They are majestic and beautiful and critical to the world economy. Coral reefs, often called the “rainforests of the sea,” support roughly 25% of all known marine species. They are vital not just to sea life, but to human life. And the planet has lost half its coral reefs since the 1950s due in large part to climate change.
The total economic value of coral reef services for the united states alone, including fisheries, tourism, and coastal resilience, is over $3.4 billion annually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That includes $1.8 billion a year in flood protection benefits from averting damage to property and economic activity. The annual value of U.S. commercial and recreational fisheries dependent on coral reefs is $200 million.
Now, an unlikely pair is teaming up not to save existing reefs but to create new more resilient reefs: Marine scientist Dr. Deborah Brosnan of the Ocean Shot Project, and John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of John Paul Mitchell hair care systems and Patron Spirits. Brosnan has been studying coral reefs for more than 25 years, with a specific focus on the Caribbean.
“Coral reefs are at risk. We have lost more than a third of coral reefs already,” Brosnan told CNBC. “And the prognosis for losing more is high. So right now today, we lose more coral reefs in a day than we can restore in a decade.”
Coral reefs are one of the most important ecosystems on the planet, according to Brosnan, who explained that while they occupy a fraction of the sea floor, they support more than half a billion people a day. A living coral reef will break 95% of a wave’s energy, which means it creates a calm lagoon and protects us from storm surge. Reefs are mitigating sea level rise.
Brosnan’s solution is not to restore damaged reefs, but rather replace them with manmade reefs designed to be far more resilient to climate change.
“We came up with the technology to figure out the shape that a reef should be and the size that the reef should be in order to promote biodiversity and to protect the coastline,” explained Brosnan.
The reefs are made of a PH-neutral concrete — calcium carbonate, which mimics the natural makeup of reefs. It’s a dead skeleton, but then the team attaches corals grown in a nursery — 300 of them from 3 different species. Fish then move in.
Last fall, the first project was installed off the coasts of Antigua and Barbuda. It was neither easy nor cheap, but Brosnan found a billionaire backer, DeJoria, to fund the project, which cost about $1 million.
“It’s my way of paying a little bit of rent for being here on the planet earth,” said DeJoria, who has a real estate project on Barbuda.
“I’m doing a billion-dollar project of fine beautiful homes. Incredible. It’s a big project,” he explained. “The people, they are very wealthy people, and they love the fact that everybody’s getting a good job, making good money, and that we’re bringing the reefs back.”
While DeJoria touts the jobs he’ll bring to the islands, restoring the reefs has a much wider economic impact.
“When you lose a coral reef, you lose extraordinary beauty, so when that disappears, tourism goes down because it’s not a nice place to go. Added to that the fisheries. Coral is vitally important for fisheries,” said Brosnan.
Brosnan and DeJoria intend to build a facility on Barbuda to manufacture these reefs, which could then be installed anywhere around the world. They have two more ready to go. The technology is there, but the ability to scale it is a larger financial hurdle.
“The question is, will the world listen?” asked Brosnan. “This is very doable. This is doable in the region, it is doable globally. What we need is the investment in the technology, the investment in the deployment, and the recognition that there is a return on that investment in terms of our own health, our own safety on the coast, and the livelihood of at least a billion people on the planet.”