potentially destructive activities from occurring in these habitats,” he said.

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In 2019, The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration for its failure to implement habitat protections for these species five years after the corals were initially listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. Threatened species are supposed to receive habitat protections at the same time they are listed. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

Corals are well-known for their captivating colours due to microscopic algae inhabitants. However, some have been seen glowing, which is unusual. Researchers have sought to understand the reason behind this glowing in a new study, which has found that it plays a significant role in maintaining the symbiotic relationship between corals and its zooxanthellae. How do these fluorescent pigments help corals to adapt to climate change? 

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Coral reefs are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and the primary production that occurs through photosynthesis is established by the mutualistic relationship between the zooxanthellae and corals. Zooxanthellae is a type of algae, known as dinoflagellates, that live symbiotically with corals. Zooxanthellae carry out photosynthesis to provide nutrients to corals, while corals offer shelter to the algae.

Fluorescent Pigments Act as a Protective Shield

In surface water, sunlight is a key driver for the photosynthetic primary production, where zooxanthellae undergo photosynthesis. Yet, high energy wavelengths such as UV rays may cause photoinhibition and photodamage to the algae. Previous studies have found that corals possess types of protein with fluorescent pigments to counteract the environmental stress induced by sunlight by absorbing or diverging the damaging wavelengths and converting them into lower-energy light such as visible and infra-red light. A similar mechanism can also be found in terrestrial plants such as blueberries, which contains a pigment called anthocyanins, to reduce light stress when exposed to sunlight. 

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Why are Corals Glowing in the Deep Sea? 

Apart from the surface water, corals also display psychedelic colours in the deep-sea region, where there is little or no sunlight. A recent study found evidence that corals use fluorescence to increase its survival in the deep-sea environment, which serve a different purpose than that of corals living in shallow water. 

Given that the deep sea environment is dominated by blue light, deep-sea corals are equipped with a specific protein, known as photoconvertible red fluorescent protein, which converts the blue light into longer wavelength (i.e. orange-red light). Orange-red wavelengths help enhance light penetration and reflection, and allow even distribution of light within the coral tissue and its skeleton, thus increasing the productivity of zooxanthellae living in deeper coral tissue.  

Studies have also discovered that more of the red fluorescent proteins in corals was found in the lower water column, demonstrating the ecological significance of the red fluorescent protein to help corals better adapt to the deep-sea region.

The glowing colour may also appear in cases where coral bleaching occurs. Given that coral symbionts are sensitive to heat and light stress, corals who suffer from these stressors would result in symbiont expulsion. Experimental studies demonstrated that corals have developed a self-regulating mechanism, known as an optical feedback loop, which is triggered by the increased internal backscattering light from the coral skeleton due to reducing symbiont density in coral tissue. Corals can enhance photoprotection through increasing internal light absorption by protein pigments to lower the light stress, which in turn helps facilitate the recolonisation of symbionts on bleached coral tissue. 

Scientists have just provided a new explanation as to why corals are being seen glowing in deep-sea environments, showing that it does so to adapt to environmental stresses. The study also emphasises how little we know about coral reefs and marine ecosystems. Coral reefs have long been known to be the most productive and biodiverse ecosystem on Earth and have recently been found to be a new reservoir for medicine discovery in recent years. 

In view of the increasing rate of coral bleaching due to the climate crisis, effective actions will need to be taken collaboratively by government and international organisations to prevent further degradation of environmental quality. 

 

Like a mermaid on an underwater picnic, she floats gently in the current as slivers of sunlight reveal a garden of corals in the Golfo Dulce, in southern Costa Rica. Holding a basket filled with round, spiked corals, she collects one last specimen, then begins her ascent. As she breaks the surface, Socorro Avila, a research assistant who grew up on this gulf, joins Joanie Kleypas and Tatiana Villalobos – two more mermaids – and they swim towards the boat that idles nearby.

