A national marine moonshot to combat the collapse of our coral reefs

The health of American coral reefs has been at the forefront of national news this summer due to the impacts of a record-setting marine heatwave off Florida.

Surface temperatures in the region have been as high as the triple digits and have averaged as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit above average. This has caused extensive bleaching, a condition when the corals expel their colorful symbiotic algal food source, giving the reefs a ghastly white appearance. If the condition is prolonged, the corals will inevitably starve to death. In some areas in the Keys, the heat stress was so severe, the corals died immediately without bleaching.

Unusually high temperatures are not the only stressor threatening America’s coral reefs. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) in Florida and the Caribbean, high density tourism in Hawaii, tropical storms in the Northern Mariana Islands, as well as climate change induced ocean acidification, overharvesting of reef fish species, introduction of invasive species, and land-based pollution across the globe all are threatening coral reefs in the U.S.

Fortunately, much is being done to combat these threats.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides grants for coral reef research and restoration and is overseeing the implementation of a SCTLD response plan. Additionally, NOAA is adopting advanced manufacturing and design methods to improve understanding of the response of corals and reef biota to global change, actively restoring coral reef resources in Florida, Guam, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and applying machine learning to evaluate the success of long-term restoration work. Non-Federal organizations are also stepping up to restore our reefs, including universities, research institutions, nonprofits and even private companies.

Despite these dedicated efforts, much more needs to be done.

Consider the $1.2 billion (AUS) of investment Australia made last year for its Great Barrier Reef, which is on top of $2.1 billion (AUS) committed the year before for the country’s Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan. The combined length of the reef tracts in America’s states and territories is comparable to Australia’s, and the nature and extent of the stressors on them are no different. Similarly, through the Coral Research and Development Accelerator Program (CORDAP), Saudi Arabia is looking to invest $100 million over the next decade.

Fortunately, the previously described efforts prove that America has the talent, technology and institutional commitment to tackle the challenges affecting our reefs. What is needed is to massively scale up the funding and level of effort on the order of NASA’s Artemis mission to the moon.

Take, for example, the $8.1 billion fiscal 2024 budget request for Artemis. The annual economic impact of the program was estimated in 2019 to be $14 billion, so a rough order of magnitude for the return on investment (ROI) for Artemis would be a bit less than 100 percent. Total federal funding through NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program in 2023 was $33.5 million. Yet the economic value of coral reefs through fisheries, tourism and coastal protection has been assessed as more than $3.4 billion annually. In view of the fact that this assessment was made a decade ago — more out of date than NASA’s estimate — it is safe to say that the ROI for coral reef programs is at nearly 1000 percent — a full order of magnitude greater than NASA’s 21st century Moonshot.

To immediately address the need to preserve coral reefs in the U.S., I urge three overarching actions.

First, federal departments and agencies must make investing in coral reefs their top priorities for climate resilience and coastal infrastructure. Under the Inflation Reduction Act, NOAA announced over a half a billion dollars in funding for projects that build the resilience of coastal communities to extreme weather. Coral conservation should receive a significant share of these resources because reefs protect lives and property by absorbing as much as 97 percent of a wave’s energy while buffering shorelines from currents, waves, and storms.

Similarly, the Biden administration announced last year that under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, NOAA would receive nearly $3 billion to invest in climate smart infrastructure for the purpose of ensuring our coasts are climate-ready and our fisheries and protected resources are resilient. Besides having broad bipartisan support, coral reef research and restoration perform both of these functions and thus deserve more from this funding opportunity.

Secondly, the government and academia must accelerate innovation through partnerships with the private sector and philanthropies. The role mode initiative for such action is Mission: Iconic Reefs, a collaboration between NOAA and national and state level partners that will restore nearly 3 million square feet of the Florida Reef Tract at seven key reef sites. It is one of the largest strategies ever proposed in the field of coral restoration. The unprecedented funding described above can make historic impacts by significantly exponentially increasing this effort in Florida and where it is needed in other American coral reef systems.

Other activities that must expand are collaboration with the ocean technology industry and nonprofits at the local and global levels.

Lastly, all stakeholders need to dramatically expand their communication and outreach to recruit the next generation of coral conservationists, scientists, and communicators. The widespread coverage of coral bleaching in national news demonstrates that the public is concerned. Now we must capitalize on this crisis by fostering the growth of a new and larger workforce of ocean science communicators who will inform all more of our citizenry about the extraordinary value and immeasurable beauty of America’s coral reefs

During multiple meetings of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force between 2018-2020, I was witness to the unlimited potential of America’s coral reef community of practice. The time is now to supercharge the investment, growth and messaging of this community. Before we send Americans through the reaches of cislunar space back to the Moon, let’s first prevent the total loss of the national treasure in America’s ocean backyard.

Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC and vice chairman on the Board of Directors for the Veterans marine conservation nonprofit Force Blue. Previously, Gallaudet served as the acting and deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of Commerce; Co-Chair of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force; and oceanographer of the Navy.

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