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How Students are Helping to Save Coral Reefs

The Australian Institute of Marine Studies reports that between 1985 and 2012 the world lost 50% of the Great Barrier Reef. This vital ecosystem -- the longest coral reef in the world, stretching 2,300 kilometers over an area of approximately 344,400 square km -- provides a habitat for a wide range of wild biodiversity to thrive and live. Recent efforts by universities and students from campuses around the world are helping to save the coral reefs. The Great Barrier Reef, and other coral reefs, still have a chance, especially if students and universities continue their important work to help preserve and maintain this ecological resource.

May 30, 2020
  • International News
How Students are Helping to Save Coral Reefs

Off the coast of Queensland, Australia, located in the Coral Sea, the Great Barrier Reef can be seen from space; it’s that large. Due to climate change -- rising sea temperatures, which cause coral bleaching and pollution -- coral reefs are at great risk of dying out. “The Great Barrier Reef will continue to lose corals from heat stress until global emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced to net zero, and sea temperatures stabilize. Without urgent action to achieve this outcome, it’s clear our coral reefs will not survive business-as-usual emissions,” report Terry Hughes and Morgan Pratchett for

The call to action feels urgent. Universities and students are responding with major efforts to save coral reefs. Let's take a look at vital preservation work that is being done -- and still needs to be done -- to keep these vital ecosystems healthy and sustainable for future generations.

coral reef

1. Understanding the current status of the coral reefs

Universities and researchers must first start with understanding the current status of the coral reefs before they can formulate a plan to curb their destruction. One excellent example of a coalition of international researchers and scientists working together to study coral reefs is being led by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. The largest study of its kind focuses on how to save coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific region.

“The study involved the efforts of more than 80 authors who surveyed coral abundance on more than 2,500 reefs across 44 countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans,” writes Traci Matsushima for the University of Hawai'i News. “The findings revealed that the majority of reefs had functioning coral communities with a living cover of architecturally complex species that give reefs their distinctive structure.”

Studies like these can provide the blueprint for ways to move forward with restoration efforts. “The good news is that functioning coral reefs still exist, and our study shows that it is not too late to save them,” says study lead author Emily Darling, a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) conservation scientist and leader of WCS’ global coral reef monitoring program.

2. Steps towards restoration

Another study by researchers at Macquarie University in Australia offers new hope for saving coral reefs. The study offers three strategic management steps to help preserve coral reefs: 1) Protect; 2) Recover; and 3) Transform. The first phase, protection, will require legislation and policies of “an international network of coral reef conservation to save the world’s last functioning coral reefs.” The second step, recovery, requires “rapid coral recovery where reefs (54 percent of those examined in the study) were previously functioning but have been recently impacted by the 2014-2017 coral bleaching event.” Finally, the third phase, transformation, recommends that “some coastal societies will need to transform away from dependence on reefs that are no longer functioning (28 percent of the reefs analysed fell into this category).” Local buy-in and participation from townspeople, business owners, municipalities, and large companies will all play an important role in reducing the impact on coral reefs.

Exciting new research at the University of Cambridge and the University of California, San Diego utilizes the most advanced 3-D printing technology to scan live coral reefs and then print them in a custom-designed 3-D printer. This cutting-edge technology -- 3D bio-printing -- is providing researchers ample opportunity to test and better understand the structural integrity and growth patterns of coral reefs.

"By copying the host microhabitat, we can also use our 3D bio-printed corals as a model system for the coral-algal symbiosis, which is urgently needed to understand the breakdown of the symbiosis during coral reef decline," says Dr. Daniel Wangpraseurt, a Marie Curie Fellow at Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry.

Additionally, a comprehensive assessment of multiple studies shows reducing the impact of the fishing industry around coral reefs actually does not do much to preserve or restore reefs. Science is showing that the main cause of coral reef degradation comes from rising sea temperatures and climate change. “[T]he science is clear: fishery restrictions, while beneficial to overharvested species, do not help reef-building corals cope with human-caused ocean warming,” says John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. New information like this allows for a larger conversation and a call for more global collaboration in the fight to save coral reefs.

3. Global collaboration

So what does successful global collaboration to save the coral reefs look like? How will nations work together to preserve this natural resource?

