GCRA: 25 years of cutting-edge coral reef research and restoration

January 22 2016, St. Georges, Grenada.

The Global Coral Reef Alliance was founded 25 years ago as a global voluntary network to do cutting edge research and development on reversing the threats to coral reefs and developing new methods to restore coral reefs, fisheries, mangroves, sea grass, salt marsh, and beaches naturally, working on critical problems that nobody else works on because there is no funding.

26 years ago, as Senior Scientific Affairs Officer for Global Climate Change and Biodiversity issues at the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology for Development, I realized that no group anywhere in the world was focusing on solving fundamental scientific problems related to coral reefs because they were obsessed with doing whatever silly fad of the day that the funding agencies were throwing all their money at.

GCRA invented the method to predict coral bleaching accurately from satellite data 25 years ago and showed then that coral reefs worldwide were the first ecosystem to be seriously damaged by global warming, and that corals could not take any further warming. Governments have deliberately chosen to let coral reefs die for 25 years rather than admit the clear scientific evidence that global warming was already causing severe damage or do anything to reverse it. In the last 25 years we have lost most of the corals, and this year we will lose many more. In the past 25 years GCRA has worked in reefs in most of the small island states of the Caribbean, Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia. They have lost most of their biodiversity, fisheries, shore protection, and tourism resources, and are the first and worst victims of climate change even before their islands are flooded.

GCRA invented the Biorock method for restoring all marine ecosystems and coastal habitats, which is the only method of marine ecosystem restoration that greatly increases settlement, growth, survival, and resistance to environmental stress of all marine organisms, because it directly stimulates the fundamental biophysical mechanism by which all forms of life make their biochemical energy. Biorock technology keeps coral reefs alive when they would die, and restores them, and the beaches behind them, in a few years in places where there is no natural recovery. In the Maldives in 1998 Biorock reefs had 1600% to 5,000% higher coral survival than nearby reefs, and grew back a completely eroded beach in 2-3 years.

GCRA has also done leading research on reversing the effects of pollution on coral reefs, identifying the pathogens causing coral, sponge, and algae diseases, works with indigenous communities to manage and improve their biological resources, and has led global efforts at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for 25 years to reverse global climate change by increasing soil carbon sinks, among many other activities.

The list of activities in 2015 are listed below. Any year of the last 25 would have shown an equally diverse range of projects all over the globe.

After 25 years of non-stop, unpaid, back-breaking labor, we find that the situation of coral reef degradation, and the ignorance of the causes and solutions, have only gotten worse. Vast sums are spent by the funding agencies on nonsensical propaganda about “resilience” in order to avoid political action or funding to directly reduce threats to reefs or actively restoring them. Without active restoration no marine protected area will be able to protect corals or fisheries as global climate change starts to kick in, but no funding agency supports serious restoration, though all fund creating parks that can’t work in the long run.

GCRA gets dozens of critical requests for help for restoration every month from groups all over the world, but we can’t respond to most because we have no endowment, no operating funds, no budget for travel, and no benefactors. Essentially all our small donations are earmarked for specific projects, and most of those are in-kind donations. Had we realized how disastrous funding would be, it would have been insane to have even started! After 25 years GCRA is as poor as when it started, starting our 25th year with only a couple of hundred dollars in our account to support our world wide activities, which is more than I have in my personal account, this work has driven me to destitution.

But it is too late now, the situation is even more critical than ever as the global warming-caused extinction of coral reef ecosystems accelerates, and 2016 could well be the coup de grace for many reefs, with more to follow in the coming years unless the world chooses to take serious and effective action to reverse global warming.

In Paris governments refused to act in time to avert reef extinction, and so effectively condemned them to death. Ironically the world came very close to effective action: on December 1 the French Government proposed that soil carbon be included in the climate change treaty and governments commit to increasing soil carbon to reverse climate change (a proposal I had originally made in the 1980s), but on December 10 the French Government dropped their own proposal in the rush for a political “agreement” that is incapable of meeting its own goals due to fundamental carbon accounting errors that need to be corrected if it is to be effective.

