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Draper Journal

Loveland Living Planet Aquarium seeks to restore coral reef ecosystems

Jul 01, 2019 03:29PM ● By Katherine Weinstein

A diver attaches a coral fragment to an undersea “tree.” Once coral fragments are attached to the trees, they grow rapidly. (Photo courtesy Shelby Dobson/Loveland Living Planet Aquarium)

By Katherine Weinstein | [email protected]

Coral reefs are known as the “rainforests of the sea” for good reason. As Brent Andersen, founder and CEO of Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, explained, “Twenty-five percent of all ocean species rely on coral reefs for their survival. They are the nurseries for so many animal species.”

Coral reefs also act like forests in that they absorb carbon from the atmosphere. With their massive size, they also protect shorelines in 81 countries by helping to slow down waves from hurricanes, cyclones and tsunamis. Coral reef ecosystems provide coastal communities around the world with food and opportunities for recreation and tourism.  

Unfortunately, factors such as pollution, climate change, overfishing and careless recreational divers are threatening the very survival of coral reefs. Scientists estimate that 70 to 90 percent of the world’s reefs could be lost over the next 30 years if no action is taken. 

Loveland Living Planet Aquarium is seeking to help solve the problem by educating the public about coral reefs and the threats facing them and is also launching a new coral reef restoration program in the Pacific Ocean. 

The projects are part of the aquarium’s central mission of promoting stewardship of our planet. “I wanted to give people the ability to understand that there’s just one global, interconnected ecosystem called the living planet,” said Andersen. “No matter where you live in the world you are impacted and impacting other people and other ecosystems around the rest of the world.”

Caribbean Reef Ecosystem exhibit

In June, the aquarium opened a new Caribbean Reef Ecosystem exhibit featuring six displays and several new aquatic species. These include an Atlantic pygmy octopus, yellowhead jawfish, oyster toadfish, jack-knife fish and coral.  

The exhibit also includes lionfish, which are an invasive species in Caribbean waters. Since lionfish arrived about 30 years ago, they have wreaked havoc on coral reefs and the native species that live there. Aquarium guests can learn about how these fish are harmful and why it’s important not to release non-native fish into an ecosystem, such as an unwanted pet fish.  

Andersen explained that some of the people working to restore coral reefs in the Caribbean have sent coral fragments to the aquarium for this exhibit. These fragments will be carefully tended so they grow and thrive in their new habitat. Multiple aquariums across the nation are growing corals as part of the effort to save them.  

Coral reef restoration program

The goal of the Living Planet Reef Restoration Program is ultimately to restore 22 million square feet of coral reef in an area of the Pacific Ocean known as the Coral Triangle by 2025. The Coral Triangle, which is bordered by the Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea, is home to the most diverse coral system in the world. 

Andersen and the aquarium divers first visited the Philippines in the fall of last year and again in June where they identified sites for coral “farming” and established partnerships with people in the area to work on the restoration program. 

The program uses a farming technique successfully used in the Caribbean to grow coral using “trees” made of fiberglass secured to the sea floor. Small coral fragments that have broken off naturally due to storms are attached to the trees with monofilament. Once they are attached, the coral pieces start to grow rapidly. 

Each underwater nursery site can accommodate up to 20 trees. An established nursery can produce as many as 12,000 new coral fragments every year. The coral fragments will be planted to form a new reef.  

Andersen acknowledges there may be people who question the project of growing new corals in the face of increasing ocean acidification and continued warming. “We are using corals that have wider adaptability,” he explained. Some corals are genetically more resilient than others. Also, growing coral on trees speeds up the natural process of coral development. “We are building reefs that would normally take hundreds of years to re-build,” said Andersen.

The aquarium is inviting everyone to help with this vital project to restore the world’s coral reefs.  “At the basic level,” said Andersen, “people can spread the word about the effort.” The aquarium’s website allows people to make donations to adopt a coral fragment or tree or to help fund the work of a marine biologist. Corporate sponsorship opportunities are available.

“To solve such a gigantic problem, it has to be a community effort,” Andersen declared. “Everybody can do it collectively.” He is optimistic that humanity can save the coral reefs and that the aquarium’s efforts will make a difference. “We’re just dedicated,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make this work.”

Loveland Living Planet Aquarium is located at 12033 Lone Peak Parkway in Draper. 

To learn more about supporting the aquariums  reef restoration program, visit thelivingplanet.com/reef-restoration

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