Coral reefs aren’t just pretty places, they’re also pretty darn valuable. It’s been estimated that coral reefs provide goods and services worth in excess of $375 billion each year. The famous Great Barrier Reef was recently valued at a modest $65billion. Pretty impressive for environments that cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface don’t you think?
Personally, we think coral reefs are priceless but understand the need to try and put some economic value on them so people can get their heads around their worth and the many reasons why they need protecting.
Coral reefs have immense biological wealth supporting more species per unit area than any other marine environment, with estimates of up to 8 million species yet to be discovered. They provide a gazillion economic and environmental services to millions of people all around the world that range from fisheries, tourism and even the development of medicines including pain relief to possible cures for cancer.
Sadly though, coral reefs around the world aren’t sitting as pretty as they used to. They’re disappearing at an alarming rate and are under threat from natural disasters and humans impacts such as oil spills, climate change and overfishing. So how do we protect them for future generations? We need some type of insurance policy.
Enter an ambitious plan that is being developed by Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. Florida is seeing first hand threats to coral reefs, with some coral species in the area experiencing a 97% decline. So they’re building a coral bank or ‘bunker’ to store genetic material of coral specimens from the area. It’s a brilliant move that would bring back coral reefs from the dead.
But by collecting genetic samples, scientists are hoping to avoid the unthinkable: the death of coral reefs worldwide. While it’s the first of it’s kind for the ocean, it’s an idea that has already been developed with huge success on land in the form of seed vaults, including the Svalbard Global See Vault. It’s a seed bank hidden beneath permafrost and thick rock halfway between the North Pole and Norway. From all across the globe, crates of seeds are sent here for safe and secure long-term storage.
This same approach is being used to safe guard corals. In a world first, over 10,000 coral fragments have already been collected and stored in controlled environmental conditions that represent dozens of species native to the Florida Keys. Like corals, the scientists plan to extend their ‘branches’ and build a network of vaults across the region including the US Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, with the grand plan of having the project rolled out globally.
Unfortunately coral reefs tend to be found in areas that experience cyclones, hurricane and typhoons, so the banks are being designed to survive anything the nature can throw their way, while protecting the valuable coral collateral inside.
The vaults are also planned to house coral stem cells and cryopreserved gametes, which opens up opportunities to breed new corals and give scientists the ability to study coral genetics and research the corals that are capable to adapt to stressors such as acidification and higher temperatures.
It’s a project that coral reefs worldwide are banking on.