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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Coral reefs are in trouble. One lab in the desert is trying to help.

A coral tank at Coral Vita, a private company working to restore reefs, in Dubai on Dec. 9, 2023. Coral Vita is focusing restoration efforts on heat-tolerant genotypes that have the highest chance of surviving warming waters. (Katarina Premfors/The New York Times)

By Jenny Gross

Not far from where superyachts are docked in a Dubai marina, almost 1,000 pieces of coral, trimmed a month ago, are being grown in four aquariums in a laboratory.

A land-based laboratory in the Arabian Desert may seem like an unlikely spot for regenerating coral reefs. But, already, the corals are brighter than when they were cut in mid-November.

“We can start to see the sign that the coral is starting to grow slowly from the top,” Ahmed Hamdy, a coral farm manager, said. In six to 12 months, when the corals are healthy enough, Coral Vita, a private company working to restore reefs, will relocate them to waters outside of Dubai.

It’s part of an experiment. Coral restoration programs are up against long odds because of climate change and environmental degradation, but marine scientists say they are critical for ensuring that certain species of coral do not become extinct. And corals in the Persian Gulf have evolved to withstand high temperatures, making them some of the best candidates for understanding how reefs react to extreme heat.

At the United Nations climate summit taking place in Dubai, negotiations have focused less on the global biodiversity crisis than on finding an agreement on reducing fossil fuel production. But healthy, rich ecosystems, in addition to nurturing plants and animals, are critical for storing carbon and protecting shorelines.

Corals reefs occupy less than 0.1% of the ocean’s floor, but 25% of all known marine species depend on them at some point in their life cycles. In addition, they “stop storm waves in their tracks,” said Tali Vardi, executive director of the Coral Restoration Consortium, a group dedicated to supporting coral restoration practitioners. That’s especially important as global warming is increasing the intensity of storms, she said.

But extreme heat is taking a toll even on the hardiest reefs around the world. By some estimates, the world has lost half of its coral cover since 1950.

Record temperatures in 2017 led to the second mass bleaching event around the United Arab Emirates, which led to the loss of 66% of the coral coverage across eight major reefs in the southern Persian Gulf, according to John Burt, an associate professor of biology at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Land-based coral nurseries are much more expensive than ones in the sea, but conservationists can control the water temperature and light exposure, creating ideal conditions for coral to thrive.

Coral Vita has focused restoration efforts in the UAE on heat-tolerant genotypes that have the highest chance of surviving warming waters. If the corals are successfully transplanted back to the open water, it could be a model, along with a few other projects, for other programs.

One option, in the future, could be to reintroduce nonnative, heat-resistant corals into ecosystems beyond the Gulf, but this could pose challenges to ecosystems and would require careful study and regulatory approval.

“We’re not at a place right now where anyone is experimenting with moving coral between basins,” Vardi said. “We’re barely there, doing it within a basin.”

“We are in a state where we have to make sure we’re not harming the situation more,” she said. “There is a really big role for scientists and regulators to work together on smart and safe approaches on piloted ways.”

Climate change is not the only threat to reefs around the UAE. Desalination plants, which provide freshwater to Dubai residents, have also contributed to raising the Persian Gulf’s coastal water temperatures. Without intervention, the gulf’s coastal water temperatures are expected to rise by at least 5 degrees Fahrenheit across more than 50% of the area by 2050, according to a 2021 study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin on ScienceDirect, a site for peer-reviewed papers.

The UAE has also developed artificial islands that destroyed reefs and other ecosystems. And it is accelerating coastal development, which contributes to pollution and sewage runoff.

There are limitations to coral restoration programs, a relatively new field of study. Mohammad Reza Shokri, an associate professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, Iran, said that in the last two decades, he worked on relocating corals in two coastal areas in Iran, and only about 30% of them survived.

Sam Teicher, Coral Vita’s co-founder, said that he was encouraged by the agreement at the climate talks on Wednesday, which calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels.” Land-based coral farms were essential because they created gene banks for future preservation. But restoration projects alone were not a solution, he said.

On a recent afternoon on Jubail Island in Abu Dhabi, tourists walked on platforms through an area of protected mangroves. Just beyond the mangrove forest, cranes were at work on a major construction project to build luxury apartments.

While coral restoration may be eventually be an important element in a bigger strategy to conserve reefs, Shokri said, the best way to help coral would be for governments and companies to focus on protecting the environment.

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