Visit a coral reef off the coast of Miami or the Maldives and you may see fields of bleached white instead of a burst of colors.
Coral reefs are in a death spiral. Many of the world's major reefs — which give the oceans life, support fisheries, prevent storm damage, provide medicine and create ocean-based tourism opportunities — are expected to disappear by 2100. Experts say coral decline has numerous causes, including chemical runoff, plastic pollution, disease and overfishing. But the main culprit is climate change, a crisis with no quick fixes.
A growing number of experts have taken a more bottom-up approach: coral reef restoration, or the process of repopulating deteriorating reefs with healthy coral. And they're tapping citizen scientists to help with the effort — people participating in scientific projects organised by experts. There's evidence that this type of restoration could solidly support the full range of reef-conservation efforts underway. Replanting is an investment. These corals should, in theory, live indefinitely, and you should expect to see growth over the years.
Though reefs cover less than 1 percent of Earth's surface, they support more than a million different species, including many types of algae — like sea grasses and sea lettuces — and a broad range of animals from starfish to shrimp to sharks, as well as people. Experts estimate that corals pull $375 billion into the global economy every year, mainly by fostering tourism, supporting fisheries, and contributing to medicine and storm protection.
We also must take necessary action to prevent further degradation of, and ultimately remediate, the oceans, unless the world addresses climate change, runoff, pollution and development, reefs will continue to decline and risk being lost forever.
At this moment in Earth's history, it should not be a matter of choosing one over the other. Both large-scale efforts to address the climate crisis and labor-intensive replanting efforts are necessary to give reefs a chance of surviving Earth's current extinction crisis. We have to meet somewhere in the middle, finding renewable resources while also restoring reefs. We can't just sit around and wait, leaving corals in limbo. There's always a role for people willing to help. After corals are propagated, whether it's by hand or machine, citizen scientists can help care for them in undersea nurseries.
"I don't think a lot of people who get involved in restoration initially have that emotional attachment to coral reefs simply because they haven't had a chance to care about them," Andersen said. "Restoration gives them the opportunity to make a connection, to really understand how dire the situation is, and to do something that can help."
What are you doing to help coral reefs? While living your usual everyday life, you can use renewable energy, walk more, quit single use plastics.
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