It may be surprising to learn that coral, the colourful rock-like wonders you find on sea floors, is actually an animal. Corals are sessile and remain permanently immobile, which is why they are often mistaken for a plant.
A coral “group” consists of hundreds or thousands of genetically identical, yet individual animals called polyps. Each soft, sac-like polyp measures no more than a few millimetres thick and a few centimetres in diameter. When they attach to other polyps, however, they can form structures called coral reefs up to 1,600 miles long, like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Corals don’t make their own food, as plants do, but feed on nutrients produced by the algae that lives on them and planktons captured using their tiny tentacles. Depending on the species, they can live between three months to 30 years.
Indonesia, the country with the most reef area, has 51,000 square kilometres of coral reefs. However, due to destructive fishing and illegal harvesting of wild corals, the Indonesian government issued a coral ban and released its first statement in November 2019. This ban on coral exports was first introduced in 2018, when the previous maritime minister felt that foreign poaching of wild corals was getting out of hand. Wild corals were being passed off as farmed and as it was difficult to differentiate them, the ban prohibited export for both kinds. This ban resulted in an unforeseen collapse of hundreds of coral farms and put thousands of people out of a job, which led to a ban reversal in January 2020.
But why do we farm corals in the first place? Coral farming is a process of collecting coral fragments, raising them in carefully-tended nurseries and replanting them on restoration sites. Once they’re installed on the dying reefs, they can then overpower or protect the dying one. While the main goal is for reef restorations, coral farming is sometimes done for commercial or research purposes.
Most coral farms build nurseries on shallow ocean floors with plenty of sunlight exposure, much like an underwater garden. Recently, some farms have introduced land-based holdings, which are more effective for large-scale restorative projects. Newfound farming techniques can speed up the natural coral growth rate by up to 50 times. Corals that used to take decades to grow can now do so in months. All in all, coral farming is a great solution to reverse the destruction and death of the ocean’s richest ecosystem.