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by Sophia Domingo 7 min read

 Community Consciousness + Scientific Solutions

Growing up in Hawai’i, the ocean has been a prevalent and valuable part of my life for as long as I can remember.  I love to surf, paddle board, dive, and spearfish. Unfortunately, throughout my lifetime, I have witnessed the rapid decline of coral reefs and fish populations right here in Maui .  In 2019, I volunteered with the  Maui Nui Marine Resource Council as part of their civilian science monitoring program, helping with ocean water testing. We saw dangerously high nutrient levels near many stream runoff areas which correlated to an increase in algae growth, covering corals from the sunlight and leading to more coral bleaching. 


As global warming prevails and rising sea temperatures frequent our waters, the survival and flourishing of coral reefs and marine ecosystems is at an extreme risk.  Coral reefs are the primary framework for shallow marine life biodiversity, but the frequency of coral bleaching is continually increasing, leading to a decline in marine biodiversity.  Coral bleaching occurs when sea surface temperatures increase so much that the coral’s zooxanthellae expels itself from the coral skeleton. Zooxanthellae are tiny plant cells that live inside the coral skeleton and create food for the coral through photosynthesis. Finding effective coral reef conservation and remediation solutions is extremely important to preserve these ecosystems before it is too late.  We must also use education and awareness campaigns to increase the value that the public places on marine life and encourage people to pay more attention to these issues by donating, participating in cleanups and other conservation efforts, and pressuring politicians to prioritize marine and overall environmental health.  

Community Impact

At this point, it is impossible to separate humans from the environment.   However, humans can use scientific technologies and environmental manipulation in a responsible manner to improve diversity and restore health, especially when the detrimental effects were caused by human actions in the first place.  Yet, while scientific solutions and technologies have the potential to fix or at least remediate these issues, scientists still need community awareness and compliance to translate the science into policy that can tackle both the immediate problem and the underlying drivers of the issue. 


It is extremely important to educate people and get them on board with conservation efforts because they may not know exactly what environmental laws exist or what they do in their daily lives that contribute to environmental issues.  For example, many sunscreens contain chemicals that are harmful to corals, but until the last few years, the importance of “reef-safe sunscreen” wasn’t commonly known.  However, in 2021, Hawai’i implemented a ban on the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are chemicals that make corals more susceptible to bleaching. Through a lot of educational campaigns, this has started to initiate social change and is making people more aware of their individual impact on the environment. Many hotels and boat excursion companies now provide sunscreen stations to encourage people to stay protected from the sun and minimize their impact on marine life at the same time. Additionally, environmental organizations are setting up stations at popular tourist beaches to educate visitors on marine issues and provide them with reef safe sun protectant. 



Legacy Reef Foundation

Dr. Susanne Otero, the Co-Founder and Project Director of the Legacy Reef Foundation is working on this issue and actively involves the public in marine conservation.  This organization is located on the Big Island of Hawai’i, where they currently have a coral restoration lab and will be opening a Coral Education Center later this year.   Legacy Reef Foundation strives to create an intersection between science and governance, uniting communities through a passion for the marine environment and inspiring change.  By involving the community in this learning process through conservation projects and outreach, Legacy Reef Foundation engages and educates people so that they can create a personal connection to the marine ecosystems and become invested in finding strategies and solutions. Often, environmental groups place so much focus on problems, which can discourage people from changing their habits  because the information is so depressing and it seems impossible to make a valuable difference.  However, by working towards concrete solutions and focusing on positive change, it is easier to inspire people and convince them that small individual efforts can actually have a large impact all together.  This also makes it easier for stakeholders, whether they are community members, private corporations, or government officials, to become emotionally and financially invested in solving the problem together.  

Dr. Otero explains that ultimately, she sees the coral reef epidemic as a public health crisis and environmental justice issue, as it will affect so many people in island nations who depend on marine life for their sustenance and livelihoods.  According to NOAA, over 500 million people depend on coral reefs for food, income, and coastal protection from storms.  In order to avoid the worst-case scenarios, scientific research on marine research must increase to maximize our understanding of these ecosystems and find ways to minimize external impacts.   There are two main components to saving the reefs: identifying and solving stressors, and making coral populations more resilient.  The Legacy Reef Foundation’s main strategy at the moment is to work with scientists in labs studying coral micro-fragmentation and fusion methods as a way to eventually revive coral reefs in the wild.  LRF scientists are attempting to increase the resilience of corals by increasing the biodiversity of local reefs. 


