Andros Barrier Reef in the Bahamas. Global warming may destroy much if these islands' tourism industry if the reefs die. (Photo: Bahamas Tourism)

This article is part of Global Geneva’s OCEANS’ FOCUS series and our Young Social Entrepreneurs section. 

“While we’re starting small, with a farm capable of growing about 3,000 coral colonies each year, we aim to restore miles of coastline,” Gator Halpern, recently named 2018 Young Champion, notes on UN Environment’s (UNEP) website. The fledgling Coral Vita farm sits beside the saltwater causeway that runs through the island of Grand Bahama on the edge of the Commonwealth’s second-largest city, just 100 km from Florida.

Halpern and Coral Vita, founded in 2015 with one-time fellow student Sam Teicher, have already received many awards — among them, Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2018 when both men were 27, an Echoing Green Fellowship, JM Kaplan Innovation Prize, Halcyon Incubator, WeWork Creator Award, Fast Company World Changing Idea and Yale University’s first ever Green Innovation Fellowship. (See Video of Halpern and Coral Vita)

Gator Halpern, Hugh Weldon and Shady Rabab at the Young Champions of the Earth winning ceremony in New York, 2018. (Photo by UN Environment).

Halpern grew up in San Diego, California, and spent a lot of time at the coast. But a deciding moment for his new venture was the first time he saw a dead coral reef.  “I was in Honduras,” he recalls. “I was faced with a graveyard of white, dead coral. A rubble field of algae-covered coral skeletons stretched as far as I could see. It devastated me that this could happen to one of the most important ecosystems in our ocean.”

Becoming aware of coral reef restoration

But it got him thinking of how to make a difference and repair the horrendous damage our modern lifestyles cause to the environment.

Halpern enrolled in Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. There he met Teicher. “He told me about his experiences in Mauritius, where he helped organize a reef restoration project [funded by the United Nations]  to restore a lagoon, saving local fishermen from traveling miles to make a catch.”

Gator Halpern inspects a coral reef
Gator Halpern diving to inspect a coral reef. (Photo: Coral Vita)

But there was one big problem. “Traditional reef restoration – growing coral in the ocean – is just too slow. A basketball-sized coral colony could take 50-75 years to grow in the ocean. By that time, our world’s reefs could already be dead,” Halpern points out . In search of a solution, the two young men drove around the Florida Keys, some 100 km from Grand Bahama, “sleeping in the back of a van” and talking to marine scientists. “Our search paid off,” Halpern reports. “We found top scientists working on a technology that could speed up coral growth rate by fifty times.” (See Halpern video explaining coral farming as a response to global warming)

Coral Vita’s system for micro-fragmentation of corals to speed up and control growth quickly earned $1.5 millions of investment. It also won the backing of a key member of Grand Bahama’s Hayward family that is a major player in the business community and the freezone of the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA). The land made available by the GBPA lies close to some favourite environmental watering holes and playgrounds for day-tripping cruise tourists to the island’s main city.

Reef in the Bahamas. (Photo: Climateandreffs.org)

Partnering with local fishers and scientists

In keeping with this environment, the Coral Vita Project in partnership with the island’s Development Company as well as GBPA and the two men’s own company, plans to offer an eco-tourism attraction and education centre as well as the reef restoration facility. “We’ve partnered with leading marine institutes to develop relationships with regulators and practitioners in the reef restoration space and hired top scientists.” (Gator Halpern video explaining the creation of first commercial coral farm in Grand Bahama)

The system, developed by Dr David Vaughan, President of Plant a Million Corals LLC, involves breaking the corals apart into individual polyps and reestablishing them on tile disks. In this manner, the coral polyps can recreate a new colony and carefully monitor growth. Halpern explains the benefits: “The technology we use grows basketball-sized corals in just one year. Our land-based farms allow us to grow millions of corals at a single site, accelerating growth for a wider range of coral species than traditional coral farming can. We can also acclimatize corals to warmer and more acidic oceans that threaten their survival, so they are more resilient when back in the ocean.”

Halpern notes that Coral Vita works with indigenous fishers and hires local scientists as much as possible. This is not just for their unique knowledge of the local environment but also because the project is designed to help local people. The two co-founders came to Grand Bahama’s Chamber of Commerce on 27 March 2019 to explain the project to business leaders.

“We believe that a market-driven industry is the only way to tackle the enormous scale of reef degradation,” says Halpern. ”It’s impossible for NGOs and research institutes alone to scale up and solve this global issue. Our global community – including governments, coastal developers, banks and insurance companies – must invest in large-scale restoration.”

Bahamas exceptional wildlife and biodiversity is under threat if the reefs die. A hawksbill turtle. (Photo: Bahamas Tourism)

The need to make coral reefs less vulnerable to storms and bleaching

“Only a limited number of coral species can be grown through traditional coral farming methods, which involve building and maintaining underwater gardens near each degraded reef. Little can be done to enhance the resilience of corals to climate change in those traditional underwater gardens. And they are also vulnerable to risks such as storms and bleaching events.”

“We can modify the temperature in our tanks to reflect predicted future ocean conditions, acclimatizing our corals, which when out-planted have already shown higher survival rates,” Halpern observes.

Halpern has worked on a wide range of different environmental projects, from urban development in Brazilian favelas to agricultural land-use change in rural South Africa, and was a Fellow in the World Wildlife Fund’s Marine Programme. At the groundbreaking ceremony late last year Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest said the project offered “tremendous opportunities” for Grand Bahama’s “blue economy”, predating Prince Charles’s recommendation of this approach for island Caribbean nations by several months.

The farm aims to provide corals for the restoration of reefs along the southern shore of Grand Bahama island, which have suffered greatly in the past decades, say Halpern. “This project will help boost the offshore ecosystem, providing value for tourism, fisheries production, and coastal protection,” he adds.

Merging social entrepreneurship with conservation

How will Coral Vita make money? They hope to get contracts from organizations such as hotels that depend on dive tourists, governments facing food security challenges, coastal property owners and the reinsurance industry that are worried about how coastlines can be exposed to storms as reefs die. But turning their facilities into interesting places for tourists to visit will also bring in revenue.

But, as they told the website SOCAP (social capital), they recognize the difficulties for startups in the social impact sector to raise initial capital. There’s no way such projects can escape being a risk for investors. Teicher comments : “We raised a lot of our funding from people I call impact angels–people who believe in the mission, who can afford to take that risk, who aren’t traditional funders or funds.”

Ruth Gates: coral reef conservation trailblazer. (Photo: University of Hawaii)

Remembering Dr Ruth Gates – pioneer in reef studies

On 28 March 2019, Coral Vita’s website and social media outlets paid tribute to Dr Ruth Gates, the first woman to be President of the International Society for Reef Studies, who would have turned 57 on that day. Director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, she is credited with playing a key role in finding that some “supercorals” bleach less easily and are more resilient than others.  She died in October 2018 as a result of brain cancer.

An advisor to Coral Vita, she is being remembered also as part of Women’s History Month. Wikipedia reports: ”In 2012 she demonstrated that the choice of symbiotic algae was crucial for how tropical reefs survived environmental stresses […] and the capacity for corals to acclimatize under future climate change conditions. She predicted that more than 90 percent of the world’s corals will be dead by 2050.”

Contributing editor Peter Hulm is based between The Bahamas and Switzerland. With his wife a marine biologist, Hulm has covered environmental issues for many years.

Related articles as part of Global Geneva’s OCEAN FOCUS

Ocean Problems: No time for easy answers. LINK

Transnational Red Sea Project that could help save earth’s coral reefs. LINK

Swimming pigs. An oink heard around the world. LINK

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