The three scientists deliver their bounty, passing round, spiked corals into the waiting boat. Handling each piece requires patience — some trail along a clear fishing line, while others twist into woven strands of a rope. As they untangle each precious item, the corals’ branches jostle, tinkling like porcelain dolls colliding. The team board the boat, doff their scuba gear, and head further into the gulf — one step closer to understanding these mysterious species.

For three years, this team that goes by the name of Raising Coral Costa Rica has been snapping off coral pieces from existing reefs to grow them in an underwater nursery. Months later, the team moves the nursery-grown corals and attaches them to skeleton-like structures that once were living, thriving reefs in the Golfo Dulce. Kleypas, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, has spent 30 years spent studying coral reefs, while Villalobos, along with a handful of other researchers involved in the project, are a part of the University of Costa Rica’s ocean and freshwater science division, or CIMAR.

The team is using tested techniques and experimental ideas to grow coral and revive ancient reefs in the Golfo Dulce, an underwater oasis in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean, where coral reefs have been historically understudied. By contrast, researchers have studied corals of the Caribbean Ocean and the Great Barrier Reef far more extensively. “These corals have been ignored, mainly because they don’t form big, huge reefs,” Kleypas said. But the species in this part of the Pacific support high levels of biodiversity, behaving similarly to the well-studied Caribbean reefs, but with fewer corals overall, she added.

Their findings are helping to restore local ecosystems, and could help researchers who hope to revive reefs in nearby countries. The species of the Golfo Dulce, when compared to a lot of the world’s reefs, may hold extraordinary clues about resilience to changing ocean conditions. Each day, the ocean’s tide ebbs and flows in the gulf, which raises and lowers the temperature, acidity, and salinity regularly. Because these reefs are exposed to constant fluctuations, researchers are curious whether they may be better suited to withstand changing ocean conditions than the corals that live in the ocean, without daily fluctuating conditions.

As the race to save our oceans against a changing climate accelerates around the world, knowing how to rebuild one of its foundational components, coral reefs, may be one way that scientists can help them survive in a warming world.

“Sweet Water” No More

Spanish explorers led by Christopher Columbus landed their ships on the western coast of Costa Rica in the early 1500s. In Spanish, Golfo Dulce translates to “sweet gulf,” but the early explorers in this part of Latin America used the name to refer to sweet, or fresh, water. Four large rivers — Tigre, Rincón, Esquinas and Coto-Colorado — empty into the gulf. This fresh and salty water mixture makes the gulf less salty than the ocean; the Golfo Dulce has a salinity of 28 to 34 parts per million, compared to an average of 35 parts per million in the ocean.

The gulf spans roughly 500 square miles and reaches more than 650 feet deep, making it one of the world’s few tropical fjords, a long stretch of deep water surrounded by steep shores. With its calm waters and expansive depths, Golfo Dulce is a hotspot for marine wildlife. It is the only known place where both northern and southern humpback whales migrate while calving, new invertebrates are still being discovered, and sharks, turtles and fish use these gentle waters as a temporary and permanent residence throughout the year.

Along the gulf’s shallow coastline, and on the sloping bottoms below, lie patches of ancient coral reefs — some dating back thousands of years. Decades ago, these reefs were nearly decimated by agricultural development. Chiquita Banana, part of the larger United Fruit Company, moved to the area in 1937 and began building its headquarters, as well as banana plantations. This heavily altered the tropical jungle, and dirt filled the rivers and gulf in unprecedented amounts. Development in the area continued when banana plantations were converted to plots for palm oil in the 1980s. A study between 1992 and 1996 revealed that live coral coverage on one reef in the gulf, in playa Sándalo, decreased from 29 to 17%, due to elevated amounts of erosion.

“I spent my childhood here. I did my homework, fished and swam,” said Jorge Largaespada Amador. Now 53, Amador moved to Playa Blanca, a small town on the gulf, when he was six. He recounted swimming with red snapper and sharks as they hunted nearby in the reefs.

“The reefs were alive, now they’re dead.”

