Bay Area researchers help coral spawn as UN documents threats to barrier reefs

ByDan Ashley and Tim Didion KGO logo
Friday, December 2, 2022
Bay Area researchers help coral spawn amidst threat to reefs
A report backed by the United Nations has documented the threat that coral reefs are undergoing known as "cloral bleaching." Researchers at San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences are hoping that what they call "coral spawning" can be the solution.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As a researcher with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Ale Hernandez, Ph.D., has explored coral reefs around the world. And in recent years, she's seen heartbreaking examples of the damage known as "coral bleaching."

"This is a coral skeleton, and it's made of carbon calcium, and that's why it's white."

She says the white of the dead coral contrasts with the colors often visible beneath the ocean's surface - produced by organisms like algae, which attach themselves to healthy coral. But in environments, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, that relationship is being increasingly disrupted by climate change and warming ocean waters. Hernandez says some of the worst damage is caused by recurring temperature spikes.

RELATED: Rare coral spawning at Academy of Sciences lab could be key in reviving reefs around the world

"So for example, in the Great Barrier Reef, there was in 2016, 2017, so back to back, and before the coral recovers, there's already another high temperature event," explains Hernandez.

The bleaching is so significant that a report backed by the United Nations is recommending the Barrier Reef be added to a list of world heritage sites designated as being in danger.

Meanwhile back at the Academy of Sciences, researchers are not just paying attention to the world's threatened coral reefs, they're working on solutions to help them recover. Inside the Academy's Coral Spawning lab, scientist are on what they call a spawning watch. The lab is one of the few of its kind in the country, able to coax living coral into spawning. It employs a complex system that mimics everything from water temperature to lunar cycles in the coral's native environment all with stunning precision.

"And it just continues to amaze me, this process that happens once a year, even when taken out of the ocean," says Rebecca Albright, Ph.D., who oversees the spawning program.

Albright says there is intense interest around the world in developing technologies to bolster threatened reefs, and one key could be promoting genetically diverse corals.

"If we can understand how to facilitate sexual reproduction in corals, which is the natural way, to enhance genetic diversity and get more diversity on the reef, we're going to increase our chances for these animals to survive," she believes.

Other global strategies include tighter regulations for divers and commercial fisherman, along with controls to limit water pollution in the vicinity of threatened reefs. And as the fight to slow climate change continues, the reef restoration projects are likely to become more essential.

Hernandez sums up the message.

"We need to act and we need to act fast."

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