Underwater Arks Can Help Preserve the World’s Vital Coral Reefs
Frank Mars, Chair of the Mars Board, contributes to the Lessons from Leaders Journal series – featuring insights from businesses who are making progress towards the achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. He highlights the challenge of ecosystem restoration and how the use of innovative new methods are beginning to restore and revitalize coral reefs.
The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2021 – 2030 the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.
It’s a fleetingly short window given the world needs to begin restoring nature’s resilience in all its many forms. The Bonn Challenge alone seeks to renew 350 million hectares of degraded ecosystems by 2030.
Yet, these are challenges that are long overdue. Across the world today, we know many of the existential threats we face as a planet are interlinked with our relationship to nature, and that finding answers will require making progress on many different fronts.
At Mars, Incorporated, we’re already working hard to accelerate our efforts to limit our contribution to the globally damaging trends that we face today and tomorrow – including climate change, water scarcity, poverty and other pressing issues.
That’s the reason we launched our plan to be “Sustainable in a Generation” in 2017, acting in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Our initial investment of $1 billion has helped us make measurable progress in reducing our environmental footprint, improving the lives of those in our supply chain and in communities, and helping billions of people, and their pets, lead healthier, happier lives.
However, we also recognize there is much more to be done – including finding simple and innovative solutions to help restore the regenerative capacity of our critical ecosystems under threat.
In particular, urgent intervention is needed to protect and restore the world’s oceans, where the incredible diversity of coral reefs rivals that of tropical rainforests, with many species yet to be discovered.
90% of Reefs Could Be Lost by 2040s
Here – largely unseen – 27% of the world’s tropical reefs have already been lost due to climate change, overexploitation, destructive fishing practices and marine pollution.
Worse still, scientists predict if we do nothing up to 90% of coral reefs could be lost by the 2040s.
It’s an outcome that will threaten 25% of all the world’s marine life and impact nearly 500 million people – many of them cocoa-growing communities dependent on coral reefs for their food, income and coastal protection.
These are just a few of the reasons we set up the Mars Coral Reef Restoration Program in 2006, based at the heart of the world’s Coral Triangle, deep in the Spermonde Archipelago, off the coast of Makassar, Sulawesi.
Today, 14 years later, we’re now excited to begin sharing some of the progress we’ve made.
Working alongside local communities and scientists, we’ve developed a promising reef restoration system that has the potential to rebuild coral reefs, literally, from the bottom up.
The system – known as the Mars Assisted Reef Restoration System (MARRS) — uses three-foot-wide, star-shaped, steel structures, known as reef stars, which are coated with sand and tied with live coral fragments.
These stars are connected together underwater in a web and anchored to the sea floor to provide a stable platform for corals to grow, and habitat for marine species to thrive. The stars are positioned directly on top of barren coral rubble fields caused by historically destructive fishing techniques and which have shown no previous sign of recovery, turning them back into flourishing reefs.
One of the World’s Largest Restored Coral Reefs
Already we are seeing positive signs these reef restorations can have.
First, by dramatically speeding up the recovery of a reef to a point where no further human intervention is required, and second, by providing a home where new, additional coral species can settle underneath and onto the reef stars signalling a natural boost in coral diversity and abundance.
To date, over 19,000 of the reef stars have been installed, along with a total of 285,000 coral fragments. Together, they now form one of the world’s largest restored coral reefs, between two island communities in Sulawesi.
It’s an approach that also has the advantage of being very efficient, with an experienced team capable of restoring a damaged reef more rapidly at a larger scale and lower cost than compared to other approaches.
In just two days, a team of four divers can install 500 reef stars equivalent to rebuilding one hectare of reef in 20 days.
Within 20 months, these reef stars provide up to 60% coral cover, increasing the abundance of fish three-fold and nearly doubling the number of species of fish in 45 months, resulting in 125,000 fish per hectare.
At the same time, the changes drive the return of other species in the coral reef food web such as sharks and turtles. In the first year alone, the results were impressive, with 66,000 more fish equal to 1.25 tonne of fish per hectare.
The technique was first peer assessed in 2018 in the journal Restoration Ecology, a well-known scientific journal of the Society Ecological Restoration and further scientific papers are now in the process of being published.