In 2016 we face a critical emergency to build as many Biorock Coral Arks as possible to maintain species populations in areas that will lose them if they bleach severely this year. Since there is no funding to do so, GCRA will continue to work with all local groups in developing countries wherever they can find local support to grow back their marine ecosystem resources, since the international community has left coral reef ecosystems to die.

2015 GCRA ACTIVITIES

GCRA develops new projects in around 10 countries every year, but since we are constantly busy we never have time to keep the web page up to date, so it may seem we are up to nothing! Here is a list of some major projects done in 2015.

1. Indonesia
Indonesia continued to have most Biorock coral reef restoration projects in the world as Indonesian Biorock groups continued to install many new projects in Bali, Lombok, Java, Sulawesi, Ambon, Flores, and Sumbawa, with more constantly under development. Biorock Indonesia PT was formed as the umbrella group for future Biorock projects along with Yayasan Karang Lestari (Protected Coral Foundation, winner of the 2012 UN Equator Award for Community Based Development and the Special UNDP Award for Ocean and Coastal Management), and local partners. Tom Goreau taught the 10th Indonesian Biorock Coral Reef and Fisheries Restoration Training Workshop during the Bali Buleleng Dive Festival. Large, spectacular new projects were installed in Bali and Sulawesi. A Biorock shore protection reef to grow back an eroded beach was designed and installed in Sulawesi, and a similar project was designed in West Papua to be installed next year. An integrated whole-watershed and coastal zone nutrient, water, and soil management plan was drafted to protect the coral reefs of Pemuteran, Bali, from eutrophication, and collaboration with the Indonesian Biodiversity Research Center of Udayana University was established.

2. Panama
New Biorock coral reef, sea grass, and mangrove restoration projects were installed at the Galeta Marine Laboratory in collaboration with Dr. Stanley Heckadon of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution. The solar powered Biorock coral reef restoration project at Yandup, Uggupseni, Guna Yala (Autonomous Guna Indian territory) was expanded. This pilot project aims to save Guna islands now being abandoned due to sea level rise. All Panama Caribbean coral reefs underwent severe high temperature coral bleaching in 2015, affecting both Biorock projects. The Galeta Biorock project is located next to a similar unpowered control structure, so comparison of coral mortality and survival on the two structures will allow benefits of Biorock to be determined. We expect Biorock corals will show much higher coral recovery and survival based on results after severe bleaching events in the Maldives, Thailand, and Indonesia. When results are available they will be posted here.

3. Curaçao
The largest Biorock coral restoration project in the Caribbean was installed in Curaçao with Curaçao Divers. The project consists of 7 Biorock reefs linked together on the shelf slope. The corals show excellent growth, and fish populations are building up. The latest reports from Curaçao Divers will be reported here.

4. Saint Barthelemy
The Biorock coral reef restoration project in St. Barthelemy continued to show excellent growth of all four Acropora species (elkhorn, staghorn, and both hybrid varieties), as well as all other coral species, and has created an oasis of coral, fish and plankton in a barren, high wave stress environment. New Biorock coral reef restoration projects to restore deeper coral reefs, and to grow back shallow reefs to cause eroded beach sand to grow back naturally, were planned and approved for installation in 2016.

5. Bahamas
Cutting edge work on the response of sharks to low voltage direct current electrical fields was done in Bimini with Marcella Uchoa and Craig O’Neill. The dramatic results will be reported here when published. The Biorock coral reef and seagrass restoration project in Abaco continues to show excellent coral growth, spectacular seagrass growth, and dense fish populations, and our long term studies of corals killed by algae overgrowth and diseases near golf course nutrient sources continues.

6. Mexico
An environmental assessment for restoration of threatened endemic species in the Sea of Cortez using Biorock mariculture methods, and for development of tidal current energy resources, was done, and approved by the Indigenous Comca’ac (Seri) Indian Ejido of Sonora. Pilot projects should start in early 2016

7. Polynesia
Biorock ecotourism coral restoration projects by Denis Schneider of Espace Bleu have expanded to more hotels in Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Moorea, and research has shown Biorock benefits for giant clams, pearl oysters, and corals. A collaborative proposal for research on effects of Biorock on coral settlement was funded by the French government and will start in early 2016.

