Saving Reefs

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Coral reefs all over the world are dying at alarming rates. Coastal development, dredging, and destructive fishing practices such as dropped gear and boat anchors cause instant physical damage to corals, killing them in most (if not all) cases. As climate change continues to increase the atmospheric temperatures, the ocean temperatures rise with it. Warmer waters mean that corals lose the algae they require for food. Because of this, the corals become stressed and lose their coloration, also known as coral bleaching. If severe enough, coral bleaching can kill whole coral colonies, or make them vulnerable to diseases. Overfishing of marine life causes a chain reaction throughout all marine ecosystems. Grazing fish that eat the excess algae on corals are reducing in number which causes the algae to overgrow, stunting the growth and health of corals. Ocean acidification is caused by excess carbon dioxide in seawater, which is equivalent to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Increased acidity in the oceans also reduces the availability of nutrients needed for corals to form their structure, causing the growth of corals and reefs to slow down significantly.

In the past 30 years, over 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs have died, and it is estimated that 90 percent may die in the next century. Human activity on land and at sea is doing a detrimental amount of harm, and very little good to lives underwater. However, many attempts are being made to restore coral reefs.

Reef Renewal Bonaire is a group in the Caribbean dedicated to propagating and relocating corals. The nurseries are comprised of “trees” made of PVC and fiberglass that are tethered to the ocean floor and buoyed with floats. This design allows the trees to move within the water column without being damaged. Each tree holds a different type of coral and can hold from 100 to 160 corals.

Corals are grown in the nurseries through a process called fragmentation. Fragmentation is the asexual reproduction of corals which normally happens when large fish or rough currents break off a piece of the coral and the coral will continue to grow. This is mimicked by cutting small branches of coral with pliers and placing them back on the same tree.

Once corals in the nursery are matured (typically in 6 to 8 months), they are outplanted to a restoration site. A restoration site is a reef site that has been severely damaged and benefits from the addition of healthy reefs. After the corals are outplanted they are monitored regularly. Survival rates, tissue paling, disease, and predation are among the criteria used to determine their success and health.

Since its foundation in 2012, Reef Renewal Bonaire has outplanted more than 30,900 corals back to the Caribbean. Currently, they are growing over 14,000 corals in their 8 nurseries around Bonaire.

Eternal Reefs is another group dedicated to restoring coral reefs but in a more unique way. Eternal Reefs is partnered with The Reef Ball Foundation and Reef Innovations to create reef balls that are placed all around the world. Their twist, however, is that through Eternal Reefs, you can add cremated remains of loved ones to the reef balls.

Reef balls are made of neutral pH concrete, which allows microorganisms a place to hide and mature before predators get a chance to feed on them. They are hollow with holes all around that provide ventilation from storm surges, as well as shelter for fish and other marine life. The reef balls can weigh up to 5 tons with most of their weight is stored in the bottom of the structure, making it nearly impossible for rough currents to displace them.

Fish are seen migrating to the reef balls immediately after being placed on the ocean floor, and coral can be seen growing in as little as a few weeks. As the coral grows, the reef balls become a permanent part of the ecosystem and can support marine life for lifetimes.

Not all reef balls are made by incorporating remains into them. Eternal Reefs has made more than 2,000 eternal reefs along the coasts of the United States. These resting reefs are only placed around reef sites that are used for recreational purposes and are open to public diving.

To create an eternal reef, a “casting” is started with a pre-made reef ball that is taken to the casting sight. Families then have the opportunity to mix remains with concrete to create a “pearl”, which would act as a center in the reef ball. When the pearl is set, a special layer of concrete is placed on the top of the reef ball. Family and friends are encouraged to participate as much or as little in the creation of the reef ball for their loved ones. Memorialized reef balls can be personalized with handprints, messages, and decorated with (environmentally safe) personal mementos.

Reef balls are an amazing way to help restore coral reefs to the oceans, and memorialized ones allow individuals to help in the process even after they are gone.

While it may seem like all hope is lost, the fight for restoring coral reefs continues strong. Individuals and groups are dedicating their lives (some literally), to rebuild reefs for generations to come.


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