An initiative in northeastern Brazil seeks to prevent coral loss through “nurseries” made exclusively to restore reefs.
Every year, the effects of the climate crisis are expressed with greater force in various corners of the world, and the ocean has been no exception.
There have been several warnings about the dangers that the planet will face in the coming decades if global warming continues to increase. In fact, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), one of the ecosystems that will suffer the most are coral reefs. If the planet’s temperatures rise to 1.5ºC by 2050, coral mortality will increase around the world. In this scenario, several initiatives have emerged that seek to mitigate the impacts on corals caused by humans.
One of them is the Biofábrica de Corais (Coral Biofabric), an environmental startup in the state of Pernambuco, northeastern Brazil. Since 2017, this initiative has developed “nurseries” where fragments of rescued corals are placed to grow in a safer environment, thus allowing their subsequent transplantation in the sea. In this way, they are contributing to restoring the reefs.
Rudã Fernandes, CEO of Biofábrica de Corais informs that the project began with the collection of coral fragments for use in aquariums. But then, something changed. “When I went to study in Pernambuco, I realized how important corals are for regional tourism, conservation and the survival of many communities around them that will suffer if no one helps them,” he says.
Through this pioneering initiative in Brazil, Biofábrica de Corais seeks to promote local measures and solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change on corals, particularly the impact of coral bleaching.
The importance of corals
Despite their appearance, it is important to clarify that corals are not plants or rocks, but animals that have a calcareous skeleton (made of calcium carbonate), which gives them a “rocky” appearance. They belong to the group of cnidarians, the same as jellyfish, anemones, and other creatures of multiple shapes and colors that inhabit the seas.
Many species of corals live in colonies of up to thousands of individuals and form large reefs in tropical and subtropical waters, generating structures that resemble a large “underwater city”.
For the same reason, coral reefs represent the habitat of more than 25% of the world’s marine ecosystem species. That is, at least one-fourth of them reside and develop in these structures —or around them— at some point in their lives.
But that’s not all. Existence of corals is not only fundamental for marine biodiversity, but also brings benefits to humans. In fact, around US$36 billion is generated each year from tourism alone associated with 30% of the world’s reefs, in addition to 30 million jobs.
More importantly, some 850 million people depend in some way on coral reefs. “Preserving corals is preserving our food security,” says Vinícius Nora, conservation analyst at WWF-Brazil. In fact, about 95% of the world’s commercially important fish depend on the coastal habitats, including those provided by corals.
In this context, coral conservation is especially relevant in countries such as Brazil, where a significant percentage of the population lives in coastal regions. For the same reason, the loss of reefs can aggravate the effects of strong tidal waves that can sweep away houses, hotels, and even submerge cities.
Brazil’s great challenge
That corals are integral to Pernambuco is evident in the name of the state’s capital—Recife, which translates to “reef” in Portuguese. The city is also home to a large part of the Coral Coast Protection Area (APA), one of the main coral protection areas in the country that extends from Pernambuco to a part of the neighboring area of Alagoas. These are also major tourist attractions. But currently, a major challenge to this region is sea warming.
According to the study “Unprecedented Coral Mortality on Southwestern Atlantic Coral Reefs Following Major Thermal Stress“, the reef called Aquarium in Alagoas’ Maragogi city has suffered strong bleaching between September 2019 and June 2020.
The “bleaching” occurs when the corals become stressed (due to factors such as increased temperature or ocean acidification) and expel their symbiotic zooxanthellae which are small algae that live in the tissues of these animals and provide food to these cnidarians through photosynthesis.
Consequently, after losing their algae—which also gives them their color— corals turn white. Prolongation of this bleaching can end with the death of these animals.
In the case of the Aquarius reef, the bleaching was due to a heat wave which was considered the strongest in the northeastern region in 35 years, as confirmed by data from the Coral Reef Watch (NOAA). In just one of these extreme weather events, the Coral Coast lost about 18% of its corals between the two states. In other regions like in Abrolhos in the state of Bahia, the mortality rate was up to 90% in the species Millepora alcicornis (fire coral) alone.