Meanwhile, the same results saw the Indonesian Government embrace reef stars as an example of good restoration practice, and requested seven of its marine national park teams be trained in this restoration method.
Even to an Untrained Eye, Underwater Footage Shows Just How Effective the Approach is
Now this ambitious project has embarked on the next stage, to act as a catalyst to drive wider system level change, with partnerships testing the approach in different regions. Teams have been trained and successfully installed reef stars in the Mesoamerican Reef off the coast of Mexico, off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and in the Seychelles, with additional countries and locations being assessed for their suitability.
We will continue to promote large scale restoration in regions most resilient to climate change, like Indonesia, and help identify solutions to increase reef resilience in more climate vulnerable regions, such as Australia and Mexico.
By selecting locations most capable of adapting to climate change, each reef restoration will endeavor to provide a bank of genetic coral diversity to stand the best chance of survival over the next two decades. This is what we call the “ark” concept.
Fish Are Central to the Livelihoods of Indonesian Communities
However, the power of this project is not simply down to the results in the water.
Local communities in particular are critical to this work. We have been greatly assisted by the island communities in Indonesia, many of whom rely on fishing for their livelihoods and who have generated extra income through reef star production and installation.
These developments have also taken place in an area where we have operated for 25 years, including sourcing crops from farmers – such as cocoa, coconut and spices – ingredients we rely on for our food brands around the world.
It has given us a direct insight into the importance of sustaining their livelihoods, where fish often forms an important part of the family income and diet, and where the consequent decrease in numbers and size of fish caught is attributed to reefs being lost due to destructive fishing practices.
The restored reefs also represent an exciting breakthrough in a project that has been led and aided by the academic community, including Professor David Smith, the founder of the Coral Reef Research Unit at Essex University, (and now also Chief Marine Scientist at Mars), and including expert teams at both Exeter University, Exeter, UK and James Cook University in Townsville, Australia and many others.
In the process, Mars too has ventured into unchartered territory, becoming the first corporate business to be invited to join the prestigious International Coral Reef Initiative.
One of Many Solutions
We hope this promising start can begin to drive further scale, by acting as catalyst to help others, and by adding a tested tool into the reef restoration tool box. We are particularly excited about working with partners on the Great Barrier Reef given its ecological and economic importance, and its need for practical solutions to help adapt to climate change.
The addition of further strategic partnerships in the future will also help make this a step forward towards flattening the coral mortality curve. Progress will also require input from the leisure industry, the private sector, government and, of course, from consumers.
Already Mars has seen some embryonic partnerships emerge, including a collaboration with a tourist operator in Bali who has invested in a long-term restoration program with our training and guidance, and involving tourists in rebuilding the reefs.
Nevertheless, this kind of restoration approach is just one of a number of solutions in the battle to restore the world’s reefs.
Some of these solutions will be found at sea, from growing coral in nurseries to selecting climate change resistant “super” corals.
Meanwhile others, like tackling destructive fishing techniques and limiting climate change at its source, must, by necessity, begin with people on land.
Taken together, we must find ways for these many solutions to help meaningfully restore the world’s treasured coral reefs – areas of unmatched biodiversity and economic value which stretch across an estimated 110,000 square miles (284,000 km2) of our planet.
If so, the combined benefits, not only for the natural world, but for communities everywhere, will be immeasurable.
Priorities Must Change
Across the world, ecosystem restoration is hugely relevant and timely, yet in many cases it has been not been met with the necessary action by the business world.
In today’s world, the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration is not just a wake-up call, it sounds the alarm!
At Mars, we are committed to doing our part to advance the SDGs through our work, this initiative has meant stepping out to pursue Sustainable Development Goal 14 – Life Below Water (conserving and sustainably using the ocean, seas and marine resources).
It’s an international goal that is seldom seen as a priority for leaders in business and development – and therefore marked by a lack of action and progress.
Now is the time to change that.
A world of restored and revitalized coral reefs thriving alongside resilient coastal communities is a powerful vision, and one that we let slip at our peril. We must keep it in sight.
As we say in our company’s purpose statement: ‘The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today.’
At Mars, we’re encouraged to see the United Nations’ multi-partner trust fund to protect coral reefs announced during the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly.