Could coral farming become part of the defense against climate change for marine ecosystems in the Red Sea? As we reported back in March, the c. 400 sq km of coral reefs that line the country’s eastern coast are coming under increasing threat from the relentless forces of climate change, unregulated coastal development, tourist activity, and overfishing. Research suggests that Red Sea coral reefs are resilient to warming waters — but not immune. A form of marine agriculture known as coral farming has shown some promise in rehabilitating devastated coral reefs elsewhere around the world. Could it work here?
Egypt is one of the last remaining safe havens for coral: “Egyptian coral are among the very few remaining colonies that have remained in mostly good health,” Dr. Mahmoud Hanafy, Professor of Marine Environment at Suez Canal University and advisor to the Red Sea governorate and the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Agency (HEPCA), told Enterprise. Coral populations in Egyptian waters are uniquely capable of withstanding higher temperatures, while strong currents in the Red Sea also help reduce water temperatures, he said.
But it's still important that we take steps to protect our coral: Though coral reef ecosystems in Egypt are healthy compared to other reefs around the world, certain areas have sustained significant damage over the years through commercial development and unfettered tourism — like Hurghada, Hanafy said. Hard coral reef cover declined by 13.6% on average between 2005 and 2019 at the ten most-affected sites off Egypt’s coasts, according to a report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) (pdf).
Lab-grown coral is one option: New coral can be grown in controlled settings at a much faster rate than it otherwise might do in the seas and oceans. Scientists extract living coral samples and place them in semi-controlled environments, where they can grow unhindered by the pressures present in their natural environments. These lab-grown corals have already been planted in places like the Florida Keys to help kickstart spawning and reproduction, according to a report on Phys.org.
But this method isn’t optimal, according to Hanafy, who says it has a tendency to weaken the coral’s genetic profile, its immunity to disease, and ultimately its lifespan. Scientists have also said the method is difficult to scale, especially because it has to happen on a local level first to avoid mixing breeds from different regions that could be detrimental to the wider ecosystem, the Associated Press reports.
There’s another way of promoting coral growth that seems to hold greater promise. By transferring large quantities of coral larvae and placing them near rocky undersea formations, the coral can often latch on to these structures and continue to grow at a much healthier rate, Hanafy explains.
These methods have already been put to use elsewhere around the world: Australia's cultivation efforts have been the north star for coral farming outfits around the globe, Hanafy tells us. Australian scientists have since 2016 been bringing in new larvae from healthy coral to locations where significant bleaching events have taken place, in a process they call “coral IVF.” Last year, the researchers were for the first time able to witness the “babies” they had brought to damaged parts of the Great Barrier Reef spawn themselves, hopefully creating a fresh generation of coral, Time reports. Adopting this kind of cultivation technique in Egypt would be the best way to move forward, Hanafy says.
Local authorities are starting to look into coral reef cultivation: Coral reef cultivation is “under review” at the Red Sea Natural Protectorates Authority, authority head Dr. Osama Kamal told us. Meanwhile, an internal committee has been put together within the Environment Ministry to work on launching a pilot farming project in the near future, Kamal said.
One pilot is already on its way: Separately, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, and Gabrtek have agreed to work on a pilot project to restore coral reefs in the Red Sea, according to a cabinet statement. The coral reef cultivation project sets out to create new coral nurseries in damaged locations. Artificial purple boulders capable of sustaining coral will be installed underwater to house samples, Ahmed Gabr, founder and CEO of Gabrtek, said.
Coral farming can help repair pockets of damage to coral reefs: Farming could help patch up sections of our reef destroyed by boat collisions, according to a report (pdf) on coral farming prepared by a Red Sea governorate scientific committee. Amid several projects by the government to expand the country’s ports, coral farming techniques could also be used to transport large sections of coral-covered reef away from shipping areas to safer locations, the report said.
But it’s not a panacea: In reef locations where significant dredging and industrial dumping has taken place, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see new coral flourish, the report warns. Certain kinds of pollutants and sediment left behind from construction from decades ago have made it challenging for marine life to return, it says.
USAID’s >EGP 1.2 bn program to reserve the Red Sea coast
A new USAID-backed program is putting a spotlight on preserving the coastal ecosystem on the Red Sea, with the US government contributing USD 15 mn to what it hopes will be a USD 50 mn program to preserve reefs “while promoting high-value, low-environmental impact ecotourism.” USAID’s Red Sea Initiative is looking to raise investment from other donors as well as the private sector to preserve reefs and “establish a blended finance mechanism to support businesses in building resilience against climate change, reducing emissions, and creating jobs.” You can go deeper with the funding announcement or dive into the concept note behind the Red Sea Initiative (pdf). We’re not aware of a larger or more ambitious program designed not just to preserve nature on the Red Sea coast, but to ensure that it remains a magnet for Egyptians and tourists for generations to come.
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