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Caring for coral


WORLD Radio - Caring for coral

Stewarding ocean habitats requires creativity and hard work

Sea fan and soft coral in North Andaman, Thailand Zephyr18/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: caring for the world’s coral reefs.

Coral reefs are sometimes called the ocean’s rainforest. The diverse ecosystem features colonies of small marine invertebrates. They often look like exotic plants, but they’re actually small animals. The structures these species build become home to millions of fish and sea life.

EICHER: Coral reefs are sensitive to changes in the environment. So many people are working hard to protect, preserve, and restore them. WORLD’s Paul Butler has our story:


PAUL BUTLER: These divers off the coast of Thailand’s Phuket island aren’t just scuba enthusiasts, they’re citizen conservationists. They’re removing so-called “ghost gear” from the reef. Snagged net fragments, broken traps, discarded fishing lines all tangled together, damaging fragile corals. They’re part of a network of hundreds of divers who send in reports of ghost gear and other entanglements harming the reef.

PATCHARAPORN KAEWMONG: [Speaking in Thai] Waste management is a very big problem. A national, and even global problem.

This woman directs a Marine Endangered Animals Rescue Center on the island. She says waste management is a very big problem. Not just locally, but globally. She believes small personal solutions can help fix the larger issue.


A nearby non-government group has another small solution. It coordinates with local fishermen to reduce the amount of discarded fishing gear that ends up in the reef by hauling away old gear and disposing of it properly, addressing some of the problem before it even begins.


But it’s not just trash that threatens the reef. About 3500 miles away, the Great Barrier reef is experiencing an added challenge.

WACHENFELD: So we have seen widespread coral bleaching throughout the southern Great Barrier Reef and in parts of the central and northern Great Barrier Reef.

David Wachenfeld is research director for the Australian Institute Of Marine Science. This summer’s bleaching is the 5th since 2016. It’s not the only location. Bleaching is currently taking place in Kenya, Brazil, parts of the Indian Ocean and Caribbean.

Bleaching is a stress response—most often related to increased water temperature caused by weather patterns like El Nino or larger than usual water runoff from heavy rains and flooding. During bleaching, the corals expel an algae that lives inside its tissues, causing it to lose its color, turning white. Making the reef look like a graveyard.

But bleached corals are not dead. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation says plainly in their FAQs that bleaching is a “natural process and not of particular concern,” though it does make coral more susceptible to starvation and disease.

Bleaching is often seasonal, and cyclical. David Wachenfeld.

WACHENFELD: The far northern Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Strait have actually pretty much escaped this year with very little heat stress and very little bleaching as well.

Added to this natural ebb and flow of the climate, the effects of unregulated anchoring, the proliferation of plastics, and other human pollution have left many once vibrant reefs greatly reduced. Some are even in danger of disappearing.

So there are a handful of groups working to restore stressed and damaged reefs.


The World Coral Conservatory project is based at Burgers’ Zoo in the Netherlands. It’s working to preserve coral samples from around the world. The scientists behind the project refer to this tank as the “Noah’s Ark” of coral preservation, though it’s more like a seed bank.


A few weeks ago divers here carefully placed the latest two corals in their 2-billion gallon salt-water tank. The two species were grown in a lab and are currently each smaller than a baseball, but marine biologists like Nienke Klerks say that in the coming years they will slowly mature to full size.

NIENKE KLERKS: One of them is an Acropora or a staghorn coral. This is a relatively fast-growing species, and the other species is Gardineroseris. This is slightly less fast growing, but it's growing more like a plate.

But it’s a slow process.

Pascal Kik is one of the coral caretakers. His job is to make sure the conservation aquarium remains a healthy environment for all the corals:

PASCAL KIK: It's important to have the right salinity, the right temperature. And we try to keep it as stable as possible.

Marine biologists hope to use parts of these corals to repair and repopulate damaged or polluted reefs in the future. It’s a technique already being used by another international group. Coral Vita Farms based in the Bahamas.


Coral reef conservation is nothing new—it’s been around since at least the 1970s. But Coral Vita Farms has moved it into the space age.

HAMDY: So with this system we can control the temperatures and the light intensity, the waves…

Ahmed Hamdy is Farm Manager for Coral Vita Dubai. He spends his days surrounded by shallow saltwater tanks under bright purple lights. Each tank is filled with small plugs of growing corals.


The company is propagating the marine invertebrates under harsher conditions than found in the wild. They hope to prepare these samples for repopulating stressed and damaged reefs.

HAMDY: This is the cutting machine which we use for cutting the coral...

The process is kind of like planting potatoes. Technicians take a living piece of coral and cut it into dice-sized pieces. Then glue the pieces on to golf-ball sized bases.

Depending on the species, their corals take from 6 months to two years to reach transplant status. Last year the company placed about 30,000 corals into the wild.

HAMDY: We are creating a healing environment. and they reach the mature level in a very short time.

In February, Australian scientists announced new data showing roughly 25% more reefs in the world’s oceans than previously thought. Meaning if all the earth’s reefs were brought together in one place, it would be roughly the size of Germany. That’s a lot of area to manage, but thanks to scuba enthusiasts, coral conservationists, and marine biologists, the immense diversity of this crucial ecosystem is understood and cared for better than ever before, one region at a time.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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