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Thinking Big to Save Coral Reefs Ocean Infrastructure Approaches to Coral Restoration

Scaling Up Coral Restoration with Biomimicking Technology

"Developing new technologies for environmental management and conservation carries some risks but delaying action represents a lost opportunity to sustain the Reef in the best condition possible." Dr. Ken Anthony, Decision Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS)

We are at a point with climate change and ocean deterioration that cutting emissions is not going to be enough to allow coral reefs to recover. A recent study by the Australian Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) states that novel technology needs to be implemented in conservation strategies on a large scale in order to revitalize reef systems. The authors specifically cited the need to use technological advancements that support and enhance the natural recovery of damaged reefs. Of the current advancements in coral reef restoration technology, IntelliReefs bio-enhancing nanotechnology substrates may be the most timely, natural, and cost-efficient way to build back physical structure, biodiversity, and resilience on a global scale.

Coral reefs are immense structures that can span thousands of kilometres, changing the underwater landscape and topography of tropical coastlines. They provide storm protection for coastal populations and an astounding amount of complex, three-dimensional habitat for marine organisms, which fosters an incredible amount of biodiversity. In fact, recent evaluations of the number of species living on reefs worldwide could be as high as 1 million unique species (Fisher et al. 2015), and it is estimated that they indirectly support about 25% of all life in the oceans.

Aerial photo of large-scale reef formations on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

While coral reefs are massive physical formations, they are formed from tiny organisms and small-scale biological processes in a complex, vibrant living ecosystem. This makes landscape management and restoration efforts difficult; most conservation organizations target smaller-scale processes or single species because it is easier to implement and monitor. This is particularly difficult when it comes to coral restoration initiatives. Many projects aim to outplant or garden a few coral species in an effort to revitalize coral populations, but climatic and landscape-level factors diminish their success on a large-scale.

Diver on a healthy, large coral reef in the Solomon Islands,

For coral transplantation and fragmentation projects, rearing and planting new corals onto reefs is a costly endeavor, both in terms of time and financial resources. As a result, these restoration efforts are often constrained to smaller areas and success is limited to the immediate area surrounding the transplantation region. In addition, environmental stressors and the increasing frequency and severity of bleaching events and storms often thwart these restoration initiatives before their positive effects can be felt.

Biologist, Ken Nedimyer, transplants coral in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Small, decorative artificial reefs and man-made restoration structures have similar limitations for conservation success. In the peer-reviewed, scientific literature, most artificial reefs in the world are too small (2 - 10m along their largest axis) to address regional and landscape reef degradation issues. Many of these small ornamental artificial structures (concrete modules, 3-D printed designs, metal, and tire reefs) are introducing toxic, ephemeral, and harmful structures onto reefs.

The chemicals that are used to bind traditional Portland cement and 3-D structures can burn animal tissues. Similar to coral transplantation projects above, many artificial reef companies cannot scale their designs up in a cost-effective manner. Small structures are not able to withstand harsh oceanic conditions and can even be blown into nearby natural reefs, causing further harm to the reefs they are trying to protect.

Cast concrete sculpture by Jason deClaires Taylor in the Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA), Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

IntelliReefs are unique artificial reef systems made from proprietary nanotechnology mineral mixtures, called Oceanite. Oceanite is a complex matrix of minerals, developed specifically for diverse animal growth and immediate integration within local ecosystems. It is composed of proprietary marine mineral matrices that include high-grade limestone, aragonite, and diverse pozzolanic (calcium-binding) components at the nanoscale.

Squirrel fish sheltering in a biodiverse IntelliReefs structure are 14 months of deployment in the Caribbean.

Oceanite mixtures are chosen to enhance the growth and development of desired species and can be completely customized to site and function - including pH values. Unlike Portland cement, the pH of Oceanite mineral mixtures is customizable, which allows us to create ideal growth conditions for target species by fine-tuning and controlling substrate pH. Portland cement can burn animal tissues when they come into contact with it because it has a pH around 12. Oceanite mixtures can currently attain a pH as low as 8.1, corresponding directly to the surrounding ocean’s pH value. The porosity of the material provides more surface area for animals to live in the crevices, creating a living substrate that is unparalleled in marine construction materials. Our mixtures and designs are also engineered to optimize strength and durability, and can withstand marine storms and conditions for hundreds of years.

Crustose coralline algae (CCA), sponges, tunicates, and other invertebrates settled on IntelliReefs.

The IntelliReefs team combines nanotechnology, artificial reef and biological research, marine engineering, and innovative ocean architectural design to create an unprecedented habitat restoration approach to ocean landscape management. IntelliReefs is a division of Reef Life Restoration LLC., and have been manufacturing, casting, and deploying complex, large-scale cast architectural stone structures for over 20 years.

As the market currently stands, no other company has the capacity to deploy artificial reefs on an ecologically meaningful scale - 10s of metres to 10s of kilometres.

Island reef system in the Maldives.

IntelliReefs innovative restoration technology and casting abilities allow us to truly approach the discussion of coral restoration over a landscape for the first time. Never before have we been able to consider putting technology in the water that mimics natural substrate so closely, and even enhances small-scale biological processes, such as coral attraction and settlement.

Similarly, never before have we been able to imitate the large physical presence of a barrier or fringing reef. It is time to implement restoration solutions that are not bound by size and sustainability limitations.

“It's probably time that we start thinking outside the box...It's sort of a no-win game if we do nothing”, said Dr. Ruth Gates, former director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.
Coral Bay, Western Australia.

Photo and quotation credits:

  • Title photo by the Ocean Agency / Coral Reef Image Bank.
  • Aerial photo of large-scale reef formations on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia by Katerina Katopis / Coral Reef Image Bank.
  • Diver on a healthy, large coral reef in the Solomon Islands by Tracey Jennings / Coral Reef Image Bank.
  • Biologist, Ken Nedimyer, transplants coral in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary by Mint Images / Envato Elements.
  • Sculptural artificial reef by Jason deClaires Taylor in the Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA), Great Barrier Reef, Australia by Matt Curnock / Coral Reef Image Bank.
  • Squirrel fish sheltering in a biodiverse IntelliReefs structure are 14 months of deployment in the Caribbean by Ian Kellet / IntelliReefs.
  • Crustose coralline algae (CCA), sponges, tunicates, and other invertebrates settled on IntelliReefs by Ian Kellet / IntelliReefs.
  • Island reef system in the Maldives by Ishan Hassan / Coral Reef Image Bank.
  • Dr. Ruth Gates quotations from Independent.
  • Coral Bay, Western Australia by Matt Curnock / Coral Reef Image Bank.
Created By
Emily Higgins
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