In The Spotlight: Reef Life Foundation & IntelliReefs
We believe that the future of marine conservation is everyone’s business.
Every second breath we take originated in the ocean.
It is 70% of our planet, and without a healthy, functional ocean, we cannot stay on this planet.
– Emily Higgins –
DG: Thanks for joining us today. Can you share with us the mission and vision of your organisation as well as the challenges the team is tackling?
Emily: Reef Life Foundation’s mission is to revitalize, restore, and protect threatened coral reef ecosystems through holistic, scientific solutions. We are currently working towards building over a million square feet of reef by 2025, restoring dying coral reefs back to diverse and sustainable ecosystems, and strengthening the communities that rely on them.
Around the world, we have lost about 50% of our coral reef ecosystems since the 1980’s due to pollution, climate change, and destruction of habitat. At Reef Life, we are working with local communities to bring back as much of the reef as possible through innovative, data driven solutions. We are committed to enhancing biodiversity and ecological resilience where it has been lost. We strive to cultivate trust in the communities we work in by inspiring collaborative, ocean-forward partnerships and research projects. We are heavily commitment to local ecological education and demonstrate our respect for the environment by ensuring our actions preserve ecosystem integrity and biological complexity for future generations of coral reef guardians. We believe that interdisciplinary conservation projects that involve partnering with local conservation organizations, businesses, and governments will be the most successful means of protecting nature and accelerate positive, long-term change.
DG: What is the team doing to solve the challenges?
Emily: Reef Life Foundation funds the research, design, and construction of innovative, nanotechnology restoration habitats that mimic the complex, mineral composition of natural ecosystems. We deploy IntelliReefs to communities that rely on thriving ocean ecosystems for food, economic security, and coastal protection. IntelliReefs are innovative reef restoration systems; the result of breakthroughs in science and nanotechnology, these engineered structures mimic established coral reefs to build an oceanic infrastructure that improves resistance to climate stressors and diseases.
IntelliReefs biomimicking technology addresses declining marine biodiversity, ocean acidification, and environmental deterioration. We deployed our first pilot structures in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten in November 2018. The structures were engineered to mimic established coral reefs and build oceanic infrastructure that improves resistance to climate stressors and diseases. After conducting fieldwork to assess the efficacy of this pilot project in January 2020, our scientists found that IntelliReefs can increase local biodiversity, foster wild coral settlement, and accumulate a healthy, early stage coral community in just 14 months. They also provide much-needed food for fish communities, with local fish feeding off the structure every 15 seconds or less. This is nearly 4 times higher than feeding rates on other natural and artificial reefs globally.
We also are currently developing online educational curriculum for children (grades 3-9) to teach them about coral reef biology, how they are being impacted by humans, and their significance for global ocean health. We firmly believe that respect for the environment is a cultural value that needs to be learned and retained in every day practices and law. This begins in the home and classroom from a very early age.
DG: What can us as scuba divers do to contribute?
Emily: Scuba divers are an invaluable resource for restoration groups worldwide. They interact with coral reef ecosystems as much, if not more, than the scientists that are assessing their health and spearheading their restoration. Working with local dive shops and citizen science initiatives on reefs worldwide (e.g. Reef Check, Coral Watch or similar local programs) is an invaluable way to give back to the ecosystems you love to spend time in. Scientists simply do not have enough resources to monitor every reef in real time, and having divers reporting to global initiatives daily makes a massive difference.
Other ways of giving back are donating to a restoration initiative. We receive donations from concerned citizens globally, and these donations help to build new coral reef habitats directly. Our website breaks down funds in terms of the square footage of reef your donation will rebuild with IntelliReefs technology.
Donating your time in other ways is incredibly valuable. Participating in online discussions, sharing donation campaigns and posts on social media platforms, reducing or remediating your own carbon footprint, and helping to educate non-divers around the world about the many compounding issues that plague our marine ecosystems all help to reframe conservation conversations on a global level.
DG: What programs or courses would you recommend dive operators or scuba divers to participate to expand their knowledge in marine conservation?
Emily: I would recommend integrating Coral Watch programs into dive experiences for patrons. Organizations, businesses, and individuals from over 78 countries in the world are participating to help scientists and governments gather real time data on coral reef health. They are able to report back to governing agencies in real time when there are immediate and serious threats to reefs (i.e. bleaching, hurricanes, disease outbreaks etc.) so that the local authorities can mitigate or monitor the event as it unfolds.
We protect what we love, and sustainable tourism initiatives are in the perfect position to increase environmental awareness and a give their patrons the opportunity to form a deeper connection with the natural world. Some of the most valuable conservation partners we have are local dive shops that engage in community outreach and education.
Sustainable tourism initiatives are often the first line of defence for teaching new divers and other tourists about proper etiquette for spending time on coral reefs and in other marine ecosystems. Entrepreneurial conservation initiatives are becoming one of the fastest and most effective ways to increase awareness about environmental degradation.
They also have the unique ability to create emotional connections between their patrons and the natural world. One of the most powerful tools in the environmental movement is the ability to foster a connection with nature.
Emily’s thoughts on sustainable tourism especially for dive operators and local communities
DG: It’s commonly heard that education is key in creating a sustainable tourism industry and marine conservation. There has been an increase in media coverage on these global issues; however, we are also seeing a slow progression from the communities to put knowledge into action. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? How can we tackle this problem?