Today, much of the land surrounding Golfo Dulce is protected as a national park or refuge, but only a small portion of the water is included. “About 10 percent of Piedras Blancas National Park, around 14,000 hectares total, extends into the gulf,” said Geinier Barquero Vanegas, a park ranger with MINAE SINAC, the division of the national government that manages conversation areas. In 2010, the Golfo Dulce was declared an Área Marina para la Pesca Responsable, making it the largest responsible fishing area in Central America. This declaration prevents commercial fishing boats from entering the Golfo Dulce, offering marine life in the gulf a chance to rebuild and flourish.

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costa rica corals

Coral polyps (source: Mongabay). 

“Los Corales,” the Corals

Most of the world’s reefs, including those in the Golfo Dulce, grow in shallow, tropical waters near the equator. In total, these reefs cover 284,300 square kilometers, or less than 1%, of the seafloor — and the reefs in this gulf represent a small fraction of the already thin sliver. But coral reefs build the foundation of marine ecosystems — they support over 25% of ocean life. Coral, using minerals from the seawater, build a structure for countless organisms to live. In the Golfo Dulce, little coral crabs are common tenants in the branches of the reefs, and schools of fish move through the reefs every day. Larger marine animals, like spotted eagle rays and nurse sharks, use these areas as nursery and hunting grounds.

Like New York City, filled with industrial buildings and people keeping the lights on, a coral reef is made up of animals that build the structures and algae that live inside. The algae, known as zooxanthellae, use sunlight to produce the majority of the energy needed to power the underwater cities, and the coral provides a safe haven.

When ocean conditions change, such as when water temperatures rise uncharacteristically or water clarity decreases, the two organisms that work together to build a reef fall out of sync. This off-balanced relationship causes the colorful, energy-producing organism to flee the reef, leaving behind a colorless, “bleached” coral skeleton with no substantial way of producing its own energy.

Over time, as runoff in Golfo Dulce accelerated, the corals were covered with sediment and sunlight was blocked. The algae weren’t able to produce enough energy and the corals eventually began to die. And ocean warming trends of recent history have only accelerated coral bleaching events in Golfo Dulce, and around the world.

During a massive global 2015-2016 coral bleaching event, 75% of the Golfo Dulce’s coral cover declined. But the Raising Coral research team was surprised when corals started to recover only two years later. “We got excited that they came back relatively quickly … they’re so tough,” Kleypas said. Filled with more than an inkling of hope from these hardy corals, the team is working towards establishing a process for coral restoration in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean and genetic testing to define what’s behind this resilience.

Coral species as a whole have become increasingly threatened and researchers don’t know if these complex underwater communities can survive into the next century. Although we can’t necessarily halt climate change or human pressures altogether, there may be ways to lessen the impacts on coral reefs. If done right, coral reef restoration may be a way to produce climate-tolerant corals. In a world where haphazard restoration projects are springing up overnight, this team’s approach to restoration and the unique environment in Costa Rica may serve as a model for researchers racing to rebuild the world’s coral reefs.

The Team

When Joanie Kleypas was introduced to the eastern tropical Pacific waters of Costa Rica, she learned about ancient reefs that had been decimated by runoff. “I had to see them for myself,” she said. Kleypas was inspired and used funds from an award in 2011 to begin experimenting with ways to help the corals grow again. “This part of Costa Rica has a history of ecological conservation — the water quality was improving and people were starting to care about the Golfo Dulce,” Kleypas said.

Tatiana Villalobos, who grew up in the northern Alajuela Province in Costa Rica, was embarking on graduate studies at the University of Costa Rica when a mutual friend introduced her to Kleypas in 2016. Villalobos had experienced the shock of seeing a bleached coral reef in her teenage years, and knew that she had to do something to help. Together, they began a project that combined their passion for coral reefs and ties to southern Costa Rica.

