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Coral Reef Restoration

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Watch Your Garden Grow…Underwater

Israel Leads the Way in Coral Reef Restoration

It’s like what JNF does with trees in the earth, but instead it’s coral underwater.

On a recent mission to Israel with JNF, a few lucky participants found themselves on a boat off of Eilat, engaged in a fun and fascinating project.

After a brief lesson from marine biologists about the loss of coral reefs around the world, they super-glued little pieces of coral onto objects that resembled golf tees, loaded them onto a grid and floated them down into the Red Sea, where they were left to grow. The underwater equivalent of planting saplings in a forest, no drip irrigation required.

“It is a simple but brilliant answer to a problem that has surfaced around the world,” said Ralph Rotman, one of the JNF guests on the boat that day. “Of all the countries in the world who are suffering damage to their reefs, Israel is the smallest and has the smallest reef. But leave it to some smart Israeli to devise a potential solution that could positively affect the entire world.”

Over the past 20-30 years, coral reefs throughout the world have been degrading at an alarming rate. Many have already been partly or completely destroyed. There are many culprits, including coastal development and agriculture, warming sea waters and acidification linked to climate change, over-fishing, unsustainable tourism, and pollution.

Enter the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in Haifa, Israel and the research of Dr. Baruch Rinkevich and Dr. Shai Shafir, to be funded in part by JNF. With the idea of actively restoring reefs as opposed to just conserving them, they built the first mid-water floating coral nursery in the world and are sharing the concept with other countries, including Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Jamaica, and Tanzania.

“Coral reefs are often portrayed as ‘the rain forest of the sea,’” said Shafir. “This refers to their being one of the most productive biological ecosystems on earth, to their high level of biodiversity, and above all, to their function as the building blocks of the ecosystem framework.”

According to an organization called the International Coral Reef Initiative, coral reefs cover less than one percent of the ocean floor, but support about twenty-five percent of all marine life, with over 4,000 species of fish alone. Reefs act as natural breakwaters, minimizing impacts from cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons, and form the basis for tourism and fishing industries. The United Nations has estimated the total economic value of coral reefs to be between $100,000 and $600,000 per square kilometer per year.

Active restoration, as a central concept in reef management, has also been drawing increasing attention because most efforts to conserve degrading reefs have failed to yield significant results, and traditional rehabilitation measures have not successfully compensated for the fast decline. Moreover, in many reef areas, the poor state of the reefs has reached a critical point where management activities can no longer effectively conserve remnants of precious reef populations or prevent further habitat degradation.

The NIO’s strategy of “gardening coral reefs,” is a two-step process. First, instead of direct transplantation, large pools of farmed corals and spats are constructed within specially designed underwater coral nurseries. “These nurseries are not attached to the bottom of the sea,” explained Dr. Shafir, “because then they would be exposed to the same dangers that the reefs are falling victim to. Instead, a buoy is attached to the frame that houses the nursery and floats it at a depth that we choose, often depending on the season. We like to keep them shallow enough so they can get sunlight but in the stormy season we can lower them to protect them from sustaining damage.”

Eilat’s small farm can grow between 6,000-10,000 corals; it takes about a year for them to mature enough to transplant.

“Basically, what we’ve done here is copy the forestry concept,” said Shafir, “and the idea is really taking hold around the world because you can use it almost anywhere. What we told ourselves is that if a reef can be destroyed it can also be rebuilt. It’s not just about conservation, but also about active restoration.”


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