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Coral reefs, often referred to as the architects of the sea, serve as the foundational layer that sustains a remarkable diversity of marine life. Despite occupying less than 1 percent of the ocean floor, coral reefs are home to over 25 percent of all marine species, provide livelihoods and essential food sources to millions of people, and act as natural buffers against storms and erosion along coastlines.
Dubbed as the architects of the sea, coral plays a crucial role in creating the foundational layer that supports a diverse array of marine life. Despite covering less than 1 percent of the ocean floor, coral reefs harbor more than 25 percent of all marine species, provide livelihoods and essential food sources for millions of people, and act as a natural defense against storms and coastal erosion.
The decline of coral reefs is occurring at an alarming rate, posing a severe threat to their survival. Climate change, overfishing, water pollution, deteriorating water quality, and detrimental coastal development are all contributing factors to the uncertain future of these underwater ecosystems. Since 2009, an estimated 14 percent of the world’s coral has already been lost, and if substantial action is not taken to curb global warming, we may witness the disappearance of up to 90 percent of coral reefs by 2050.
“Coral reefs support a quarter of the world’s marine biodiversity, which, in turn, provides sustenance, income, and protection for countless individuals,” explains Edith Mertz, a recent doctoral graduate in global environmental studies from Sophia University, Japan. “Corals play an indispensable role in marine ecosystems, and their loss would have significant economic and social ramifications for numerous nations.”
To safeguard coral reefs, marine biologists and conservationists are advocating for coral restoration initiatives on a global scale. These projects aim to reintroduce coral to areas where they have been depleted or damaged, with the goal of revitalizing the reefs and reestablishing their diverse marine populations. However, reintroducing the same coral species to an area where it previously perished poses a challenge, as without addressing the underlying causes of its demise, the cycle of decline may repeat itself.
This is where assisted migration enters the picture. Assisted migration involves relocating species in response to climate change when they are unable to move or adapt quickly enough on their own. While the concept of assisted migration has garnered increasing interest for certain species, its feasibility and suitability for coral reefs remain relatively unexplored.
“Assisted migration is a nascent field, a new frontier of research. Despite extensive discussions on its ethical implications, only a few instances of assisted migrations have been carried out,” notes Mertz, whose thesis, titled “Expert Opinions on Assisted Migration and Ecosystem Pushing in Coral Reefs,” stands as one of the limited studies examining the potential of assisted migration for coral. “I believe assisted migration could be a viable solution in specific locations to safeguard coral for the future, but we must approach it with a realistic mindset.”
Assisted migration remains a topic of controversy among conservation scientists, primarily due to ethical concerns associated with introducing species into different ecosystems and the heightened risk of introducing diseases or invasive species. Critics caution that species may carry pathogens or parasites into new environments, leading to harm to native populations or alterations in genetic diversity.
However, Mertz perceives the migration of coral as an opportunity rather than a risk.
Coral fragments being planted onto archiREEF’s terracotta tiles in Hong Kong’s Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park in 2020. Archireef’s research revealed that coral planted in deeper waters exhibited higher survival rates compared to those in shallower waters. Photo courtesy of Archireef.
“When it comes to disease and invasion, the coral itself poses minimal risk due to its specific nature and slow growth within its environment,” assures Mertz. “The concern lies more with the microorganisms accompanying the coral, but this can be controlled through quarantine measures and screening procedures.” By cultivating coral species in controlled aquaculture systems, scientists can manage diseases and prevent the introduction of invasive species.
Nonetheless, it is crucial to maintain realistic expectations when it comes to assisted migration. While it cannot single-handedly solve the challenges of coral reef decline or create entirely new ecosystems, assisted migration holds promise as a tool to preserve and protect specific coral species in critical areas. The long-term success of such endeavors hinges on a cautious approach, careful monitoring, and a thorough understanding of the potential risks and benefits involved.