8. Spain
Research projects with collaborators at the Plentzia Marine Laboratory of the University of the Basque Country in Spain found electrical fields resulted in greatly increased cell proliferation rates in mussel livers. Biorock minerals grown under different conditions were identified and their chemistry determined. Further research is underway on fundamental biophysical, biochemical, and cellular effects of the Biorock process.

9. United States
Tom Goreau gave talks on climate, soil, water, and temperature interactions at the Conference on Restoring Water Cycles to Reverse Global Warming in Boston, and was active in leading the Soil Carbon Alliance efforts to urge governments to reverse global climate change through increasing soil carbon. The solar-powered Biorock coral reef restoration projects at Lauderdale By The Sea came to the end of their mandated three year monitoring program. The Town terminated all funding for the project and cut off the cables to the solar power buoys the Biorock team had designed and built to remove them. The project was literally cut off from power right during a severe high temperature coral bleaching event, when most needed! The project could easily be powered from a nearby fishing pier, but funding is crucially needed to save it.

10. Cuba
Tom Goreau gave papers on use of wave energy to restore coral reefs and regrow beaches naturally at the Cuban Marine Science Congress, on soil carbon, climate change, and soil fertility restoration at the Cuban Agro-Ecology Conference, and met with coral reef and shore protection colleagues.

11. France
Tom Goreau gave several talks at the Paris UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as a delegate of the Caribbean Community Centre for Climate Change. These talks, in both government delegate areas and the public areas, focused on vulnerability of reefs and coasts to climate change, soil carbon to stabilize CO2 at safe levels, and on restoration of marine ecosystems, fisheries, and coasts.

These materials are summarized in the video links below:

Tom Goreau presentation: Paris COP-21 12/2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Tom Goreau presentation at Paris COP-21 12/2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

12. Other countries
New projects were approved for early 2016 in Italy, Papua, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Maldives, St. Barthelemy, and Saint Martin, and possibly more, while many requests for new projects came from a dozen more countries, but did not move forward due to lack of either funding or permission for serious marine ecosystem restoration.

2016 PRIORITIES

In 2016 GCRA’s top priorities will be the global bleaching crisis caused by record global high temperatures and El Niño, documenting coral survival on bleached Biorock projects, reconnecting old Biorock projects in the Maldives before bleaching hits, starting new Biorock Coral Arks to maintain surviving coral populations in as many places as possible before impacts get worse, starting Biorock shore protection reef projects to grow eroded beaches back naturally in as many places as possible, and starting large-scale Biorock mangrove, sea grass, and salt marsh carbon restoration projects as possible, while continuing to promote soil carbon solutions to reverse global climate change from research, implementation, to global policy stages.

2016 KEY YEAR IN CORAL REEF EXTINCTION FROM GLOBAL WARMING

It is now 25 years since I showed the satellite sea surface temperature data at Al Gore’s US Senate Hearings on Climate Change proving that coral reefs were already being damaged by global warming, and that the threshold for severe coral bleaching was only 1 degree C. In 1992 at the signing of the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro I warned that the treaty would not prevent most corals from dying from high temperatures in the next 20 years. For 25 years governments have simply let the corals die, while denying there were global impacts of high temperature. Now they are mostly gone, and the Paris agreement is too weak to protect them. 2016 will be a record high temperature year, beating the 2015 record according to the UK Met Office. In 2015 severe coral bleaching hit Florida, Hawaii, Cuba, and Panama. It will be crucial to document all bleaching in 2016 in the hope that CO2 can be controlled in time to prevent the complete extinction of coral reefs, which is just barely possible if serious action were to start immediately both building Biorock Coral Arks to maintain temperature resistant populations where possible and reducing future impacts of global warming by increasing soil carbon.

Thomas J. Goreau, PhD
President, Global Coral Reef Alliance
President, Biorock Technology Inc.
Coordinator, Soil Carbon Alliance
Coordinator, United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development Small Island Developing States Partnership in New Sustainable Technologies