The two researchers and their teammate, José Andrés Marín Moraga, who focuses on restoration in Costa Rica’s North Pacific coast, set off to the United States in 2016, to learn how to grow coral species from David Vaughan, then director of the Mote Marine Lab in Florida. Vaughan has pioneered a technique called “microfragmentation,” now used to grow corals around the world. A form of asexual reproduction, microfragmentation creates an exact genetic copy of an individual coral without female or male sex cells combining. It works by breaking off a small piece of living coral and growing it in optimal marine conditions: a steady flow of nutrients and plenty of sunlight. After spending 6 to 10 months in the nursery, the coral fragment grows as a clone of the organism from which it was harvested.

After learning the technique, Kleypas and Villalobos came back to Costa Rica. The team of Raising Coral now includes experts in coral reef ecology, social science, business, and local expertise. Avila, a lifelong resident of the land surrounding the Golfo Dulce, joined the team to help tend to the underwater nurseries each month. Finding people who grew up near these waters, who know them best and have a mutual interest in its health, was a major priority for Villalobos and Kleypas.

Before starting any work in the Golfo Dulce, Villalobos spoke with the local communities who rely on the health of the gulf. She met and interviewed nearly 200 residents, probing their knowledge of coral reefs. “It was really interesting, and at times, very frustrating,” she says. She learned that some of the local fishermen thought that the bleached corals, a brighter white color, were healthy and well, when in reality, healthy coral species of the eastern tropical Pacific have a dull, neutral coloring.

“We really needed to do our homework before we started this project,” Kleypas says. They surveyed all of the reef structures — investigating water quality, proximity to development, and ability to provide larvae to other reef structures. Ultimately, they identified two different sites, both on underwater slopes not far from the shore, that seemed most promising for restoration.

In 2017, the Raising Coral team built an underwater nursery in a shallow, calm section of the Golfo Dulce with PVC pipes, ropes, clear fishing line and empty plastic jugs used as buoys. They tied small bits of coral harvested from the gulf to the PVC structures, creating structures that looked like underwater Christmas trees with coral ornaments floating in the current.

In the beginning, things didn’t go well: about 80% of the corals growing in the nursery didn’t survive. “It was scary; we were learning as we went,” says Villalobos. Now, things have changed, after three years of trial and error, over 1,500 new coral reef pieces have grown in their nursery — some as large as a basketball. These are harvested months later and then transported and attached to deadened reef structures.

The researchers visit the newly planted corals each month, recording their growth progress and overall health. So far, about 200 corals have been planted, and of those, 70 to 80 percent appear healthy and growing. Kleypas points out that restoring coral reefs takes time, and that only if the restored reefs survive changing ocean conditions can the restoration be considered successful.

The Coral Garden

On a recent January afternoon, the team tends to its underwater garden. Villalobos and Avila use a toothbrush to carefully clean the PVC pipes, brushing away algae. Kleypas hovers in the water over a structure that resembles a raised garden bed attached to the bottom of the seafloor with ropes running its length. She is using small, sharp pliers to break apart a large piece of coral and attach each smaller piece into an unraveled section of rope. While the exact reasoning is still unknown, these newer, experimental rope gardens are producing bigger, healthier coral fragments than expected. “There’s something about the rope that they really like,” she said later. “The corals from this line nursery have been growing so fast!”

A long few days lay ahead for Avila and the team of researchers who must clean the underwater nursery, harvest and plant the larger corals and string up new, smaller pieces. Everything seems to take longer underwater, and similar to the investment required in restoration work, patience is a virtue. Much about how to get these corals to grow fast and strong enough to survive outside of the nursery remains unknown — their destiny hinges on an eventual understanding of these species and for now, luck.

