How the Maldives can create a new industry in the spread of coral

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With its unique marine environment made up of thousands of coral reefs, the Maldives are ideally placed to be a major player in the coral propagation sector. If we manage to propagate corals well, it could become a booming international industry, writes Sonu shivdasani, as he suggests ways to get support

The coral reefs of the Maldives are in trouble. Almost everywhere you look, the reefs are damaged, degraded or in danger. Recent sea temperature spikes, including a devastating El Niño in 2016, have ravaged the country’s corals. Climate change is making these sea temperature peaks more severe and more frequent. The prognosis is grim.

The reefs of the Maldives do more than provide a fun place to snorkel: they act as groundwater breakers, protecting the islands from erosion; they feed the beach with new sand; they are home to reef fish which, in the case of baitfish, support the tuna industry. And then there is the snorkeling.

Tourism started in the Maldives because we have become a diver’s paradise. Even today, tourists still visit because of the coral reefs (30% of tourists told a recent Tourism Ministry survey that they traveled specifically to see the underwater beauty of the country). Considerable income is generated by coral-related tourism, whether it be diving schools, cruise ships or marine biologists who take guests on a snorkel trip. This should generate at least US $ 200 million per year in gross national income.

Up to 50% of the world’s coral reefs have died in the past 30 years. Scientists predict that if global temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees C since pre-industrial times – the temperate ceiling agreed by world leaders must not be exceeded, in the Paris Agreement on climate change – coral will decline by 70 at 90% more. The world is already 1.2 degrees C hotter than it was in the pre-industrial era, and we must cross the 1.5 degree C threshold by 2030. If temperatures exceed 2 degrees C , 99% of the world’s corals will die.

Another example where we need to proactively respond to a crisis in order to thrive

The Covid crisis of the past 18 months is a fantastic example where, thanks to the government’s brilliant policies, we have weathered a disaster and thrived. We took precautions and then the borders were reopened with the perfect balance of policies that kept our industry and our citizens safe, while making the Maldives an attractive tourist destination. Today, the number of arrivals is at the same level as before the pandemic. The Maldives have become a Covid recovery success story.

With the global warming crisis, the Maldives have little influence over the actions of major greenhouse gas emitting countries, like China and America, whose decisions dictate how much the temperature will rise. We cannot bet our future on a wish and a prayer that major countries decarbonize their economies in time to stop climate change before it wipes out our coral reefs. We need a back-up plan.

That back-up plan is the cultivation of coral – in particular, the development of corals that can better withstand rising sea temperatures and other climatic impacts, and their large-scale deployment on our reefs.

Over the next year at Soneva Fushi, we will be cultivating a coral farm with 50,000 new corals (which will ultimately be used to repair the house reef). When completed, this coral farm will measure 1 hectare – one of the largest coral farms in the world. For the years to come, our goal is to cultivate 1 hectare of coral each year in each of our resorts. This is the scale that is needed to have a meaningful impact.

For 24 months, we have been studying the propagation of corals in other countries, in order to bring the best methods to the Maldives. What is most striking is how underdeveloped this sector is.

There are few experts and most of the techniques are either stuck in the science lab or deployed on a small scale. If our goal is to save reefs, we must massively step up our coral propagation efforts. This represents a huge opportunity for the Maldives: to become a world leader in an activity that will likely have considerable future demand.

What are the coral propagation options?

Most of the existing coral propagation activities are small, inconsequential gardens, which tend to deteriorate quickly with any slight increase in temperature. Very few organizations have ventured beyond this; take broken coral, put it on a structure and let it grow. These activities ignore the fact that sea temperatures increase, bleaching episodes become more frequent and seas become more acidic.

