Wikimedia Commons

Since 1990, 90 percent of the coral in the Caribbean has perished, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But Sam Teicher ’12 GRD ’15 and Gator Halpern GRD ’15 have found a way to help revitalize the marine invertebrate.

The two Yale graduates founded Coral Vita, a company that aims to slow the rapid decline in global coral populations through micro-fragmenting — the process of splitting corals into tiny pieces and eventually fusing them back together. When coral splits, it redirects its energy towards growth as opposed to reproduction, quickening the spread of the usually slow-growing organism by 50 times. Coral Vita is one of the only for-profit companies that works to restore coral. Teicher and Halpern established their first coral farm on Grand Bahama as a pilot for the program and proof of concept. They plan to launch the plant later this year.

“Humanity depends on the health of coral reefs,” Teicher said. “As they die, people will go hungry, local economies might collapse and communities will be threatened. Not to mention that if they die, the world will be losing a great variety of life that depend on them.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, coral-based recreation, including scuba diving or snorkeling, is a $9.6 billion industry. $5.7 billion of the fishery industry is also dependent on coral, according to the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service.

Unlike the other big players in coral restoration companies, Coral Vita is mission-based for-profit, meaning that it primarily relies on partnerships with local stakeholders that depend on coral. Some of these partners include resorts, developers, government entities, eco-tourism companies and anyone else who depends on reefs.

Teicher said the reef farms themselves will act as tourist attractions and educate tourists about the importance of coral.

Tom Moore, the lead for coral restoration at NOAA, explained that corals are worth more than their intrinsic and biodiverse value. He explained that in first and second world countries, corals are major revenue generators and present opportunities for development of pharmaceutical treatments for ailments like HIV, cardiovascular disease and different types of cancer.

Moore noted that coral can mean much more to several island nations. He explained that coral reefs provided the inspiration for several communities’ spiritual beliefs, income, communal pride and protection from large waves.

“Corals are the lifeblood of these communities,” he said.

The driving force behind reef loss is coral bleaching, the whitening of coral caused by high sea temperatures that, if extended, can lead to death. The whitening prevents coral from undergoing photosynthesis, a critical source of energy. Moore likened it to a fever in humans. He explained that if a human were to undergo a 6 degree increase in their internal temperature for more than a few hours, “they would be on their way to the hospital.” Recently corals have been exposed to these increases of temperatures on the scale of weeks for multiple years in a row, he explained.

When asked if coral restoration was a lost cause because it did not address the root issue of sea temperature rise, he explained that research has shown that corals who have survived periods of bleaching are shown to be stronger and more resilient. These more successful and weather-worn corals are used for regeneration.

The team plans to establish “a global network of land-based farms to grow diverse corals resilient to changing ocean conditions,” according to the Coral Vita website. They hope to “protect the communities, industries and nations that depend on healthy reefs.”

“Hopefully people from Yale will come down and plant some coral with us,” Teicher told the News. “Coral restoration is a big challenge and we need all the help we can get.”

At current rates, 90 percent of coral reefs are projected to die by 2050, according to the Coral Vita website.

Skakel McCooey | skakel.mccooey@yale.edu