Restoration projects around the world are taking off, Kleypas said. The amount of research that goes into the execution of some projects, however, seems shockingly stunted. In the 1970s, a non-profit organisation dumped two million used car tires off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in an effort to attract more marine life to the area. Nearly 40 years later, the area was barren of any new life (or corals) and local authorities were faced with a new problem — how to remove millions of old tires from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Rebuilding for the Future

But something must be done. As ocean temperatures around the world warm as a result of climate change and human development continues nearly unabated, global coral researchers estimate that reefs may not be able to survive without active restoration. “By 2050, estimates predict that nearly all of the reefs will be threatened, with 75% facing high to critical levels,” said Jose M. Eirin-Lopez, a coral scientist at Florida International University. This means that the 500 million or so people who currently depend on reefs for food, protection or tourism income, 30 million of which are the poorest on the planet, will be affected in some way.

Meticulous, stepwise experiments may hold a key to remedy this climate change catastrophe. Villalobos is working with surrounding countries to share what’s worked and what hasn’t, in hope that it can help. El Salvador’s Pacific coast shares many of the same coral species as those found in the Golfo Dulce, and researchers are starting to take advantage of the lessons learned by Raising Coral to begin rebuilding their own reefs. Active, organized restoration is still in its planning stages, but Johanna Segovia, an associate researcher involved in coral reef management in El Salvador, sees the work of Raising Coral as pioneering and an example to follow.

Drifting Into the Sunset

As the boat engine roar subsides, we glide through the calm waters of the Golfo Dulce and the boat drifts to a stop near a large, once-thriving reef. The coastline is filled with jungle: trees, vines, an occasional set of scarlet macaws and a glimpse of dark volcanic sand. It’s time to give Avila’s recently-harvested corals a new home.

Villalobos, Kleypas, and Avila slip into the water and begin working to attach the new corals to the ancient reef structure. They hammer a large nail into a section of the reef and use a plastic zip tie to attach each coral ornament to its stake. Even underwater, the distinct tinkling sound of a hammer hitting a nail can be heard. The corals grown in the pieces of rope are left in the twining and attached at either end to the reef structure, swaying like a clothesline in the ocean current.

A symphony of cicadas blares from the shores as the sun begins to set and the Raising Coral crew wraps up their day in the field. The mood oscillates between excitement of what’s ahead and a calm quiet. It was a productive day.

“It’s exhausting but we’re rewarded with the fact that the corals want to grow,” Kleypas said. “As long as they don’t give up, we won’t.”

Featured image by: Mongabay

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Ashleigh Papp, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

According to researchers at the University of Hawaii, a newly discovered seaweed has been wreaking havoc on the pristine coral reefs throughout the Northern Hawaiian islands. Individual mats of this seaweed are as big as football fields, have the ability to break off and form tumbleweed-like structures, and- most dangerously- compete with corals for nutrients and light. They have described this seaweed as ‘highly destructive with the potential to outgrow entire reef systems’. 

The seaweed was discovered in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a pristine conservation area with high ecological value considered as a World Heritage Site. The area is home to over 7 000 marine species, 14 million seabirds, and is home to the threatened green sea turtle and endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Each of these species relies on the existing reef systems for shelter, food and structural protection (erosion protection from waves). 

The red seaweed, known as Chondria tumulosa, was initially discovered through surveys conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) back in 2016. The first appearance was in the Pearl and Hermes Atoll. A follow-up survey was conducted in 2019 and it was then that researchers discovered their alarming growth rates that had covered entire reef systems. From DNA testing, there is no existing match of known algae, hence it is considered a new type of seaweed in the genus Chondria. 

According to the US National Invasive Species Information Center, the new seaweed is not considered invasive, as it is unknown whether it was introduced to the native islands by humans or if it originated from there in very small numbers and only recently exploded. Normally, marine invasive species are introduced into new areas via human activities, through fish being accidentally transported on ships, for example. 

Researchers have instead characterised the seaweed as a ‘nuisance species’ due to the sudden ecological impact caused by its expansive and explosive growth. There is conclusive evidence of their abilities to destroy coral reefs; according to the published article, the seaweed was found to outgrow native reef species and replace keystone species, fundamentally, changing the ecological structure of reefs. This has caused irreversible damage to coral reefs in Hawaii because the seaweed is outcompeting the corals for light and nutrients, causing a collapse in the ecosystem. 

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The researchers are also concerned at the seaweed’s tendency to break off into tumbleweed-like structures and travel far distances, posing risks for nearby coral reef ecosystems. 

Another example where an invasive species has decimated the native ecosystem is that of the lionfish. Originating from the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, the lionfish has invaded the Atlantic ocean, with frequent sightings along the southeastern coast of the US and the Bermuda Islands. The Lionfish hunts and outcompetes native fish for food, causing an imbalanced food chain.

In areas where the seaweed had taken over, Heather Spalding, one of the researchers and an algae specialist from the University of Hawaii says that “everything was dead underneath.” The large mats of seaweed essentially block light that corals need to live, making it difficult for these and other marine life to flourish. Known species of fish that graze on algae do not touch the new seaweed, and such areas are void of marine life. 

Determining the causes of a systemic change in the ecosystem is rather difficult but one important factor favouring seaweed growth is increasing ocean temperatures. Opportunistic seaweed can adapt to fluctuating warmer waters and completely overtake coral-dominated systems. An example of this is in the Gulf of Maine where there used to be an abundance of kelp beds but these are currently being overtaken by turf seaweed. Growth of kelp beds favour lower temperatures and they provide large areas of cover for the native fish. Without this cover, native fish are being predated on by migratory fish species.

Seasonal changes can contribute to seaweed blooms throughout the year, but with over 20 years of NOAA observations and surveys in the area, the researchers have concluded that it is not an ordinary seaweed seasonal growth, but rather a symptom of an existing problem, such as increasing water temperature from climate change. 

To combat this nuisance seaweed and save coral reefs in Hawaii and beyond, it is vital to find out the origins and causes of growth, both of which are still unknown at this stage. The researchers are returning to the area to study for more information.

Featured image by: Mike Cialowicz

Scientists have found that coral reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern tip of the Red Sea are capable of withstanding temperature increases of up to seven degrees Celsius, providing an opportunity to replicate these heat-resistant corals in other parts of the world to prevent reefs from dying off amid increasing temperatures and consequent bleaching events.

In the study conducted at the University of Eilat, the coral taken from the Gulf was able to withstand temperature increases of up to seven degrees Celsius. In fact, Maoz Fine, who led the research, says that these heat-resistant corals showed improved physiological performance at higher temperatures. 

Despite ocean-surface temperatures in the area warming at the same rate as elsewhere, coral species there have never suffered a documented bleaching event, showing that a large range of corals along the 4 000km Red Sea reef are uniquely resistant to the climate crisis.

Coral reefs around the world are regularly undergoing mass bleaching events as a result of excessively high ocean surface temperatures along with acidification. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, has suffered three mass bleaching events in five years. Half of the world’s coral reefs are thought to have died in the past three decades, and up to 90% of existing coral reefs may die off by 2050.  This new discovery has confounded scientists.

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Anders Meibom, a researcher with the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Lausanne, says, “This is the only coral reef ecosystem that has a change to withstand the two- to- three degrees of extra heat that we’ll now unavoidably have by the end of the century.”

The implications for coral reefs elsewhere in the world are still being studied. As direct transplants of coral species to other reefs may lead to failure, figuring out how the Red Sea heat-resistant corals survive the extreme conditions then steering the evolution of species could be another possibility. 

Issues arise however, since scientifically assisted evolution takes time and the research into the Red Sea corals is still in its early stages. “We don’t really know what is going on biologically that allows these corals to thrive with temperature disruptions that are killing coral in other places,” says Karine Kleinhaus, a professor of marine science at Stony Brook University in New York. 

The Red Sea feeds into the Indian Ocean through a strait between Djibouti and Yemen. More than 2.5 million years ago, the strait receded, cutting off the Red Sea and rendering it inhospitable. Kleinhaus says that it got ‘hot and super salty, and just about everything died’. When the ice caps melted, the strait reappeared and plant and animal life came back. The coral species that made the journey north through the Red Sea underwent generations of evolutionary selection. “Only those who could withstand the very high salinity and temperatures could move north and colonise,” Kleinhaus says.