One example where collaboration pushed the issue forward towards the front of the climate change conversation is the #SuperCoralPlay campaign. The University of Miami, Nova Southeastern University (NSU), the Super Bowl Host Committee, and some 54 current and former NFL players got together to show their solidarity and raise awareness of what it will take to save coral reefs. Combining awareness and outreach efforts, #SuperCoralPlay will offer opportunities to collaborate on future coral reef restoration and educational projects.

“Cloud brightening” is being studied and documented at Southern Cross University, led by project leader Dr. Daniel Harrison, and was recently trialed at the Great Barrier Reef. “Cloud brightening could potentially protect the entire Great Barrier Reef from coral bleaching in a relatively cost-effective way,” says Harrison. “Microscopic sea water droplets are sprayed into the air, evaporating (and) leaving just nano-sized sea salt crystals, which act as seeds for cloud droplets, brightening existing clouds and deflecting solar energy away from the reef waters when heat stress is at its maximum.” Finding new innovative ways to preserve the Great Barrier Reef, led by universities, researchers, and students in Australia, will help with the global effort to save coral reefs in other parts of the world.

4. What you can do for coral reef advocacy?

Wondering what you can do to help save the coral reefs? As a student or coral reef advocate, the first thing you can do is stay informed. Make sure you understand and are up-to-date on the best strategies to preserve coral reefs; dispelling the myths and misunderstanding will go a long way to help bring change and consistent policies for preservation.

As a coral reef advocate, you can host information sessions or viewings of films that show the degradation and conservation efforts needed. Raising awareness and a call to action matters most right now. Perhaps you might submit a film to the “Coral to Action” Film Challenge. “The world's largest coral restoration organization, Coral Restoration Foundation, is searching for the best short film of a minute or less that tells the world about the crisis facing our coral reefs and how people can help. The challenge is open to all students in the United States in grades K through 12.”

Climate change is the largest threat to coral reefs so advocating for curbing greenhouse gases and providing educational opportunities for citizens to fully understand the effects will provide the foundational knowledge for change to happen. For example, understanding coral bleaching is key. “Coral bleaching tends to be quite patchy and this is where our research is directly useful because can help to explain the differences in the susceptibility to heat stress,” says researcher Jörg Wiedenmann, professor of biological oceanography and head of the Coral Reef Laboratory at the Southern Cross University. “Whilst climate change is an issue that must be addressed both on the regional and global scale, water quality is something that can be managed locally and is something that countries with coral reefs have in their own hands.”

5. Build a coalition for global cooperation

Local and regional collaborations can lead to global cooperation. Don’t think that small actions can’t go a long way. Reaching out to universities, professors, researchers, and fellow students who are working to protect and save coral reefs will only strengthen the efforts needed. At Oregon State University leveraging community is what matters: “Communities, cities, large institutions, companies, and nations have the power to make broad impacts. Through civic and political engagement, you can help shape your community in ways that reduce negative impacts on coral reefs. Volunteering, voting and running for public office are all ways you can become more engaged and magnify your impact on a wide range of issues.”

The Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) is just one example of a global organization that is leading the fight to save coral reefs. They work to preserve the coral reefs in Fiji, Hawaii, Indonesia, and the Mesoamerican Region. Participating in events, taking action, and staying connected to organizations like CORAL will help you make a difference in saving coral reefs. CORAL is one of the leaders demonstrating what is possible when global cooperation leads to real action and change. ”Our best chance to save coral reefs is in collaboration with the people who are most closely connected to coral reefs. In partnership with local communities, we take a multipronged approach to restoring and protecting coral reefs,” says CORAL.

If you are passionate about saving the coral reefs, consider enrolling in science classes, ecology classes, and any science-based degree program that will allow you to participate in preserving these ecological treasures. Marine biology is a particularly relevant choice of field of study. Internships, hands-on fieldwork, and advocacy jobs are all vital ways to help, too. As a prospective student looking for programs that will help advance a professional career in saving coral reefs, don’t hesitate to reach out to universities and researchers who are already working on the frontlines of preservation. The time is now...

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Marine Biology
S.M. Audsley


S. M. Audsley is a freelance writer and poet who lives and works in Vermont, a small but mighty state in the United States. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast and a lover of potlucks.