That said, there are a handful of organizations that are doing promising work. Here in the Maldives, we have a few mineral accretion technology (MAT) projects where electricity is attached to the coral to stimulate its growth. Electrolysis of seawater helps corals grow faster than normal. There were examples where some corals grew three to five times faster under the influence of MAT compared to two control treatments. The examples in the Maldives showed that although the coral is still connected to electricity, in addition to stimulating faster growth, it has also survived recent hot water temperatures of up to 33 degrees C. Unfortunately, we have only limited experience of what is going on. when the coral is detached from the electricity, and it is impossible to electrify all the reefs in the country.

There are other promising technologies that focus on creating corals that grow quickly and tolerate a harsher environment.

Assisted evolution: It combines five elements: stressing the larvae as well as the adult corals by raising the temperature levels in the tanks, and seeing which corals can survive in these warmer conditions.

Other experimental solutions include the use of environmentally friendly 3D printing and coating methods to fabricate structures with new composites of limestone-based materials, followed by peptide-based bioorganic adhesives for growth and the restoration of corals.

In the United States, Dr. David Vaughan discovered micro-fragmentation, a process of cutting coral into small pieces and growing them under optimal conditions to produce fast-growing corals. Using the process with what’s called coral re-grinding, Dr Vaughan says giant corals that normally take 25 years to grow can be grown in 2 to 5 years.

An economic opportunity for the Maldives

The Maldives are not the only coral nation in the world. There are over 50 other small island countries that are home to large coral reefs, not to mention the huge reef systems in large countries, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the reefs off the coast of Florida. All of these places, like the Maldives, are desperate to protect their precious coral reefs.

If we manage to ensure a good spread of the coral, it could become a booming international industry. It has been difficult to develop other industries beyond tourism and fishing in the Maldives due to geographic limitations. However, with its unique marine environment made up of thousands of coral reefs, the Maldives is ideally placed to be a major player in the coral propagation sector.

The government should help encourage such an industry to grow, just as governments of other countries support promising industries that have exponential growth potential. The German renewable energy sector flourished after the German government introduced the Renewable Energy Act in 2000. Today, Germany is a leader in all forms of renewable energy. The Maldives could have equivalent success in spreading corals.

Here are four ways the government could support an emerging coral propagation industry in the Maldives:

  • Loans and Grants: The government could apply for grants for the spread of corals, as part of its efforts to adapt to climate change. Funds are available under the Green Climate Fund and from development banks, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The Maldives should ask these organizations to fund the most promising development of promising coral technologies, just as they could ask these banks to fund a road or reclamation project.
  • Reduced taxes: India allows companies to deduct 50% of the investment they make in a targeted sector from their tax bill. For example, if a company were to invest $ 1 million in a targeted industry in India, the Indian government would allow them to reduce their tax bill by $ 500,000. The Maldives should consider a similar program to attract private investment in the spread of coral.
  • Tax Holidays for Coral Propagation Companies: In many countries, tax holidays are granted to developers investing in a privileged industry. For example, in Thailand, companies developing hotels in certain parts of the country were offered a 10-year tax exemption. This meant that they did not have to pay corporate tax on the income earned during this initial period.
  • Duty exemptions: Import duties can be quite high in the Maldives, so duty exemptions are important. The government has already reduced import duties on items such as solar panels and other renewable energy components, to boost this emerging industry. Likewise, it should reduce to zero import duties on equipment necessary for the propagation of corals.

Our fate here in the Maldives is not necessarily sealed. There is a chance to prevent coral reefs from collapsing. The Maldives are fortunate to have a population of creative, dynamic and enterprising people. If the government can support these people, by creating an environment that is conducive to the spread of corals, then maybe we could change our destiny.

I suspect that some reading this might consider that I am too optimistic about the potential of the Maldives to be the world leader in the spread of corals. However, 30 years ago when Eva and I launched the country’s first luxury resort, people also thought we were crazy and believed luxury tourism would never work. Today, the Maldives are the Silicon Valley of luxury resorts. Maldivian resort hotels are the best on the planet. Likewise, in 30 years, the Maldives could be the clear leader in the spread of corals.

To quote Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and engaged citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that has ever existed.

The writer is the CEO and joint creative director of Soneva

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