• It can take 25 years to regrow a coral reef.
  • But over the next 20 years, we could lose 90% of all coral reefs.
  • This start-up has a bold plan to cut the restoration time to just two years.

The world’s coral reefs are in trouble. Over the next 20 years, they are expected to decline by as much as 90% due to harm caused through the warming of the ocean. It is possible to regrow coral and even restore a reef to health. But that can take 25 years.

Aquatics hobbyists have long known that small pieces of coral can be used to seed new growth for their home aquariums. Now, a Florida-based organization called the Plant a Million Corals Foundation is seeking support to use that same process – known as micro-fragmentation – on an industrial scale to slash the time needed to repopulate a coral reef to as little as just two years.

Break-up to make-up

As its name suggests, Plant a Million Corals has a clear goal in mind. But on its website, David Vaughan – who leads the foundation – describes how luck played a part in setting him on his current path.

A piece of coral in one of his research tanks was broken in error and left discarded in a separate tank. Within two weeks of being damaged, the tiny piece of snapped-off coral had recovered – achieving as much as two years of expected growth in just two weeks. Vaughan refers to this as his Eureka Mistake.

By breaking coral into smaller pieces, the marine scientists have been able to cultivate many more viable corals than would have occurred naturally. Once they are big enough, these coral seedlings can be transplanted onto damaged reefs in a process known as reskinning.

Vaughan was formerly the executive director of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, where much of his coral research took place. Mote has planted more than 100,000 fragments of coral along Florida’s Coral Reef, the laboratory’s website says. Around half that number took place during Vaughan's tenure, the rest was planted by a number of organizations such as the Boy Scouts Coral STEM project in the Florida Keys.

Low-cost nurseries

Plant a Million Corals – a member of the World Economic Forum's Ocean UpLink Community – aims to use this technique to accelerate global reef restoration.

The cost of land-based micro-fragmentation facilities often prevents them from being implemented at grass-roots level, creating a significant barrier to restoration efforts. But with what it calls Portable Coral Restoration Units (CRUs), Plant a Million Corals says it can take low-cost land-based coral nurseries to any area of the world.

It deploys these CRUs to communities and provides training and support. Each unit is designed to the needs of those receiving it. The local community can then take over the operation of the CRU and responsibility for planting the raised corals, with ongoing help from the Plant a Million Corals team.

An important marine habitat

Restoring and revitalizing coral reefs will help protect what the United Nations calls some of the most ecologically and economically valuable ecosystems on our planet. They provide coastal communities with protection from storm surges and bring billions of dollars to the global economy. And perhaps as many as 25% of all the fish in the sea depend on coral reefs for their survival.

The coral reef itself is, at once, animal, vegetable, and mineral, made up of colonies of thousands upon thousands of small organisms that feed on plankton. The mineral substances these creatures secrete form the reefs, which protect coastal areas by decreasing the energy of the waves as they roll toward the shore.

Those reefs are under attack from multiple directions. Pollution, agricultural waste, sewage and sediment flowing into the sea via rivers can, effectively, choke the coral. Rising ocean temperatures, along with increasing acidification, have led to widespread, substantial coral losses in the form of bleaching. Oil spills, vessel collision, and dredging all compound the problems facing these delicate environments.

How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

UpLink is a digital platform to crowdsource innovations in an effort to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

It is an open platform designed to engage anyone who wants to offer a contribution for the global public good. The core objective is to link up the best innovators to networks of decision-makers, who can implement the change needed for the next decade. As a global platform, UpLink serves to aggregate and guide ideas and impactful activities, and make connections to scale-up impact.

Hosted by the World Economic Forum, UpLink is being designed and developed in collaboration with Salesforce, Deloitte and LinkedIn.

Bleaching is associated with temperature rises. The El Niño climate cycle that generates higher sea temperatures has been responsible for several major coral bleaching episodes in the past. Severe coral bleaching is increasing in frequency, taking place in non-Niño years, routinely. The frequency of such events makes it harder for the coral to recover naturally, due to its long growth cycles.

Plant a Million Corals, and others, hope that by seeding damaged reefs with lab-cultivated new growth, nature can be given a helping hand.

a chart showing then number of coral bleaching events worldwide from 1980 - 2016
The number of coral bleaching events has increased in recent decades.
Image: Our World in Data

Quoted in a New York Times feature in 2014, Billy Causey, a coral specialist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, described micro-fragmentation as “easily the most promising restoration project that I am aware of.”