Coral Researchers Testing New Restoration Technology

A man in shallow ocean water scuba diving near coral holds a scientific instrument with a hose extended over the coral.
Dr. Kenneth Hoadley inspects coral on a recent dive. Photo courtesy of Hoadley.

A collaboration of efforts from five organizations focuses on using novel technology in the field to aid coral restoration practices across the globe. The efforts have resulted in two grant-funded projects of more than $2 million.

The researchers coordinating efforts on these projects include Dr. Kenneth Hoadley with The University of Alabama and Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Dr. Mark Warner with the University of Delaware, Dr. Erinn Muller with Mote Marine Laboratory, Drs. Bastian Bentlage and Laurie Raymundo with the University of Guam, and Victor Bonito with Reef Explorer Fiji — a community-based conservation NGO in Viti Levu, Fiji.

New tools that provide low-cost and scalable solutions for predicting desirable traits, such as thermal tolerance, in novel coral colonies are needed.

Dr. Kenneth Hoadley

Understanding and addressing the key drivers of climate change continues to be the only long-term solution for reversing the massive declines in coral reef ecosystems worldwide. One method to increase the coral population is transplanting corals with high thermal tolerance in areas hit hard by bleaching. However, determining what specific coral colonies or even which species are thermally tolerant is labor-intensive and time-consuming. Environmental factors also constrain restoration efforts and differ across locations. 

“Many active restoration sites are located in developing countries where significant resources for conservation activity are not available,” said Hoadley, an assistant professor in UA’s department of biological sciences and project lead. “New tools that provide low-cost and scalable solutions for predicting desirable traits, such as thermal tolerance, in novel coral colonies are needed.”  

The two projects funded by the 2022 Coral Research and Development Accelerator Platform, or CORDAP, and NOAA’s Ruth Gates Coral Restoration and Innovation Grant will allow researchers to test a tool created to determine the thermal tolerance of a species of coral in the field as opposed to in the laboratory. The goal of the tool is to determine coral thermal tolerance rapidly and non-destructively and then incorporate non-destructive bleaching prediction into ongoing restoration efforts.

A woman scuba dives in shallow ocean water using a scientific instrument with coral.
Krystle-Blue Pahl, a doctoral student in biological sciences at UA, samples coral species as part of a restoration project.

CORDAP awarded the team $1.5 million over three years to test the novel bio-optical tool on managed reef systems around Fiji and Guam. NOAA’s three-year, $615,000 grant allows them to assess novel coral colonies within a nursery system across the Florida Keys.

“Together, the two projects provide an ideal platform for robust assessment of our predictive tool and its downstream efficacy within different environmental conditions, socioeconomic constraints, conservation and restoration methodologies,” said Hoadley.

For the projects, the researchers will run a series of thermal bleaching experiments and capture data on the performance of individual coral colonies. They will also collect data using the submersible algal phenotyping, or SAP, fluorometer, created by Hoadley and Grant Lockridge at the Sea Lab. This data will be used to construct a predictive model using machine learning algorithms. 

“Novel colonies can then be selected quickly and non-destructively using just our SAP fluorometer and the resulting predictive model to find more colonies that have a high thermal tolerance,” Hoadley said. “Model development, testing and long-term monitoring of selected colonies are all incorporated into our project plan and will help us determine the efficacy and constraints of the technique.”

A version of this story by Brock Parker with the Alabama Water Institute and Angela Levins with Dauphin Island Sea Lab was originally published by AWI.