Sun. Oct 1st, 2023
    Restoring Coral Reefs: Innovations and Challenges

    Marine biologist Taryn Foster is leading restoration efforts in the Abrolhos Islands, off the coast of Western Australia, to revive coral reefs threatened by climate change. Coral reefs, which cover a mere 0.2% of the seafloor, provide a habitat for over a quarter of marine species. However, rising water temperatures and acidification have caused coral bleaching, leading to the death of coral.

    Traditionally, coral restoration involves transplanting small corals grown in nurseries onto damaged reefs. This process is slow and expensive, and only a small portion of at-risk reefs receive help. Foster is testing a new method that grafts coral fragments into plugs, which are then inserted into limestone-type concrete bases and placed on the seabed. The results so far have been promising, with coral growing well on the artificial foundations. Foster has formed a startup called Coralmaker and is partnering with engineering software firm Autodesk to automate and accelerate the process using collaborative robots with artificial intelligence capabilities.

    The challenges of moving the robots out of the lab and into the real world include handling delicate, living coral, dealing with saltwater damage to electronics, and the high cost of technology. Coralmaker plans to issue biodiversity credits to offset costs and attract demand from the tourism industry. Other organizations are exploring additional methods, such as coral seeding, where coral spawn is collected and grown into baby corals in a nursery before being planted on degraded reefs. Breeding more resistant “super coral” and geo-engineering initiatives are also being considered.

    One innovative approach involves using sound to attract fish and boost reef replenishment. By analyzing underwater audio recordings, researchers can detect patterns that indicate the health of a reef. In an effort called Reef Song, underwater speakers play healthy sounds on damaged reefs to attract fish and enhance reef recovery.

    While restoration efforts offer hope, it is important to recognize that there is no single solution. The complex ecological problem of coral reef restoration requires substantial investments of time, money, and human capital. However, with continued innovation and collaboration, there is potential for the survival and rejuvenation of these vital ecosystems.

    – AI & Society – The Journal of Human-Centred Systems and Machine Intelligence
    – ABC News Australia
    – Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS)