From homegrown coral to the Great Barrier Reef
The story of a hobby reviving our coral reefs
By: Becky Dong
I tend to pick up a lot of random hobbies ranging from baking to growing plants. Some stick and some don’t, and sometimes plants wilt due to improper care. Keeping a hobby long enough to see substantial results is already hard as is, but what about potentially saving underwater environments from extinction because of it? It sounds fantastical, but it’s the reality for many coral hobbyists that dedicate their free time to meticulously growing corals and tinkering with their methods to improve their craft, often detailing their discoveries in hobby magazines. They use the oldest method of scientific discovery, playing around and stumbling upon results. So how did these underwater gardeners discover a way to restore coral reefs? There’s a common technique in the community called fragging, where small fragments of coral are taken from a colony and planted.
Why do they matter?
Before we dive into how a niche hobby spurred a mission to revive the world’s coral reefs, let’s briefly discuss why they’re so important. Coral reefs are beautiful, but they serve a much greater purpose than simply being eye candy for scuba divers and aquarists. They are marine ecosystems that house hundreds of aquatic species, absorbing and regulating carbon levels and supporting marine food chains as a source of nitrogen and other nutrients. Additionally, coral reefs act as a buffer against big waves, storms, and hurricanes for shorelines and coastal communities, thereby mitigating the effects of natural disaster. Despite the benefits they provide us, we are one of the main reasons for mass coral death. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration highlights that human activities resulting in pollution, sedimentation, and climate change are major threats to coral reefs. These processes stress corals, causing coral bleaching and death.
Fragging for beginners
Fragging is quite simple. According to the Salt Water Aquarium Blog, all you need is a coral, a razor blade, a bowl, some live rock rubble, a patch of plastic mesh, a rubber band, and some reef glue. The steps are as follows: remove a coral fragment and bathe it in aquarium water, place it on a live rock, wrap the parts together with plastic mesh, and watch the frag grow and attach to the live rock.
Although hobbyists have used fragging since the 1950s, it wasn’t studied until this past decade, and the beginnings were accidental. Dr. David Vaughn, the scientist who came to discover the power of fragmented corals and a leader in coral restoration, left coral fragments that broke off a boulder coral in his lab on the ground instead of cleaning them up. He soon discovered that they had rapidly grown. These stragglers that he found are known as “micro fragments” by the scientific community, but they are no different from the “frags” at your local aquarium shop. Through further experimentation, they found that these micro fragments grow ten times faster than the typical massive coral, which led Dr. Vaughn to the idea of fragging to repopulate an entire reef. They also discovered that micro fragments from the same mother coral could grow together without competing and could cohesively merge together, also known as fusing or reskinning. This is similar to how surgeons prefer to perform procedures using parts from the patient’s body rather than a donor to mitigate the chances of body rejection. It is remarkable that corals, which lack a brain and a central nervous system, could detect this.
The incredible growth of micro fragments enables the production of colonies that would typically take 15-25 years in just 1-2. This astonishing discovery allows for feasible and accelerated coral restoration. With this knowledge in hand, Dr. Vaughn established the organization Plant A Million Corals with a mission to restore the 25-40% of coral reefs lost due to climate change and human activity. Since Dr. Vaughn’s discovery, there has been a proliferation in coral restoration, with several other organizations using his technique to restore coral reefs worldwide. Many of these organizations educate the public about the importance of coral reefs. Some work directly to restore coral reefs through volunteer scuba divers that attach fragments to existing reefs.
Industrialization and climate change continue to destroy many beautiful and vital parts of our natural world. Efforts and discoveries to remediate such consequences of human consumption and pollution are crucial for the survival of our environment, but more awareness, resources, and solutions are needed. In the case of saving the coral reef, the answer came from an accidental discovery and people looking for a new hobby. But just a little while ago, this would have been seen as another aspect of climate change that the every-day person couldn’t really do much about. The fact that a casual hobby can actively contribute to saving the coral reefs is more than just an exciting development for conservationists looking to rebuild the reefs; it’s a testament to the sort of collective creative problem-solving required to realistically help our planet recover from our consumption.