Hawaii Scientists Cultivate and Replant Heat-Resistant Corals

The Takeaway: Groundbreaking experiment in coral “assisted evolution” is made possible by the long-term support of NOAA and Hawaii partners.

Healthy U.S. coral reefs provide billions of dollars yearly in tourism and food benefits. Reefs also lessen sea level rise impacts and dissipate up to 97 percent of storm-generated wave energy. Unfortunately, coral bleaching from rapidly warming waters endangers this ecosystem. In Hawaii off the coast of Oahu, replanted colonies of bleaching-resistant coral species are thriving in several spots, thanks to a new experiment in coral “assisted evolution.” NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation support the project through a National Coastal Resilience Fund grant of $1,056,114.

Scientists at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology began by gathering coral cores. They did this by punching a sample from coral, gametes, and larvae within bleaching-resistant colonies of rice coral (Montipora capitata) and finger coral (Porites compressa). These samples are reared in lab nurseries, and some are “exercised” by exposing them to temperatures above current ocean conditions, under careful lab conditions. The experimental corals are then replanted in Kaneohe Bay, Maunalua Bay, and South Shore waters. The three sites need the coastal resilience benefits that healthy reefs provide.

Best-practice guidance, now under development with partners, will help organizations scale up their heat-resistant coral projects to protect and nurture Hawaiian communities, marine life, and wildlife.

For two decades, the Restoration Center—within NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Habitat Conservation—has partnered with the State of Hawaii and nonprofit organizations in Kaneohe Bay to provide coral restoration support through its Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program, Community-Based Restoration Program, and Estuary Habitat Restoration Program. An underwater vacuum nicknamed the “super sucker” was used to remove invasive algae. Then project partners raised and released urchins to eat any new invasive algae that might grow, before it can take over the coral habitat.

Support for this research will continue under the new Ruth Gates Coral Restoration Innovation Grant. (2020)

Partners: Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, Malama Maunalua, NOAA Office for Coastal Management, NOAA Restoration Center, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation