PVC trees giving coral reefs ‘a fighting chance’

The World Resources Institute predicts that 90% of coral reefs will be threatened by 2050, but a fast-growing scheme in Florida is now leading the fight against this decline.

Based in Key Largo, the Coral Restoration Foundation spearheads a global network that aims to restore reefs worldwide by creating coral nurseries. These farming operations consist of artificial ‘underwater trees’, made from fibreglass and PVC, to which fragments of branching coral are attached and grown in controlled conditions, three times faster than in natural conditions. After nine months, the corals are transplanted into degraded reefs, alongside boulder corals grown in laboratories.

Despite the tree project only commencing in 2011, it has already seen significant successes- 18,000 corals have been replanted so far in 2018, double the amount planted five years ago. Meanwhile, the scheme has spread from Florida, with trees being installed as far afield as Australia and Colombia. The foundation has expanded simultaneously to worsening deterioration of Florida’s reefs — which have halved in size in 250 years, according to Project Baseline. Climate change, acidification, water pollution and tourism have all contributed to this decline and this pattern is found worldwide, from Belize to the Maldives.

Jessica Levy, programme manager at the Coral Restoration Foundation, explained they are doing “as much as [they] can now to give these coral populations a fighting chance”, and to avoid global reef extinction, which she believes is likely under current conditions. This is not only essential for the reefs themselves and the 25% of fish species they support, but for us as well — the Reef Resilience Network estimates they provide up to $375 billion in goods and services.

Although the Coral Restoration Foundation’s nurseries are not alone in tackling coral decline — 3D printing of artificial reefs in the Maldives is one notable example — it is one of the most replicable, least expensive and fastest methods available. Nevertheless, damage to the nursery by Hurricane Irma serves as a stark reminder that more action needs to be taken to prevent further deterioration, by tackling climate change.

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Andrew Ferris

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January 2022
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