Emily: Yes, there is absolutely more awareness and media around ocean deterioration and climate change now than ever before, and this is encouraging. There is more information available than ever before, and it is always helpful when good media and effective stories are shared by the general public. Online engagement is critical to what we do and the success of our digital campaigns – which directly funds our research and restoration initiatives.
Progress from information to action is slow for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that the ocean is vast, and there are complex layers of jurisdiction that govern decisions in the ocean. Another main issue is that corporations with large investments in economic ventures in the ocean (i.e. resource extraction through fishing, mining, etc.) still hold far too much weight with local and global governing bodies. Finally, the last key problem is that many regions of the ocean are still largely data-deficient. We are rapidly losing ecosystems that we know too little about, which makes it very difficult to implement effective conservation and restoration methods.
Tackling this problem may seem complex, but every individual’s choices and actions hold weight in this global conversation. Raising awareness, amplifying the efforts of conservation groups online or on the ground, voting, volunteering, and donating are all ways to accelerate these initiatives and make a difference for the ocean. Make sure to do research on the organizations you support to ensure they align with your own conservation and restoration values – and don’t be afraid to reach out to organizations to ask questions! The biggest hurdle is to start participating. Once you do, you will find a global ecosystem of volunteers and specialists all working towards the common goal of healing our ocean.
DG: As a non-profit organization, how important are the monetary contributions from the public for your team and what will it be used for?
Emily: We rely heavily on donations from individuals and sponsors, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Donations go directly to advancing our restoration research so that we can provide innovative and data-driven scientific solutions that are catered to the conservation needs of each reef we work on. Donations also directly put our IntelliReefs biomimicking habitats in the water, providing homes to the ocean’s homeless on degraded reef ecosystems.
We have an active campaign over the holidays on GlobalGiving called “Building Homes for the Ocean’s Homeless” that translates your monetary contribution into restoration habitats. This campaign donates directly to our active restoration project in Sint Maarten. Currently, a $25 USD donation deploys one new coral reef garden habitat.
Please read more about the campaign here: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/save-coral-reefs/
DG: What are some of the current projects your team is working on?
Emily: We are currently working with the Nature Foundation Sint Maarten to revitalize, restore, and protect the reef ecosystems there that were devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Both before and after the hurricane, overfishing, erosion, pollution, and warming have all contributed to deteriorating reefs further on the Island.
We deployed 3 IntelliReefs habitats with local conservation organizations and business partners in 2018. Our successful results from that study indicate that IntelliReefs provide fish populations with food and shelter, enhance local biodiversity, and naturally attract and grow wild coral spawn after less than 1 year underwater.
We have a research and deployment permit to expand our current restoration project within the Man of War Shoal Marine Park in Sint Maarten. We are also currently engaged in further innovation of our product lines to address the many issues that coral reefs face daily. Notably, we are currently seeking funding for further development of an antimicrobial substrate to help fight global coral diseases.
We are also currently developing an animated TV series to teach children about the importance of coral reefs. We are working with global experts to develop accompanying educational curriculum for children grades 3-9 to encourage ongoing learning. The aim is to make coral reef education as accessible and immersive as possible for children around the world, especially in tropical island and developing nations. Many children and adults in these areas of the world do not have the same opportunity to explore the reefs in real life as western tourists, creating a global disparity in coral reef literacy and a great disparity in environmental justice.
DG: Any upcoming projects?
Emily: We plan to return to Sint Maarten to conduct our annual monitoring and additional data collection in January 2021 if COVID regulations and travel restrictions do not interrupt our field plans. Our GlobalGiving campaign (https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/save-coral-reefs/) is a direct funding mechanism for this work.
This work will provide the necessary funding for the Nature Foundation, Sint Maarten to continue reef monitoring, a full hardware kit for monitoring the IntelliReefs, and continued research and analysis on our restoration efforts in the region.
DG: Could you share with us what is one of the most fulfilling moments of your team’s work?
Emily: One of the most fulfilling moments of our work to date was the first time our team came out of the water after seeing the results of our restoration project in Sint Maarten. Divers observed wild corals growing on the biotech habitats, fish and octopus living inside the structures, sharks swimming nearby, schools of fish feeding at very high frequencies on the habitats. The first Sint Maarten structures were our scientific field test for this novel biotechnology and its restoration applications.
The difference in the amount and variety of life on the IntelliReefs versus the degraded natural reefs was stark, and it was so encouraging to see our technology perform as we had hoped. Our next steps are to scale our efforts up to provide larger, more complex homes for the animals and plants in Sint Maarten.
DG: What do you think the future of marine conservation would look like?
Emily: We believe that the future of marine conservation needs to be interdisciplinary and involve active, large-scale restoration projects on key reefs worldwide. Globally, most conservation efforts are too small to have ecologically relevant results, stretching conservation time and funding very thin. Our Foundation believes in the large-scale deployment of additional, sustainable habitat that can help mother nature heal herself, reducing some of the current strain on conservation organizations.
Marine conservation is becoming increasing global and solutions are relatively privatized. Entrepreneurial and philanthropic conservation initiatives, in collaboration with local academic institutions and governments, may be one of the fastest ways to create real change on a large scale and test innovative solutions.
It is our true hope that the future of marine conservation is a global enterprise. We all truly share one ocean, and it is all of our responsibility to care for it. We are working hard to create a global ecosystem of conservation and business partners that are ready to spearhead a global strategy for the conservation and restoration of coral reefs. We have to think big and collaboratively to make real change for the oceans.