Saving the world’s coral to avert a wipeout of irreversible costs
With warmer weather destroying coral reefs, scientists – who estimate that 90pc will be gone by 2050 – are fighting against time to breed and multiply them in labs, and ultimately return them to the ocean
I meet Dr Ruth Gates one morning in Kaneohe Bay, a sheltered cove on the southeast coast of Oahu, Hawaii. She is taking me to Coconut Island, a small island visible from shore but accessible only by speedboat. Gates, in her mid 50s, is the director of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology and principal investigator at the Gates Coral Lab, and the president of the International Society for Reef Studies, as well as the author of more than 100 scientific papers and a frequent public speaker. From her modest base, she is hoping to transform the world’s oceans.
Coconut Island, which once belonged to an eccentric billionaire who fashioned it into a private retreat in the 1930s, is now the research facility for the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. The island’s location is ideal as its coral reefs are easily accessible to Gates and her team of researchers who have, for the past four years, been attempting to breed a strain of climate-change resistant corals. Success in the programme could save as much as US$9.9 trillion (most recent available figure), a value attached to coral reefs according to research by Dr Tony Juniper and the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, as reported by BBC Earth.
In 2013, Gates won billionaire Paul Allen’s Ocean Challenge prize, a US$4 million endowment to selectively breed a tougher variety of corals – “human assisted evolution” as it is sometimes called. The aim is to produce a climate-adapted coral species to help bring the world’s ailing reefs back to life.
Gates and her team are trying to understand why some corals survive bleaching events – when an environmental trigger such as rising ocean temperatures or increased acidity levels causes corals to turn white and stop growing – while others, sometimes just inches away, die off. “My whole career has been framed by this question of what makes one coral survive in conditions that kill another,” Gates said.
Gates’ career has also corresponded with a distressing period for the world’s reefs. Gates studied at Newcastle University in England and then moved to Jamaica in the mid-1980s to study corals, only to witness half of Caribbean coral cover die due to overfishing, pollution and development.
She continued her research at the University of Hawaii just as climate change was beginning to threaten coral populations. A bleaching event in 1998 killed around 15 per cent of corals worldwide. Bleaching events were recorded in 2002 and 2016 as weather conditions are mapped onto increased base temperatures.
“The last El Nino created temperatures on reefs we’ve never seen before,” said Gates referring to the weather pattern that peaked in 2016, causing the hottest year in a historical record dating to 1880.
The typical approach to reef conservation has been to protect reefs from human activity. But the effects of climate change affect reefs whether they are protected or not.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was the best-managed reef system in the world, but the disturbance in temperatures in 2016 and in 2017 was devastating. “We didn’t expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years,” said Terry Hughes, director of a government-funded centre for coral reef studies at Australia’s James Cook University.
Scientists estimate that 90 per cent of the world’s reefs will be gone by 2050, a conservative estimate by Gates’ measure. “The reality is that we don’t have much time,” she said, adding that she hopes to introduce corals into the wild that have been bred for resilience within 10 years.
Selective breeding has been used in everything from farming to our domestic pets, but this is the first time corals have been bred for specific qualities. Yet, when the project was announced, the lab was heavily criticised, with some accusing the lab of “playing god” while others called the project the “Monsanto of reefs”. Another concern was the risk of reducing biodiversity, or of “super coral” becoming an invasive species.
Gates says the concerns she fields are emotional, not factual. If you weigh the risks of doing something against doing nothing, “it’s a no-brainer”. Corals provide physical and ecological support for a third of all marine life. This makes them what ecologists term as “keystone species,” as their health is vital for the well-being of countless other species, including humans. A quarter of fisheries are linked to coral reefs and some 500 million people worldwide rely on reefs for food.
According to Gates, without corals there would be tens of millions of displaced people competing for resources, with rises in aggressive behaviour. Some of the most important reefs in the world are in the seas surrounding the Philippines and Indonesia, where local communities rely on reefs for food and money from tourism.
“This is the thing I think many scientists don’t understand,” says Gates. “I feel it behoves us to step back from our ivory towers in all ways really and say we have an obligation to do things that stabilise reefs for places that depend on them intimately.”
But some scientists have also questioned how the lab could possibly scale such an endeavour. The Great Barrier Reef is just a fraction of the world’s overall reef cover and spans an area almost the size of Germany. The vast majority of coral reefs are in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Putting corals out in Hawaii, an isolated archipelago, could take thousands of years to spread.
Scaling the project will involve developing a capacity that is relevant to different places – Hawaii for Hawaii, Australia for Australia, and so on. And it would need to involve input from more than just scientists, Gates said. She describes her approach to problem solving as “reverse engineering”, envisioning the end goal, and then working backwards, like bringing a new product to market.
She’s worked with oyster farmers (already very familiar with underwater breeding work), satellite imaging companies, and even the Carnegie Observatory, making use of an airplane-mounted camera that can show how many plants are alive inside a coral from the air. “This amazing technology allows us to ask the question: can you identify high stress resistant corals from the air? That changes how we are able to scale it,” Gates said.
At Gates’ lab, there is a state-of-the-art evolutionary genetics facility, which has a custom-designed confocal microscope – the only one in the world – which uses live imaging to help scientists watch corals in simulated future ocean conditions. “You can warm the stage, acidify the compartment and we can then watch the animal at a microscopic level,” Gates explained.
The microscope was donated to the lab by Pam Omidyar, wife of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Philanthropists like Allen and the Omidyars understood that the project would never be funded through traditional channels, Gates said, and while it would take money to succeed, it will save an enormous amount more.
And yet, private funding of assisted evolution raises questions. What return might donors expect on their investment? Could the world’s wealthiest people ever own vulnerable species or entire ecosystems?
Gates believes the only way to scale the project is commercially. “There has to be a revenue stream,” she said. “This will make it of value to people. I say let’s think about how we actually take this on board as a valued asset that we have to protect.”
(The full version of this article is published in the June issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores)