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Restoring Endangered Coral Reefs with Help from Digital Manufacturing

It’s a staggering fact: While oceans cover more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface, less than 10 percent of oceans have been explored, charted, and researched.

One ocean-dwelling species that we do know quite a bit about—thanks to research done by organizations like SECORE—are coral reefs. Vibrant, complex, and no doubt beautiful, coral reefs serve as vital hotspots of biodiversity. Both a dwelling and a food source to countless fish and creatures, they are among the oceans’ most vital ecosystems. Coral reefs are also an important resource for tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection. They act as a kind of barrier that protects shorelines from high energy waves and tropical storms.

Feeling the Heat of Climate Change

The once thriving coral reefs are now affected by the widespread and catastrophic effects of climate change. Rising water temperature and resulting coral bleaching is rapidly degrading coral reef populations and it’s increasingly challenging for coral reefs to naturally reproduce on their own.

“The coral reef crisis is imminent,” said Dr. Carin Jantzen, SECORE Communications Director. “The Great Barrier Reef; it was huge and now it’s half gone, which is quite a disaster. The global [coral] bleaching events are induced by climate change and rising sea water temperature. We have a responsibility because it’s our doing that caused climate change.”

What is coral bleaching?

Coral and algae have a symbiotic relationship. Nutrient-rich algae’s vibrant color signifies healthy coral.

Stress from rising water temperature can leach the algae from coral, causing coral bleaching, and higher susceptibility to dying off.

Combating the Coral Reef Crisis via Assisted Reproduction

Large-scale coral reef restoration is two-pronged. Organizations like SECORE develop technologies and tools required for coral breeding and collection and rely on implementation partners to carry out the restoration work. One of the first steps is to collect coral reef larvae during their annual spawning event (queue the Barry White music). “It’s only one night or so a year, so it’s a very rare moment,” said Jantzen. A group of divers equipped with collection tools place mesh-like tents over the coral and a funnel attachment helps direct the floating larvae into a small vial at the top.

3d printed collapsible funnel
This funnel device, built by Protolabs, helps collect coral gametes to assist in reproduction and restoration of coral reefs.

Previously, divers had issues collecting the coral gametes as the nets were difficult to manipulate. To improve coral gamete collection, they needed an easier to handle solution. SECORE approached Protolabs during the design iteration process for the collection net’s funnel attachment. Protolabs 3D-printed the collapsible funnel with Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) using TPU-70A, an elastic thermoplastic material with high abrasion and chemical resistance. 

“Without the service Protolabs provided, SECORE would not have been able to test the concept of this design, nor be able to consider what our next steps should be as we look to iterate on this design and continue to improve it,” said lead engineer Miles McGonigle. “We are incredibly grateful for the award and for the availability of custom fabrication to test and hone our design as we look at new potential improvements to assist coral reef restoration.”

It Takes a Village: Raising Coral Babies to Thriving Adults

Each diver can carry three to five nets and with multiple divers, each collection event can yield anywhere from hundreds of thousands to a million or so embryos. Once collected, the embryos are fertilized in the lab and begin to develop into larvae. These are then added to floating pools a couple of meters deep. “We add the embryos and they grow in these kind of coral kindergartens,” said Jantzen.  


scuba diver
A diver places an object that holds coral larvae onto an existing coral bed. Photo courtesy of SECORE International

“It’s really hard to be a baby coral. When they’re babies, they’re very tiny; fragile and sensitive. This is kind of a bottleneck for us because there are many things that need to happen at the right time with the right circumstances to let them grow. We’re improving this process and becoming more efficient so we can have more success in raising the baby corals to let them survive and flourish.”

Jantzen likens it to a survival of the fittest model. “The bigger you are, the higher your chance to survive. The coral babies need to grow as fast as they can.” Once the coral babies flourish in the floating pools, they’re ready to be placed directly into existing reefs where they are left alone to grow. If all goes as planned, the baby coral will continue to thrive and mature into healthy adults that will spawn and continue the life cycle.

Looking to the Future

The coral spawning and fertilization process happens with or without the collection and redistribution process that SECORE and other like-minded organizations carry out. However, this technical labor of love allows this process to happen more efficiently; growing and implanting more coral faster. Ultimately, this encourages thriving coral reefs that will support healthy oceans for future generations.