The tiny, slimy savior of global coral reefs?
Heat-tolerant algae could help the world's reefs adapt to climate change, researcher says.
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Successful attempts to help reefs in coming decades will have to address all these factors, say scientists. That means replacing leaky septic tanks in places like the Florida Keys, say Baker. It means educating fishers to the importance of reef fish to coral health. And it means setting aside no-take marine reserves.Skip to next paragraph
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“We’ve really got to be looking outside the box for all sorts of approaches for helping corals get through the series of stresses they’re having to deal with,” says NOAA’s Dr. Eakin. Even extreme proposals like shading reefs or cooling them with water pumped from the ocean depths deserve consideration, he says.
Then there’s Baker’s idea.
For the next three years – half spent in the lab, half in the field – Baker will study under what conditions corals best acquire heat-resistant algae. Will they take it in when heat-stressed and bleached, or before, when still healthy? Should scientists inject it directly, or simply ensure that it’s available in the surrounding water?
How many reefs will get heat-resistant algae?
Whatever the eventual inoculation method, applying it to all reefs everywhere won’t be practical, Baker says. Rather, he foresees choosing a few coral colonies on easily accessible reefs, like the Florida Keys, for treatment. Singling out the largest, oldest colonies will protect corals that produce a disproportionate number of larvae. That, in turn, will enhance the entire reef’s ability to recover after a bleaching event. More likely than widespread treatment of reefs in the wild, however, will be inoculation of corals grown in nurseries for transplantation in the wild.
With heat-resistance already present in greater numbers in their tissues, lab-raised corals will theoretically have a better chance to survive hot years.
Reef Check’s Hodgson thinks Baker’s work is important for what it will reveal about the coral-algae symbiosis, but he warns against meddling in nature. He ticks off a list of unhappy endings: mongooses released in Hawaii to control rats; introduced Bluestripe snapper overrunning Hawaiian reefs; Indo-Pacific scorpion fish stinging their way through Caribbean seas.
“We have a long history of scientists trying to play god with ecology. And almost in every instance it’s been a complete disaster,” he says. Corals switching to heat-tolerant algae “should happen naturally. There shouldn’t be any need to get involved.” (Baker’s aim is to boost populations of algae that are probably already present, not introduce a foreign algal species.)
Others are cautiously optimistic.
“You have to hope that Andrew [Baker] is going to be successful in his goals,” says coral scientist Nancy Knowlton at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. She recommended Baker for his Pew Fellowship. “On the other hand, it does not alleviate the urgency of having people work extremely hard to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” she says.
On this, everyone agrees. Attempts to help coral will ultimately be meaningless if the root problem – rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide – isn’t addressed.
“The idea is to get from here to there without losing all the corals,” Baker says, “so that by the time we start to become a little better stewards of this planet, we still have some reefs left.”