Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass December 2000
Farming Coral:
Striving to Revive
the 'Underwater Rainforest'
by Gwenith Whitford

By propagating coral on the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica, a company called Applied Marine Technologies Ltd (AMT) strives to save the worldís dying coral reefs. On this organizationís website, readers are informed that living coral provides more oxygen to the planet than all the land-based rainforests. AMT has devoted itself to reviving the "underwater rainforest."
This ambitious objective has very humble origins. About 15 years ago, Alan Lowe, AMTís Director of Operations, watched a coral reproducing itself (really!) in his home aquarium. He developed a fascination with this phenomenon, and his fascination evolved into a plan for a full-scale coral farm. "AMT is the first commercial coral cultivation facility in the Caribbean and possibly the largest in the world," says Alan.

His dedication to the propagation of coral is rooted in a deep concern about the precarious state of the worldís coral reefs. Both nature and human beings are responsible for their rapid deterioration. Hurricanes and typhoons uproot corals, while pollution, shipwrecks, illegal harvesting for jewelry-making and the random use of dynamite to catch fish have also taken their toll. It is only recently that the gathering of coral for the marine aquarium industry has been halted. Global warming, too, is having an adverse effect on this fragile ecosystem.

"Coral is dying all over the world," Alan explains. "Studies by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and others have concluded that if drastic steps are not taken to prevent further destruction, all reefs could be dead within the next forty years."

If the coral dies, this will have an extremely adverse effect on other marine life. Its absence will then have dire consequences on the worldís human population. "Coral provides food and shelter for many of the oceansí creatures. It is a breeding ground for a huge percentage of fish and the destruction of the reefs could lead to mass starvation amongst seafood-dependent people," insists Alan.

Alan feels that Dominica is an ideal venue in which to operate AMTís privately funded coral propagation farm. "Dominica was chosen for its pristine waters and friendly people," he says of the "Nature Island" of the Caribbean. The team at AMT consists of engineers, divers, marine biologists, construction managers, coral husbandry specialists and marketing strategists who are located in Dominica and the United States. AMTís main objective is to cultivate coral "in captivity" and then put it back into reefs that are distressed or destroyed in order to restore the oceansí ecosystems. This action will provide damaged reefs with an enhanced means to heal. Otherwise, recovery could take hundreds of years. The organization has an ambitious plan to eventually grow all of the 2,500 different types of hard and soft coral that exist in the world.

Corals have a unique and infrequent means of reproduction, which makes the restoration situation even more urgent. Their sexual reproduction only happens once a year, around the time of the full moon in August or early September. The coral releases approximately 500,000 eggs during this mass spawning. However, fish eat considerable numbers of the eggs and others drift down to the ocean floor where they die. Alarmingly, often only one egg per coral will survive and grow.
But coral can also reproduce asexually. "Asexual reproduction is the fragmenting of coral by breaking a piece away. Under the right conditions, these fragments can take hold and grow," explains Alan. At AMT, Alan and his team endeavor to recreate the marine environment that is ideal for raising corals. These conditions include appropriate temperature, water salinity and clarity. The facility is designed for 500 tanks which each contain 250 gallons of seawater. Several hundred corals can be raised in each tank. In order to grow the coral "in captivity", parent pieces called "brood stock" initiate the patented propagation process. After a few months, many of the cultivated pieces become the brood stock themselves. The system eventually becomes self-sustaining.
Coral husbandry specialists on the staff maintain the tanks on a daily basis, which includes a cleaning and inspection every week. When the farm is fully operational, the tanks will hold almost 500,000 cultivated corals. Then, several thousand pieces can be shipped out per month. "We are experimenting with the various needs of some corals so that we can design species-specific tanks, if needed," says Alan. "We also have a twenty-five thousand gallon pool where people can see the many types of corals we are working with. We are also committed to the construction of a larger pool that will in essence give us a two hundred and fifty thousand gallon interactive pool. People will be allowed to enter this large pool with a guide and receive an education-oriented underwater tour."

Many exciting projects are underway at AMTís coral farm. One of its immediate plans involves assistance with the coral restoration process off the island of Mustique (see sidebar). There, a few hundred pieces of coral will be "seeded" to begin to repair the damage caused by Hurricane Lenny in 1999. "Our research indicates that we can give a minimum of a one hundred and sixty-five year jump by seeding a reef with cultivated corals," exclaims Alan.

Additional programs which are now being developed include pharmaceutical research utilizing coral enzymes in AIDS and cancer research, the use of certain hard corals, raised by AMT, for bone reconstruction, and supply for home aquaria, thereby reducing the harvesting load from natural reefs. Also, coral that has died at the AMT farm can be employed in jewelry-making and other crafts. "All of this can be achieved without continued destruction to natural coral reefs!" enthuses Alan.

AMT recognizes the value in forming partnerships with similarly concerned organizations. They are currently in negotiation with various academic institutions, as well as educational foundations. They include the prestigious Living Classrooms Foundation, the Reefball Coalition, and a conservation organization called REEF. Also under discussion are agreements with various commercial aquaria to showcase living corals, which have been grown in captivity at the farm. AMT intends to increase awareness about the importance of preserving these natural wonders. "Education and then positive action are desperately needed to save these ocean treasures," urges Alan.
As part of their public awareness campaign, AMT has launched an "Adopt-A-Coral" program. This project is designed to aid in the restoration of coral reefs worldwide. Public support will help the coral propagation farm raise coral in captivity to repair damaged reefs so that the oceanís ecosystems can be re-established. "The Adopt-A-Coral program is a way for concerned people to take a positive step of their own, and place a piece of coral onto a reef," says Alan. He feels that this small gesture by many concerned individuals can "save the beauty and importance of this wonderful marine environment for future generations." Without assistance from citizens of the world, the revival of our "underwater rainforests" will take a very, very long time.

Further information about the Coral Propagation Farm and its Adopt-A-Coral Program can be obtained from Applied Marine Technologies Ltd., Box 1001 Roseau, Commonwealth of Dominica. Tel (767) 445-5903, fax (767) 445-3547, [email protected], AMT welcomes prearranged tours of the facility.

Gwenith Whitford is a freelance journalist from Canada who resides in the Commonwealth of Dominica, the "Nature Island" of the Caribbean.

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