Moreover, warming seas are not the only challenge that must be addressed. “Sewage waste discharged into the sea pollutes and affects the health of marine life, especially corals. Unchecked tourism and the deployment of oil in bases located in reef regions have been contributing to this,” says Dr. Juliana Fonseca, researcher of the Living Coral Project.
In 2019, one such oil spill affected the entire Coral Coast, leaving corals diseased and more susceptible to bleaching. “All corals are going to suffer in Brazil, some sooner than others. And those in the northeast region are at the top of the list. A strong heat wave is expected in 2023 and we are concerned,” adds Nora from WWF-Brazil.
If this problem persists and worsens, in a few months entire species could cease to exist in some parts of this South American country.
This is why coral nurseries in Brazil have gained special relevance. More than a thousand coral fragments have already been collected from coral reefs to strengthen them and then reintroduce them back into reefs.
Biofábrica de Corais has been inspired by projects such as the Restoration Foundation in Florida, in the United States, which promotes similar restoration work through coral transplants. There, in addition to suffering an increase in sea temperature, corals are also exposed to storms and cyclones that damage and destroy marine life in the coastal area. Another such project is the French Polynesia based Coral Garden, which is being implemented to strengthen the local economy and, at the same time, preserve corals.
At Biofábrica de Corais, researchers dive close to the reefs, looking for fragments that can be cared for and that are not diseased or dead. They work with two species: fire corals (Millepora alcicornis) and cauliflower corals (Mussismilia harttii) that have lost at least 50% of their calcareous skeleton.
After collection, the researchers take the specimens to the laboratory of the Federal University of Pernambuco. There they clean them, provide them with specific care and create their base, which is a support made specifically for each coral through a 3D printer. This base helps the coral adapt to its growth and development.
Biofábrica de Corais has been the only project in Brazil that has achieved a coral management model at scale, that is, one that can be replicated in different scenarios in the country.
After being selected and installed in these bases, the corals are returned to the sea, to the same place where they were before. They remain there for at least 3 months to develop a healthy and strong calcareous structure, under constant monitoring by scientists.
Once they are well established—with the help of the aforementioned base to strengthen their structure—the corals are taken to the rocks and evaluated for more than six months until, at last, it is possible to transplant them into their natural environment. The corals are placed in different places in the ocean to adapt before being placed back to the reef. When that moment arrives, researchers continue monitoring the corals for more than two years. This whole process seeks to safeguard their health and improve their adaptation to the ocean.
Biofábrica de Corais is not yet in APA Costa dos Corais. It was created very close to the region of Porto de Galinhas, but with the support of WWF-Brazil they plan to arrive in this APA soon and start the project “Coralize”. Biofábrica de Corais works directly with local communities that depend on tourism and fishing. “They help us a lot in monitoring because they understand that it is their future and their children’s future to keep the corals healthy,” Fernandes adds.
Indeed, the local community has a fundamental role in the development of the project as it allows the incorporation of other knowledge and skills, including the knowledge passed down through generations and also the momentum of such efforts, as it is their ancestral territory.
The project became a startup when they realized that they could explore sustainable tourism, generating awareness to tourists about the diverse human impacts on the reefs and the need to restore them. They take the tourists to learn about corals and fishing communities, as well as to attend conservation seminars in coastal regions, providing them an experience beyond just diving, taking pictures, and going home without the knowledge of threats on the corals.
While there is a demand for greater commitment and climate action from governments and other stakeholders around the world, local initiatives like the one in Brazil can contribute to the resilience of corals and marine ecosystems, providing some hope for the future.
For WWF’s Nora, “the initiative is not a magic formula, but its results help us gain time for the battles against the climate crisis in the coming years.”