A team of coral scientists is stoked to start the New Year with a $1 million grant that will let them continue the innovative restoration research led by the late Ruth Gates, who was director of the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology until her death last month at age 56.

“It gives us a lot of optimism moving forward,” Kira Hughes, project manager at the Gates Coral Lab in Kaneohe Bay, said Wednesday. “She really laid out where she wanted the research to go, so that makes it really easy for us to follow her vision.”

The announcement of the grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation came less than two weeks after Gates’ death. Scientists were feeling down, and concerned about how they were going to move forward, especially with future funding uncertain.

Kira Hughes, project manager at the late Ruth Gates’ lab at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, checks on the “super corals” they were growing in Kaneohe Bay in 2017. A grant will keep the project alive through 2021. Alana Eagle/Civil Beat

“This really just revitalized everyone,” Hughes said. “And especially for Ruth’s wife, I know it’s very important to her that we carry on this research.”

The $1.06 million grant will receive $1.08 million in matching funds, including in-kind support and money from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s philanthropic foundation.

It was the Allen foundation that launched the research in 2015. Gates and Australian scientist Madeleine van Oppen won a five-year, $4 million grant from Allen, who also died last month, so they could develop “super corals” to withstand bleaching and other environmental stressors that leave them vulnerable to massive die-offs.

With rising ocean temperatures due to climate change, scientists have predicted that only 10 percent of the world’s corals will be alive past 2050.

More than 500 million people depend on healthy reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism-driven economies and medicine. Corals also function as the ocean’s rainforests, regulating atmospheric gases.

The new grant money targets the coastal protection aspect that reefs provide for an estimated 200 million people worldwide by naturally buffering severe storms and diffusing wave energy.

Bundles rise from the corals as the gametes rise from the corals around 845pm. Coral spawning event on Coconut Island.
Corals spawn tiny bundles of eggs and sperm on moonless summer nights. Scientists at HIMB are trying to breed “super corals” to withstand warmer ocean temperatures. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The additional funding — which covers Jan. 1, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2021 — relies on a new partnership among HIMB, DLNR, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and nonprofit Malama Maunalua, which has focused on the restoration of an East Oahu bay.

Maunalua Bay will be one of at least three sites that scientists will be taking their corals into the field to prove their theories. Work in the bay is slated for year 2, with initial efforts planned for the South Shore site near the Honolulu airport where NOAA already has a coral nursery and Kaneohe Bay where HIMB has an underwater lab not far from its main facility on Coconut Island.

NOAA and DLNR already have permits to do coral restoration work at those sites. Bringing HIMB into the fold will allow that work to include corals that the Gates Coral Lab has determined are more resilient to bleaching.

“This is the beginning of implementation of our super corals,” Hughes said.

She explained that the HIMB team isn’t actually altering the corals that are being used for restoration.
“We are simply using heat stress tests on just a few small fragments from a colony to determine whether that colony is more resilient, but those tested fragments will not go back into the restoration process,” she said. “Instead, we go back to the original colony in the field for the restoration material, fragment or microfragment it, let those grow out in the nursery, and then plant it in the field.”
Hughes described it as a non-invasive, safe method since they are mainly working with “corals of opportunity” that sloughed off the edge of reefs — working with their natural resilience rather than altering them.
Dr Ruth Gates Coconut Island interview.
The work of coral scientist Ruth Gates, who died last month, will continue under a new grant. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

The goal is to essentially build a reef wall to guard Oahu from pounding surf and storm surges by filling in the existing gaps with transplanted corals, which will now include those selected by the Gates Coral Lab team.

It fits into Gov. David Ige’s sustainability initiative to effectively manage 30 percent of the state’s nearshore waters by 2030, Hughes said, and holds promise for places well beyond Hawaii.

“NOAA is looking at it as a model for the rest of the Pacific,” Hughes said.

Crawford Drury, who was doing post-doctoral work at HIMB, will take over as the principal investigator in light of Gates’ death.

Scientists will be testing the transferability of the corals that were grown in nurseries and labs. The end goal is to develop best practices for restoration work so it can be spread across the state, Hughes said.

Volunteers will be a key component, she said. It’s envisioned that 50 to 100 people a year will be needed to help, which Hughes said is exciting given how many people have expressed an interest in helping to save corals — especially after the award-winning Chasing Corals documentary on Netflix, which Gates was featured in.

“Whether a medical doctor or waitress, they have been contacting us and the community has been waiting for a way to get involved,” Hughes said. “It’s amazing just hearing how many people Ruth impacted.”

A private memorial for Gates is pending, with a public service likely to be held. Details are still being determined.

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