Earth’s coral reefs are in danger. But in Israel, there’s a rare glimmer of hope. The corals of the northern Red Sea are thriving.
Studies published in the journal Science last year claim that half the corals that existed in the early 20th century have died. Reefs are homes to multitudes of plant and animal species. They are also productive fishing spots. Human diets and economies depend on healthy reefs for their communities to fish.
Seawater acidity, pollution, and water temperatures all may affect coral health. But the corals at the northernmost tip of the Red Sea show remarkable resistance to those conditions. Experts like Maoz Fine of Bar-Ilan University wonder if lessons from the Red Sea might help save coral reefs elsewhere.
“We have not witnessed a single bleaching event in the Gulf of Aqaba,” says Fine.
“Bleaching” is a process that affects stressed corals. When conditions are harmful to the tiny marine animals, they may begin to eject the brightly colored plants that grow on their reef, or colony. These plants are the corals’ primary food and oxygen source. When the plants go, the reef will “bleach,” or turn bone-white. That color shift almost always signifies that individual polyps in the colony will die—usually bringing death to the reef.
In a lab, Fine submits corals to water treated to simulate potential stresses like acidity and varying temperature. His latest results were published in February in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
A typical coral reef is made of millions or billions of genetically identical coral polyps. Fine found that the corals in the Gulf of Aqaba pass on their resistance genetically to their offspring. That means that future generations of those corals should remain immune to the stresses that cause bleaching and death.
Isolating those genes could help repopulate dead reefs. Some cutting-edge labs in Hawaii and Australia are crossbreeding corals that survived mass reef bleaching there. They’re creating gene banks of “super-corals” that might survive future stresses.
“If corals are surviving and reproducing in the Gulf of Aqaba under stressful conditions . . . we can reseed the hardy corals in nearby bleached areas,” says Jacqueline De La Cour of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch. The U.S. agency has used such techniques in Florida. Reefs there are critical in softening the blow of hurricanes.
Fine is hesitant about transplanting corals yet. He called placing corals in non-native areas, “playing God.” Fine warns that intervention carries risks. Introducing non-natives could harm systems well-balanced by the Creator.
But despite the caution, ocean researchers can enjoy some good news about the future of coral with this present discovery.