Scientists believe that many of the coral species that inhabit the Red Sea today were forged by that migration and can survive- and even flourish- in ocean temperatures hotter than those forecast. 

Obstacles

The Gulf of Aqaba’s coastline is divided among four countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  It will be a challenge to get these four governments- not all of whom recognise each other’s existence- to work together.

The progress of research is further slowed by lack of funds and the travel bans from the coronavirus, as well as the regions’ tense politics. Gathering scientists across regions to form a research expedition has been hindered by Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to allow Israeli scientists in its territorial waters. 

Threats to the reef such as pollution, sewage, and unsustainable development will certainly accumulate, threatening the Red Sea coral reef therefore, countries need to willingly coordinate methods to attract more funding and advocate to protect the ecosystem. 

Olivier Küttel, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, says, “No one country can protect it alone. Egypt can do well, but if Saudi Arabia, Israel or Jordan do poorly, they can very rapidly destroy the whole ecosystem.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II is among those lobbying to have the reef recognised on UNESCO’s Marine World Heritage List, in the hopes that it will raise the status of the area, make it easier to attract funding for research and pressure governments to protect it.

Featured image by: Daviddarom

Scientists have discovered dozens of new coral species on a recent expedition along the Great Barrier Reef, a find that will provide insights to aid conservation and management. However, researchers have warned of complacency and say that a lot more needs to be done for the marvel that has experienced three mass bleaching events in five years. 

The 21-day expedition in early January saw a team of researchers from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), James Cook University (JCU) and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) observe the Great Barrier Reef by collecting coral samples and recording the aquatic life they found. The expedition ranged from the Capricorn Bunkers off Gladstone to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.

What is coral reef bleaching?

The Great Barrier Reef experienced mass bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and early this year. Bleaching is how coral reacts to ocean temperature changes. Symbiotic algae live in the corals’ tissues and turn the entire reef section white when exposed to these warmer temperatures for an extended period of time, eventually killing the coral.

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New Coral Species

Associate Professor of Marine Science from KAUST, Dr. Francesca Benzoni, stated in a local interview, “On almost every dive we were finding new species of corals that have never been accurately described and classified.” 

Their findings led the researchers to conclude that the biodiversity of some coral groups could be at least three times greater than initially believed.

Additionally, the findings of the expedition revealed that one hard coral species, Acropora hyacinthus, previously thought to be a single species, is potentially five different species that all live relatively close together. The team also surveyed black corals on the reef for the first time.

The research also showed the discovery of a number of species of coral not previously seen on the reef.

These findings will aid in management and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef, by indicating the quantity of coral species, how common they are and the locations of specific coral species, which will impact scientists and biologists who use the Great Barrier Reef for different kinds of research. As the weeks and months progress, management professionals in conservation will need to readjust how they record findings from the reef and consider if any other corals could present new species as well.

This expedition’s findings will alter scientific studies and change how environmental companies protect and preserve the environment regarding climate change monitoring. 

Further dives will focus on how common these new coral species are on the reef and if they’re widespread. Scientists will begin to look at previously known corals differently and plan future projects that will catalog every new finding. 

Based on how they store information and comb through coral species, diving teams could change how experts manage the Great Barrier Reef and view other corals from around the world. The taxonomy field will become a new focus and shed light on hard and soft corals, both cataloged and newly discovered.

They say, “Understanding the diversity of species on the reef underpins virtually every area of research and conservation.”

While news of this new coral species is positive, the researchers have called for more research and funding to be able to ‘reassess the taxonomy of common groups found on the reef, including hard, soft and black corals’. Additionally, they call for countries to reduce carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic ocean warming that would decimate coral reefs globally. The IPCC has warned that even if warming is limited to the 1.5 degrees Celsius target outlined in the Paris Agreement, ‘almost all warm-water coral reefs are projected to suffer significant losses of area and local extinctions’. 

