Scientists are creating stronger coral reefs in record time – by “gardening” underwater

A new project in the Caribbean is setting out to save coral reefs – and the world. 

The Ocean-Shot Project, spearheaded by climate scientist Dr. Deborah Brosnan, launched in 2021 to develop a “massive, first-of-its-kind” coral reef restoration initiative in the Caribbean country Antigua and Barbuda. 

“We lose more coral reefs in a day that we can restore in a decade,” Brosnan told CBS News. “Our progress towards protecting coral reefs – which ultimately protect us – is too slow. So Ocean-Shot is about literally rebuilding the reefs, the architecture of the reefs, for the future.” 

What sets this project apart from other coral reef restoration projects is its focus – the architecture of the reef itself. While many initiatives prioritize saving the corals, Ocean-Shot tacks on the additional focus of developing the base for those corals to grow and thrive. 

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Ocean-Shot is growing more resilient coral species and developing reefs in the Caribbean in an effort to help marine ecosystems – and humanity – combat the climate crisis. 

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Coral secretes calcium carbonate, creating a sort-of concrete around itself that becomes the structure for the reef. But that process can take “hundreds and thousands of years,” Brosnan said. And with coral bleaching events only anticipated to become more intense in the coming decades as global and ocean temperatures warm, this can be a problem for reefs that need to be able to recover. 

“What we’re doing is we’re saying, ‘let’s learn from the corals, let’s learn from nature,'” Brosnan said. “And let’s make this happen quickly.” 

To make that happen, her team is creating reef structures in a lab and then planting them in the ocean, a process that Brosnan likened to “gardening.” The team is also planting “resilient corals” among the structures that have already survived several bleaching events. 

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Ocean-Shot deployed a coral reef into the ocean near Antigua and Barbuda, an effort that has already brought in new marine life to the area. 

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Nearly six months ago, her team deployed their first set of these structures, called modules, into the ocean around Antigua and Barbuda. And it’s already seeing significant success. 

“We’ve got 97-98% survival of the corals we’ve transplanted. And we now have 26 new species that have moved in by themselves …everything from parrot fish to commercial fish to commercial lobster,” Brosnan said. “We saw a whole ecosystem start to recognize these reefs as home and just move right on in. So what it told us is that if we provide the living structure, the ecosystem will respond in return.”

Thriving coral reefs doesn’t just help marine life thrive, Brosnan said, but it also helps humanity survive. 

Coral reefs are essential to protecting coastlines from erosion, and when reefs are close to the ocean surface, Brosnan said they can break up about 95% of incoming wave energy. This allows for the power of strong waves to break up before hitting shore, protecting those on the coast as well as beaches as a whole and making communities and coastlines more resilient against rising sea levels and climate change, she said.

Coral reefs are also a crucial source of food and income for more than half a billion people across the world, according to NOAA, with the net economic value of reefs estimated to be “tens of billions of U.S. dollars per year.” 

Cooperating with billionaire philanthropist and entrepreneur John Paul Dejoria was an essential part of this project’s success, Brosnan said, as was the support of the country’s prime minister, Gaston Browne. Brosnan said the project could be scaled up around the world with enough support.

At the end of the day, Brosnan said, “our planet is at stake.” 

“We’re helping the reef through this transition of what our planet used to be like, to what it really is like today and what it’s going to be like in the future,” she said. “Corals are more resilent. If we create the right conditions for them, they will thrive.” 

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