Photo via USFWS - Pacific Region

In recent decades, a quarter of the earth’s corals have disappeared, alarming scientists (and, you know, humans) all around the world. And as oceans continue to warm, pollution and ocean acidification continues to increase, overfishing further decimating species that are beneficial to coral, and land runoff continues to reduce the amount of life-giving sunlight that reaches the bottom, no one can predict what will happen to the remaining coral in our oceans.

Coral reefs are one of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on earth, providing shelter to 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundred of other species. In fact, scientists estimate that there are between 1 and 8 million other undiscovered species living in and around the reefs – species that could provide breakthroughs for human medicine.

Photo via NOAA Photo Library
Photo via NOAA Photo Library

But coral reefs do even more than that.

Each year, healthy reefs contribute to local economics through money they bring in through tourists. Millions of people visit the Florida Keys every year, and alone those reefs are estimated to be worth $7.6 billion. In developing countries, coral reefs contribute to ¼ of the total fish catch and many communities are reliant on them to produce food.

Geographically, coral reefs work as a buffer for nearby shorelines to prevent erosion from waves, property damage, and loss of life. This is particularly important in wetlands, ports and harbours. Throughout the world, around half a billion people live within 100 kilometers of a coral reef and therefore, benefit from its protection and production.

But they’re dying out quickly, and scientists are racing to find a solution.

Dr. David Vaughan, a marine biologist and director at Mote Tropical Research Laboratory, may have just found it.

Dr. Vaughan, along with staff biologist Christopher Page, have developed a quick growing technique called “microfragmenting” that they believe may make it possible to mass produce reef-building corals that can be transplanted onto dead and dying corals in the ocean.

Photo via Erich Bartels/Mote Marine Lab
Photo via Erich Bartels/Mote Marine Lab

The technique has been used in Dr. Vaughan’s lab on a variety of species of coral, and has successfully grown coral anywhere from 25 to 50 times faster than their normal rate.

Dr. Vaughan spoke with the New York Times and said, “This is real. This potentially can be a fix.”

And while other scientists have been enthusiastic about the project, such as Bill Causey, a coral expert who oversees all federal marine sanctuaries in the Southeastern United States, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who commented stating that “this is easily the most promising restoration project that I am aware of,” he also added that “Dave and Chris are buying us time,” he added. “This will keep corals out there” until “we can come to understand what is happening to coral on the larger scale.”

However, the unpredictable nature of the diminishing reefs means that while Dr Vaughan’s microfragmenting may help buy us some time, without larger efforts to reduce or eliminate pollution, over-fishing, global warming, acidification and land run-off, it’s likely that the problem will continue to persist.

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