“Microfragmenting” saves coral reefs


Jim Maragos/ U.S Fish and Wildlife Services

Vivid coral reefs bloom under the sea.

While taking up one percent of the sea floor, coral reefs make up 25 percent of all marine life and are the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet. According to Medium, coral reefs support industries such as food, medicine, cosmetics, and tourism and add around five billion in economic value to the Florida economy alone. Furthermore, when ocean storms come rolling in, coral reefs exist as a barrier to shelter the coasts.

However, according to Medium, in the last 30 years, the coverage of coral reefs has declined by as much as 50-80 percent in some areas of Florida and the Caribbean due to climate change, pollution, and overfishing.

David Vaughan, who discovered microfragmenting, is a Senior Scientist and manager of the Coral Restoration program at the Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration. He grew up watching certain species of coral disappear like elkhorn, which marine biologists have tried to grow in the lab for decades to put back into the wild. The problem with the old system was how slow coral grows, and while elkhorn grows quicker than most, the truly slow-growing “living rocks” such as brain coral grow less than two inches a year.

One day, Vaughan was transporting a piece of coral and it broke into two pieces which he believed were unsalvageable, but he reattached them each to pucks to see if they would keep growing just in case. He looked back a week later and saw that the abandoned polyps had doubled in number very quickly. Dr. Vaughan believes that this period of rapid growth is because the coral is fighting for survival so other coral will not grow to take over its space.

This technique of rapid coral growth called micro fragmenting allows coral to grow at 25-50 times the normal rate according to The New York Times.

“I think that microfragmenting is a great development but that more needs to be done environmentally to slow down the problem. If we don’t change the warming of the oceans that causes the bleaching, it won’t matter how many new coral that we transplant back into the wild,” senior Betsy Romans said.

A large pump takes seawater that is trapped inside of limestone 80 feet below and sends it to be treated to remove the ammonia, carbon dioxide, and ammonia sulfide that is damaging to coral. It flows through a maze-like structure of four-inch PVC pipes to disperse among thirty 180 gallon fiberglass tanks which are called raceways where a fine mesh canopy shades them from the hot sun. The sea water runs across small chunks of coral about the size of a pencil eraser that are set up in neat rows on top of tiles or ceramic pucks. These are cut up with a special saw that is precise enough to get down to chunks of 1-5 polyps.

According to Medium, the small pieces of coral do not fight each other for resources but instead fuse over time because they recognize each other. This fusing also counteracts genetic blight because hundreds of the same coral are not being transplanted back into the wild. After 4-12 months, they are good to go.

“I think it’s really cool that the smaller pieces of coral that are grown in the lab are able to fuse back together because they originally did come from the same genetics. I don’t love the idea that we need to do something as extreme as cutting up the coral in order to make it grow more quickly in size, but at least after triggering it to grow faster, it is able to fuse back together again when it gets transplanted back into the wild,” Romans said.

What would normally take 100 years takes just under two years. Also, the corals become sexually mature in what would normally take 65 years due to the overdrive for survival that the microfragmenting process kicks in. Over 20,000 corals have been successfully planted onto depleted reefs in the Florida Keys to help restore ecosystems and to combat decades of damage.

“It’s important for our ecosystems to have places where fish and all the other marine organisms to live. And with microfragmenting, they can almost build a new reef from scratch. Microgfragmenting sounds promising and I am more optimistic now than I was, because I was thinking that coral bleaching was a one-way street. And, anything that we can do to not have it that way is good,” senior Joey Bluhm said.