Coral Regeneration Studies

Recent scientific literature has explored coral restoration solutions, focusing on regenerating reefs through seeding and transplanting.  Scientists are able to create heat and acidic resilient corals to introduce into the wild that can survive in warmer waters and prevent bleaching events.  One of the biggest benefits through restoring coral reefs using either coral fragments or seeding is that the new corals are more likely to survive future bleaching events.  The last decade has seen an increase in both the intensity and frequency of bleaching events, but over time the sea surface temperature of the water during bleaching events has risen.  By seeding corals that have already undergone bleaching events, the hope is that the reefs develop resistance and become more resilient to future stressors. In some studies, corals that recovered naturally from bleaching events have become more resilient and are less susceptible to future bleaching.  They have also shown that coral bleaching is less common in high-diversity coral reefs (Sully et. al 2019).  


The Future of Coral Remediation 

Although the battle against global warming is a race against time, not all solutions can be applied in the wild until they have undergone extensive evaluation, otherwise a solution could backfire and create new unprecedented issues.  One future LRF project is an off the grid coral lab container systemthat could be shipped off to island nations that would otherwise not have the resources to save dying corals.  It would be scientist initiated, but community managed, so that local people could get involved and sustain the revitalization of their reefs on their own. This project will take a few years to release because the science is still being tested and funding through private donations and grants are necessary.  While it will take time to implement, I think that these types of solutions are exactly what is necessary to reverse coral bleaching and re-empower communities to take action on issues that impact their lives the most.


Once these solutions start to work and improve marine health, it is crucial to keep momentum and not reverse habits just because the ecosystem seems better than it was previously.  Due to intergenerational gaps in knowledge about the health of an ecosystem, there is no way for humans to determine how an ecosystem should operate because human activity is constantly interfering and impacting it! These systems are too complex to predict what will happen in the future, so we must continue to protect them no matter how healthy they seem, or society will quickly take advantage of the abundance and reverse the progress.  


Overall, coral reefs are an essential part of our world environment and will require an interdisciplinary approach with the help of multiple stakeholders to revitalize. Many environmental organizations and scientists offer promising solutions while acknowledging the need to take each case individually and craft a plan to adapt to each reef based on the local characteristics and needs.  By increasing education efforts and continuing to publish scientific and economic studies to show the importance and value of the reefs, the broader public will hopefully gain a stronger understanding of the issues and the urgency with which it must be addressed.  As more people become invested in the health of marine ecosystems, it will be easier to implement environmental governance and scientific solutions to effectively restore coral reefs, not just in Hawai’i, but globally, and most importantly, in ways that prioritize our ecosystem’s health. 


HOW YOU CAN HELP PROTECT OUR REEFS 

  • Be an informed consumer
    • Swap out your sunscreen for  reef-safe alternatives. Do your research, because some “reef-friendly” sunscreens still contain harmful ingredients! Zinc-oxide based formulas are the best option.  
    • Support businesses that use eco-friendly ingredients and are committed to make a difference 
  • Volunteer for a beach or reef clean up
    • Or volunteer to protect your watershed if you don’t live near the coast 
  • Recycle & choose plastic-free, sustainably made products whenever possible 
  • Donate to environmental organizations! 
  • Don’t touch corals in the ocean! 
    • They are very fragile living, breathing animals and can be damaged or even killed. Touching them can also disturb their mucous layer that protects them from wounds and pathogens. 
  • Visit your local aquarium to learn more about coral reefs 
  • Elect politicians that care about the environment and are committed to pass laws to protect it
    • Also sign and share petitions to protect marine life! 
  • Avoid using fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn
    • Even if you live thousands of miles away from the ocean, these chemicals can contaminate groundwater and eventually reach coral populations
  • Wash your car at a car wash service station
    • You will conserve water and prevent chemicals from runoff into the ocean! Commercial car washes are legally regulated and must drain wastewater into sewer systems so that all of the chemicals and pollutants are filtered out.  
      • At home, harmful chemicals and oils are just being flushed into storm drains that lead straight to the ocean with no treatment.
  • Do not dump paint, oil, antifreeze, debris, or other household chemicals into street gutters or storm drains
  • Conserve water
    • Using water responsibly will help reduce the amount of wastewater that enters the ocean

Written By:

Sophia Domingo

 

Sources

“Coral Reefs.” NOAA Office for Coastal Management, coast.noaa.gov/states/fast-facts/coral-reefs.html.

Otero, Susanne. Personal Interview. February, 2020. 

Sully, S., D. E. Burkepile, M. K. Donovan, G. Hodgson, and R. Van Woesik.  "A Global Analysis of Coral Bleaching 

over the past Two Decades." Nature News. Nature Publishing Group, 20 Mar. 2019. Web.

Sophia Domingo
Sophia Domingo


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