ARLINGTON, Virginia — In an interview with The Borgen Project, Coral Vita co-founder Sam Teicher provides insight into the innovative coral restoration methods that allow Coral Vita to restore coral to reduce poverty in The Bahamas and ultimately improve the economy of The Bahamas.
The Importance of Coral Reefs for The Bahamas
Coral reefs can have both direct and indirect impacts on poverty in coastal communities and are incredibly important for both the environment and human well-being. However, coral reefs face significant threats from extreme weather patterns, overfishing, pollution and other human activities.
Coral reefs play a significant role in supporting fisheries and food security. Coral reefs are crucial ecosystems for fisheries, providing habitat and breeding grounds for a wide variety of fish and other marine species. Many coastal communities depend on coral reef fisheries for their livelihoods and as a primary source of protein. Healthy coral reefs support sustainable fishing practices, ensuring a steady income and food security for local communities. A diverse range of fish species that live in or around coral reefs, including spiny lobster, conch and snapper, are also exported worldwide.
Additionally, coral reefs play a role in tourism and provide economic opportunities. Coral reefs attract tourists from around the world, providing economic opportunities for coastal communities. Reef-based tourism activities, such as snorkeling, scuba diving, and reef exploration, generate revenue and employment opportunities. This can improve local economies, create jobs and alleviate poverty by diversifying income sources. In fact, “tourism and related services” contribute about 70% of The Bahamas’ GDP and employ just over half of the workforce.
Coral reefs also act as natural barriers, protecting coastlines from storms, waves and erosion. Healthy reefs reduce the impact of coastal hazards and provide a form of natural infrastructure. This protection is especially important for impoverished coastal communities that are vulnerable to extreme weather events. By safeguarding homes, infrastructure and livelihoods, coral reefs indirectly contribute to poverty reduction.
In terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services, coral reefs are biodiversity hotspots, supporting a wide array of marine species. The diverse ecosystem services provided by coral reefs, such as nutrient cycling, water filtration and carbon sequestration, contribute to the overall health and productivity of the marine environment. These ecosystem services can indirectly benefit impoverished communities by maintaining the productivity of fisheries and supporting other coastal ecosystems that provide resources and livelihoods.
Coral Vita Restoration Methods
Launched in 2019, what sets Coral Vita apart from other coral restoration facilities is its ability to maximize growth and grow corals at a scale not manageable in traditional underwater growth facilities. At Coral Vita, the world’s first commercial land-based coral farm, scale is desperately needed to reverse the degradation of the coral population — the Independent reports that 90% of global coral could perish by 2050.
Coral Vita hopes to prevent this and its restoration methods are the key to this. Coral Vita collects coral either as fragments (pieces broken off naturally) or by harvesting a small percentage of existing ocean colonies. The team then brings the corals to the farm to study them, treat the corals for parasites and acclimatize the coral to their new system. The team places in field nurseries corals that the team does not bring to the farm.
Corals that arrive at the farm undergo micro-fragmentation, a process whereby one cuts the corals into tiny slivers and attaches them to coral plugs where they grow in the tanks. The advantage of this is that when micro-fragments touch, the micro-fragments recognize that they are from the same coral and fuse together, a process known as isogenic fusion. This speeds coral growth by up to 50 times versus singular coral growth.
The Coral Vita team carefully monitors the micro-fragments and cleans each coral plug bi-weekly to remove algae. This growth process can take several months. Another key element of Coral Vita’s success is the creation of “cookies,” a structure on which the corals are placed that allows them to fuse together, after which they can be planted back into the reef. The final step is the out-planting process where team members plant and monitor coral cookies and corals from the tree nurseries and micro-fragments.
An aquaculture system powers all the tanks on the farm and maintains temperature, salinity and acidity in the water while filtering to remove proteins and bacteria. This allows for assisted evolution which can strengthen the corals to survive the effects of the changing climate.
Growing at Scale
Coral Vita co-founder Sam Teicher highlights the importance of Coral Vita being a for-profit social enterprise whereas most coral farms in the past have followed the nonprofit model. “Nonprofits work effectively at a localized level,” but “private funding can help us reach the scale needed and makes it easier to integrate micro-fragmenting and do more holistic restoration while also allowing for more avenues for funding which translates to greater impact.”
While private financing comes with its own challenges, coral farms funded by one-off grants or donations from development agencies may not be enough to solve the issue. Corals need to grow at rates of millions and billions and the development model is not giving enough to allow that to happen.
One of Coral Vita’s crowning achievements to date, according to Teicher, isn’t just its work in growing corals, but also how it aids the community. “A big part of our model is focused on community-based capacity building through workforce development, education and partnerships. The farm also acts as an education center and training center for government officials.” Coral Vita’s own staff, bohemians, account for 50% of its workforce.
An Arduous Path
From power outages caused by the inefficiencies in The Bahamas’ power system to natural disasters such as Hurricane Dorian, which forced Coral Vita to rebuild its campus, the journey for Coral Vita has not been without hurdles.
But, Coral Vita’s success accentuates a key point, for-profit social enterprises that create sustainable solutions to the world’s problems can succeed. Organizations focused on social good can continue to thrive and grow at scale, until, at least as Teicher said when asked where he hopes Coral Vita will be in 10 years, “Ideally, we are out of business because that means we have done our job.”
When coral reefs degrade or disappear, the impacts on poverty can be severe — restoration of coral to reduce poverty stands as a feasible solution. Reduced fish stocks, loss of tourism revenue, increased coastal erosion and diminished ecosystem services can all contribute to poverty and negatively affect the well-being of coastal communities. Efforts to protect and restore coral reefs, along with efforts to promote sustainable fishing practices and responsible tourism, are essential for preserving the benefits that coral reefs provide to impoverished communities and ensuring their long-term impact on poverty reduction.
– Andrew Giganti