Project Management Institute

Coral Support

As Ocean Reefs Die, Teams Race to Slow Acidification

Coral reefs have seen much better days. From the United States’ Gulf Coast to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, ocean water temperature and acidity levels are rising quickly, triggering the bleaching of vast reefs and killing much of the sea life that depends on them. Scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies estimate that over one-third of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef’s northern and central section is dying or dead.

Scientists estimate that over 1/3 of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef's northern and central section is dying or dead.

To stop this global environmental disaster, governments, private organizations and wealthy moguls are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in projects. As they work to breed climate change-resilient coral or mitigate acidification, teams are wading into uncharted waters—and pushing for real-world solutions.

“What we have to do is really translate the urgency,” says Ruth Gates, PhD, president of the International Society for Reef Studies and director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

Dr. Gates’ team is creating climate-adapted “super” coral at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. The goal of the US$4 million, five-year project funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is to identify species of coral that survived where others perished, and crossbreed them to create more resilient coral communities and reverse declines. But it's not enough to have theories about what might work, Dr. Gates says. They need results. Project teams need to be willing to change direction quickly when ideas don't pan out.

To speed the process, Dr. Gates’ team is testing multiple species simultaneously, which adds further complexity. (Different species have different properties, requiring different handling.) Project sponsors had a variety of key performance indicators tracked, including number of crossbreed attempts, offspring generated and people reached through marketing efforts. Her team submits quarterly project progress reports. “US$4 million is a lot of money, and they want to be sure we are making progress,” she says. One year into the project, they have successfully selectively bred very hardy corals for the first time with the goal of developing enough capacity to be transplanted onto damaged reefs.

In Corvallis, Oregon, USA, marine ecologist George Waldbusser, PhD, approached the problem of acidification differently. His team at Oregon State University discovered a potential link between beds of seagrass and diminished acid levels. Oysters growing inside seagrass beds thrived and survived better than those growing outside of seagrass beds, potentially because the grass reduced the carbon dioxide levels in the water below ambient conditions, which may in turn have lowered the acidity levels. Dr. Waldbusser, an associate professor of ocean ecology and biogeochemistry, is part of a project team working to demonstrate how shell beds of bivalves, mussels, clams and oysters in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA might stem the rising tide of ocean acidity.

As project teams urgently pursue innovative strategies, they have to consider how stakeholders (including investors, governments, community groups and other researchers) will react. Dr. Waldbusser's project has gained traction with policymakers as well as shellfish growers for being less impactful compared to more aggressive initiatives. For example, as part of a 2012 ocean fertilization project off the western coast of Canada, scientists affiliated with Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. and Ocean Pastures threw 100 metric tons of iron sulfate into the ocean to boost plankton growth so local salmon populations could rebound. The project may have delivered better-than-expected benefits, but it also enraged environmentalists, civil society groups and lawyers who said it was a rogue geoengineering scheme in “blatant violation” of international moratoriums.


“What we are doing is attempting to maximize positive returns for the reef while minimizing risks.”

—Ruth Gates, PhD, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

Dr. Gates’ team is focusing on accelerating natural processes and assisting evolution. She says her approaches are low-risk and minimally interventional, and do not include genetic modification to develop a more resilient coral. “It is such an incendiary issue and it would create too many obstacles,” she says. “What we are doing is attempting to maximize positive returns for the reef while minimizing risks.”

As project leaders like Dr. Gates work to identify innovative scientific solutions to stem the effects of climate change, strong stakeholder management is crucial for ensuring that what comes out of a lab will be supported in the real world.

“Scientists have a nascent desire to act, and we can't hesitate,” she says. “I couldn't be successful without good project management. It is how we keep all of our balls in the air.” —Sarah Fister Gale

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