Efforts to protect Hawaii's coral

An invaluable resource to ocean ecosystems and our economy

by Liam Thropp

April 22, 2021

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Over the last 30 years, human impacts such as climate change and overfishing have killed over 50% of the world’s coral.


Advocates said this is a major problem because coral is integral to the ocean’s ecosystem and is an invaluable resource for places like Hawai’i.


“The total economic value of coral reef services for the U.S. –including fisheries, tourism and coastal protection – is over $3.4 billion each year,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cited.


There are over 500 million people worldwide who depend on coral reefs for food, income, coastal protection and more.

NOAA stated that coral reefs prevent $94 million in flood damages every year, and the U.S. ranks in the top 10 countries to receive risk reduction benefits from coral reefs.

Some locals depend on our coral reefs for food and income. Additionally,  the reefs are a huge draw for tourism, offering arguably the best snorkeling and diving in the U.S..

However, if work is not done to protect our coral reefs, they will continue to die.


That’s according to Ty Roach, a researcher at Gates Coral Lab, who found that certain corals are less likely to bleach. When conservationists set out to restore reefs moving forward, they can choose corals that are more likely to survive.


In 2015, El Niño heated up in the Pacific Ocean, causing a mass coral bleaching across the world, including Kaneohe Bay.


“Corals are colonial organisms which actually house a microscopic algae inside their cells and those algae are responsible for giving the coral about 90% of its energy supply. In return the coral gives the algae back nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus,” Roach said. “During bleaching events, coral dejects algae which leaves them without energy and can eventually lead to their death.”


“This can of course scale up through other levels of the ecosystem and eventually lead to the collapse of fisheries or the entire ecosystem as a whole,” Roach continued.

Researchers at the Gates Coral Lab tagged coral samples, revealing that some corals bleached, while others of the same species were not.


Robert Quinn, assistant professor at Michigan State University, and his team found that the corals that were bleached in 2015 had a different biochemical signature than ones that did not. They can also tell if healthy looking corals have bleached in the past.


“We analyze all those (coral) molecules by weighing their mass. We can also get some information about their structure,” Quinn said. “There is a lot we don’t know about corals, and they have thousands of molecules that have yet to be identified.”


What they found in the biochemistry (also known as the metabolome), was that the corals that bleached had fats that were dissimilar to those that had not. It was a matter of the fats being saturated or unsaturated. Corals with unsaturated fats were less likely to bleach.


Roach said that moving forward, they would like to determine if these chemical signatures apply to different types of coral and in different oceans throughout the world.


“We’re really starting to look at not just these biochemical markers but things like genetic markers and other types of screening we can do to pick these resilient corals,” Roach said.

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