Coral reefs, like sprawling ocean cities, support one estimate 25% of all plants and animals in the ocean. Worldwide, 1 billion people depend on these ecosystems for food, income and coastal protection.

Unfortunately, coral reefs face countless sources of stress, from climate change and pollution to overfishing and unsustainable coastal development. The outlook for corals and the reefs they build is not good: without drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conditions in tropical coastal waters will improve, according to scientists be inhospitable to corals in the year 2100. If we want coral reefs in the future, we need to be proactive.

Scientists, conservationists and local communities are working to restore unhealthy reefs. There are many ways to do this: promoting coral sex in the laboratory, for example to produce huge quantities of coral larvae that can be released into the wild, or the targeted breeding and genetic modification of specimens to create stress-resistant “super corals”.

A diving boat on the horizon and an underwater view of a coral reef.
As reefs deteriorated in the warmer waters, the impetus was to replace lost coral.
Serge Melesan/Alamy Stock Photo

Although coral restoration has become one Multi-million dollar businessHowever, many restoration projects fail to bring long-term change to the ecosystem outlookWasting time and resources and raising questions about ethics Easily “make corals die”as Ian Enochs, a US marine biologist who leads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s reef monitoring program in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean, recently described.

In our new paper, we propose a new way of thinking about coral restoration: making environmental conditions such as temperature and nutrient levels the deciding factor in whether reef restoration should occur. This may seem obvious, but our survey of academic research on coral restoration from 1984 to 2022 suggested that these questions have been neglected.

Reefs of tomorrow

Coral restoration has so far been extremely reactive. Efforts focused on restoring reefs in areas where they were previously located, even though those reefs had recently died. If the cause of a dead reef is clear and known, such as a one-time pollution event, this could be an appropriate response (as long as the cause of death has been eliminated).

But damaged coral reefs are more often the result of stresses that are not easily managed, such as ocean heat waves caused by climate change or extensive coastal development. It’s no surprise that reef restoration efforts in areas affected by these problems often fail – the original problem still exists.

We believe there are two ways to give coral reef restoration projects the best possible chance of success. First, when restoring coral to a dead reef, do so with a thorough knowledge of the environmental conditions in the area – both as they exist today and as they are expected to exist in the future. This information can shed light on which types of coral are best to use, how they should be grown, when to plant them in the wild, and how to attach them to the seafloor.

Rows of metal poles on which corals grow.
A nursery with young smooth cauliflower corals (Stylophora pistillata), which are almost ready to be transplanted into the northern Red Sea.
H. Nativ/Morris Kahn Marine Research Station

Option two is to promote new coral reefs in areas where they did not exist historically but where environmental conditions may be favorable in the coming years and decades. We could find these areas on the edges of today’s coral reefs. Additional areas could emerge as the resolution of environmental monitoring improves.

Go with the flow

Clearly, innovations in coral restoration are needed. A variety of ethical, political, economic and ecological questions need to be clarified. It’s time to ensure these decisions are based on a solid foundation of environmental knowledge – to break the recovery cycle of failure in which we are trapped.

We must be aware that although a coral reef was once located in a particular location, it may now (or in the near future) be more effective to restore that reef in another location. Coral restoration could become more targeted and forward-looking.

There are technical limitations in measuring environmental conditions and predicting what they will be like in the future. Still, this new perspective allows us to work with environmental change rather than fight against it. If successful, it could help preserve coral reef ecosystems for future generations.

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