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Saving coral: rebuilding hope reef

In Indonesia, SHEBA® has begun a global effort to help rebuild and restore the world’s threatened coral reefs—one reef star at a time.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM LAMAN

Sheba Hope Reef, Indonesia

Seen from the sky, a pattern of restored coral spells out HOPE at Sheba Hope Reef—a sign that we can repair the damage to these critical marine ecosystems caused by human activities. SHEBA®, the pet food brand and part of Mars, Inc., is restoring Hope Reef as a first step toward restoring coral reefs at sites all around the world. As beautiful and unique as they are fragile and threatened, coral reefs play a vital role in the health of our oceans and provide a livelihood for millions of people. But now more than ever, they need help―and SHEBA® is helping Hope grow.

Photograph courtesy of the SHEBA® brand

A World of Coral Beneath the Waves

There are believed to be around 6,000 species of coral, a sea-creature that lives in a fascinating symbiotic relationship with algae. Coral larva attaches to a rock and grows into a polyp, an animal with stinging tentacles around its mouth. The polyp uses ions in the seawater to build a limestone exoskeleton, while inside the polyp lives an alga called zooxanthellae. In a mutually beneficial relationship, the zooxanthellae photosynthesize and provide the coral with its main energy and food source. It is also the zooxanthellae that gives corals their vivid, bright colors.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ENRIC SALA

The Colors of a Healthy Coral Reef

Coral reefs are one of the world’s richest and most complex ecosystems with amazing biodiversity that rivals the rainforests. These fantastically colorful underwater seascapes contain 25 percent of all marine life, but cover less than one percent of the ocean floor. A single coral reef can support thousands of species from corals and algae to clown fish and pufferfish to sharks and stingrays; it’s hard to imagine a more bustling, intensely colorful place on our planet.

PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG LECOEUR

Barracuda on a Healthy Coral Reef

There is a strong and beneficial relationship between coral and fish as well. Around 4,000 species of fish live in or around the world’s coral reefs, ranging from colorful parrotfish to big predators such as barracuda and sharks. The fish play a crucial role, cleaning away excess seaweed and depositing nutrients to help keep the coral reef healthy. In turn, the coral reef acts as a nursery for young fish, providing them with food and places to hide from other fish that prey on them.

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHUTTERSTOCK

A living wonder of the world

Coral grows very slowly, some species as little as an inch a year, so it can take thousands of years for a coral reef to fully develop. The Great Barrier Reef off the northeastern coast of Australia is believed to be about 500,000 years old, although its current formation is relatively new—a mere 8,000 years old. It is the longest and largest reef complex in the world, made up of more than 2,000 individual reefs stretching for 1,250 miles. From the air, it forms a breathtaking mosaic of reefs and islands in all shapes and sizes.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT HARDING PICTURE LIBRARY

Dying Coral Reveals Problems in Paradise

Coral reefs are fragile ecosystems, and in the last 20 years, around half of all coral reefs have died; it is estimated that nearly all of the world’s coral could be gone by 2050. At a local level, pollution and overfishing upsets the delicate balance of a reef. Oil, chemicals, sediment, sewage, and agricultural runoff can all hinder reef growth and cause diseases that can kill a coral colony. Destructive fishing practices not only reduce the number and diversity of fish on a reef, upsetting the ecosystem, but can also destroy the very fabric of the reef itself.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM LAMAN

Ghostly, Bleached Coral

The biggest threat to coral reefs is climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions are making the world’s oceans warmer and more acidic, forcing corals to divert energy from growth to survival. As water temperatures rise, marine heatwaves become more common and stressed corals expel the zooxanthellae responsible for their vibrant colors; corals turn ghostly white and starve over time. These bleaching events are happening too frequently for the slow-growing coral reefs to recover. Stopping climate change is essential as is tackling the many other threats facing coral reefs, but for some it’s already too late—they will never naturally recover, and that’s where restoration comes in.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE

Putting Hope on the Map, Indonesia

Off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia is Sheba Hope Reef. Around 30 years ago, a few irresponsible fishermen threw homemade explosives into the waters here to make it easier to kill and collect their catch; in doing so, they reduced the reef to an unnatural bed of constantly shifting rubble where coral could not attach and form colonies. SHEBA® is determined to change this, and through the innovations of the Mars Assisted Reef Restoration System (MARRS), it is bringing the reef the help it needs to recover―and demonstrating that there is hope for the world’s coral reefs.

Photograph courtesy of the SHEBA® brand

Stacks of Reef Stars, Sheba Hope Reef

At the heart of the SHEBA® restoration project are reef stars, an innovation specially designed to solve the problem of growing coral on a constantly moving rubble bed. A reef star is a three-foot-wide, star-shaped steel structure coated with sand and tied with around a dozen coral fragments. Hundreds of reef stars are embedded into the rubble field and linked together to form a weblike mesh that provides a stable platform on which the coral fragments can grow and expand over time.

Photograph courtesy of the SHEBA® brand

Diversity of Corals, Sheba Hope Reef

To ensure a healthy genetic diversity, the reef stars employ a combination of coral fragments. These include corals of opportunity that have broken off reefs, other corals sustainably harvested from healthy reefs, and still more corals grown in specialized coral nurseries. The corals are attached so that they grow in multiple directions―into the ground to stabilize the rubble, as well as up and out to produce the complexity that attracts fish. So far, more than 12,600 coral fragments have been deployed at Hope Reef.

Photograph courtesy of the SHEBA® brand

Community and Coral, Sheba Hope Reef

Teams of trained members of the local community attach 15 coral fragments to each reef star. Essential to the SHEBA® ambition for rolling MARRS out around the world is engaging the active involvement of nearby communities, so a great deal of work has gone into making the system simple and easy to deploy. The reef stars are designed to be made by community residents using locally sourced materials, and individuals are trained to deliver specific aspects of the restoration process. This increases the number and diversity of people involved, using supply chain thinking to maximize the efficiency of delivery.

Photograph courtesy of the SHEBA® brand

Laying Reef Stars at Sheba Hope Reef

Crucial to the success of MARRS are the speed and scale with which reefs stars can be laid to rebuild and restore reefs. A team of four divers can place 300 to 350 reef stars every day, covering an area the size of a tennis court. With perfect conditions, it’s possible to deploy around two acres of artificial reef every three weeks. Because of their design, the reef stars allow fish to use the reef immediately, and the structures soon become fully integrated into the seascape so that they appear to be natural reef growth.  

Photograph courtesy of the SHEBA® brand

Before and After: Sheba Hope Reef

The transformation at Hope Reef is strikingly clear. So far, more than 840 reef stars have grown coral cover from less than five percent to more than 55 percent in just 18 months; 70 to 80 percent coral cover is expected within five years. As the coral returns so will the fish: the diversity of species is expected to double, and numbers could exceed 60,000 fish per acre. The speed, scale, and success of the restoration at Hope Reef are unprecedented, and show how much can be achieved within a few years—it is a beacon of hope for coral reefs everywhere.

For more information about Sheba Hope Reef, and to find out how you can help restore reefs, please visit ShebaHopeGrows.com

Photograph courtesy of the SHEBA® brand