Gator Halpern is the 2018 Young Champion of the Earth for Latin America and the Caribbean. The Young Champions of the Earth Prize is powered by Covestro.
He and his company Coral Vita have received many awards including: Forbes 30 Under 30, Echoing Green Fellowship, JM Kaplan Innovation Prize, Halcyon Incubator, WeWork Creator Award, Fast Company World Changing Idea and Yale University’s first ever Green Innovation Fellowship. Follow them at: @CoralVitaReefs
Coral Vita: bringing our reefs back to life
I remember the first time I saw a dead coral reef. I was in Honduras, and vibrant underwater colors spread out like a neon carpet on the seafloor. The sun reflected off the scales of fish as they swam between bright red and yellow corals. Then the colors dropped away and I was horrified: I was faced with a graveyard of white, dead coral. A rubble field of algae-covered coral skeletons stretched as far as I could see.
I grew up in San Diego, California, and spent a lot of time in the waves and at the beach. It devastated me that this could happen to one of the most important ecosystems in our ocean. My mind spun back to a time when I visited an indigenous Mayan community in the Lacandon jungle of Mexico. After weeks of living in harmony with nature, on the way home I saw plumes of smoke rising above the jungle, as the pristine forest was being slashed and burned to make cattle pasture.
This encroaching industry was jeopardizing the traditional livelihoods of my new friends that live in an ever-shrinking jungle. I couldn’t understand why our lifestyles are so vastly destructive to our ecosystems. Why are we shifting the balance of nature permanently to fuel our short-term desires? What can I do, to make a difference?
Magical ecosystems under threat
I enrolled at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies to study environmental management, determined to do something to stop our destructive habits. Fact after fact hit me: over 90 per cent of our corals are expected to die by 2050. I didn’t want to write an obituary, documenting the decline of reefs.
Coral reefs are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. They support around 25 per cent of all marine life. Their degradation threatens one billion people around the world: fishing communities and their families, coastal residents exposed to powerful storm surges and national economies dependent on reef attractions. These reefs are breeding grounds for tropical fish, generating US$30 billion annually in tourism, fisheries and coastal protection.
At Yale, I met Sam Teicher, today my business partner. He told me about his experiences in Mauritius, where he helped organize a reef restoration project to restore a lagoon, saving local fishermen from traveling miles to make a catch. It rapidly became clear that traditional reef restoration – growing coral in the ocean – is just too slow. A basketball sized coral colony could take 50-75 years to grow in the ocean. By that time, our world’s reefs could already be dead.
Gator Halpern: taking action to restore coral reefs.Photo by Coral Vita.
Casting the net wide
Our vision is restoration on unprecedented scales, and Sam and I decided to cast our net wider in search of solutions. We drove to the Florida Keys, sleeping in the back of a van and scheduling meetings with scientists all day. Our search paid off: we found top scientists working on a technology that could speed up coral growth rate by fifty times.
The technology we use grows basketball-sized corals in just one year. Our land-based farms allow us to grow millions of corals at a single site, accelerating growth for a wider range of coral species than traditional coral farming can. We can also acclimatize corals to warmer and more acidic oceans that threaten their survival, so they are more resilient when back in the ocean.
Since 2015, Coral Vita has grown from an idea to the world’s first commercial land-based coral farming company. We’ve partnered with leading marine institutes to develop relationships with regulators and practitioners in the reef restoration space and hired top scientists.
The road to recovery
We believe that a market-driven industry is the only way to tackle the enormous scale of reef degradation. Our global community – including governments, coastal developers, banks and insurance companies – must invest in large-scale restoration.
We have raised over US$1.5 million in investment, and are busy building a reef restoration facility, eco-tourism attraction, and education center in Freeport, Grand Bahama. While we’re starting small, with a farm capable of growing about 3,000 coral colonies each year, we aim to restore miles of coastline.
Our restoration projects directly benefit communities by increasing fish stocks – often a critical protein source –, protecting shorelines from erosion and storm surge, boosting tourism and creating jobs. Without drastic action to restore and sustain them, coral reefs will continue to die and communities around the world will suffer greatly from their loss.
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January update from Gator Halpern on progress and reflections