However, the UN Environment Programme said in late 2019 that even if countries meet their Paris commitments, the world is heading for a 3.2 degree Celsius global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels. This makes it all the more important that countries reduce their carbon emissions and create policies and incentives for companies to do the same to avoid even more destructive climate impacts.

Featured image by: G. Lamar

A new study states that it is not too late to save our planet’s coral reefs before they go extinct.

Coral Reef Extinction Facts

Coral reefs host a quarter of the Earth’s marine biodiversity and support livelihoods of more than half a billion people. But, the planet has already lost half of its coral reefs over the last three decades, and more than 90% of them might become extinct by 2050.

Corals face a number of threats including overfishing, diseases, and pollution, while the biggest of them all is climate change. The world’s largest coral reef system- the Great Barrier Reef, which is visible even from outer space- has lost half of its coral in the past two years because of extreme heat stress from global warming.

While conservationists around the globe are grappling with how to preserve the last surviving ‘underwater rainforests’, the most comprehensive study on coral reefs published last week has suggested a few ways to save them. As part of the research, an international group of 80 scientists surveyed more than 2,500 coral reef systems across 44 countries to determine how to protect them in the face of extensive damages caused by human activities and global warming.

“The good news is that functioning coral reefs still exist, and our study shows that it is not too late to save them,” said Emily Darling, the lead author of the study and a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientist leading the global coral reef monitoring program. “Safeguarding coral reefs into the future means protecting the world’s last functioning reefs and recovering reefs impacted by climate change. But realistically — on severely degraded reefs — coastal societies will need to find new livelihoods for the future.”

Examining coral abundance in the Indian and Pacific oceans, they found that many of the reef systems were full of complex species that created distinctive structures and were functioning in spite of deadly marine heatwaves in recent years.

Heatwaves had affected many coral reefs during the El Niño event between 2014 and 2017. But 450 reefs in 22 countries survived in protective cool spots. The scientists believe those areas should be the focus of urgent protection and management efforts. Previously, the Indo-Pacific reefs were also hit by mass coral bleaching and heat stress in 1983, 1998, 2005 and 2010, before the world’s most intense, longest and largest bleaching event between 2014 and 2017.

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A marine scientist gathering data on coral reefs in the waters of Fiji. Credit: WCS

How to save coral reefs?

The researchers outlined three conservation strategies to save the reefs: protect, recover, and transform. As part of the first strategy, the international network of coral reef conservation should focus on protecting functioning coral reefs found in East Africa to Southeast Asia, the Coral Triangle, and the Pacific. The second strategy is to promote rapid recovery of coral reefs impacted by the 2014-2017 coral bleaching event. To implement the third strategy, selected coastal communities around the world should be relocated to avoid dependence on reefs that are no longer functioning.

The scientists pointed out that strategic local management can help protect corals through tools such as marine protected areas, or other management restrictions that reduce threats and keep coral reefs above functional thresholds.

“While coral reef sustainability depends largely on reducing carbon emissions, identifying reefs that are likely to respond — or importantly, not respond — to local management is critical to targeting development and management strategies to build the well-being of the millions of people dependent on coral reefs across the globe,” said Georgina Gurney, study co-author from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University

The researchers also noted that limiting global temperature within two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels is the only way to ensure the survival of reefs.

“Saving reefs will require combining local and global efforts, such as reducing local dependence on reef fish to maintain a reef’s important functions while also reducing carbon emissions to keep warming below 1.5C,” said Tim McClanahan, co-author of the study and Wildlife Conservation Society senior conservation zoologist.

Gabby Ahmadia, director of marine conservation science at World Wildlife Fund and co-author of the study said that the study would help policymakers and conservationists make informed management decisions for coral reefs and the communities that rely on them before they go extinct.

 

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