Hundreds of millions of people rely on marine life and coral reefs to provide ecosystem services such as food and coastal protection. Climate change and other threats are putting devastating pressure on these marine ecosystems. Traditional conservation is no longer enough. Specific measures to support climate-resilient marine ecosystems are increasingly called for – and technology could play a role.

Innovation examples

  • Man diving underwater, Perebutan, Bali, Indonesia Man diving underwater, Perebutan, Bali, Indonesia

    BiorockTM marine ecosystem restoration

    BiorockTM technology, invented in 1976 by marine scientist Wolf Hilbertz, is a cement-like building material that grows and forms … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Innovation examples

    BiorockTM marine ecosystem restoration

    Man diving underwater, Perebutan, Bali, Indonesia
    Getty Images Plus /© Konstantin Trubavin

    BiorockTM technology, invented in 1976 by marine scientist Wolf Hilbertz, is a cement-like building material that grows and forms layers of limestone over time. Small electric currents are passed between underwater metal electrodes. This causes dissolved minerals to accumulate and form a thick layer of limestone. This results in a growing and self-healing infrastructure whose uses range from artificial reefs to breakwaters. Indeed, the material has multiple applications for regenerating coastal ecosystem services. They include coastal protection, coral and oyster reef restoration and erosion control, as well as the protection of seagrass, salt marsh, mangroves and other ecosystems. By providing space for settlement and growth, this technology supports ecosystems in surviving and recovering from threats such as warmer temperatures and ocean acidification. Supported by The Global Coral Reef Alliance, around 500 reef structures in more than 40 countries have been built based on BiorockTM technology, with a majority in Indonesia.[1]

  • Kelp forest, Eastern Pacific Coast, California, USA. Kelp forest, Eastern Pacific Coast, California, USA.

    Remote sensing of kelp forests

    Healthy kelp forests provide a habitat for large marine populations, prevent erosion and sequester carbon dioxide. But they are disappearing, … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Innovation examples

    Remote sensing of kelp forests

    Kelp forest, Eastern Pacific Coast, California, USA.
    Getty Images Plus /©Brook Peterson/Stocktrek Images

    Healthy kelp forests provide a habitat for large marine populations, prevent erosion and sequester carbon dioxide. But they are disappearing, partly due to pollution and warming oceans. The Bay Foundation implements kelp forest restoration by relocating sea urchins to a non-kelp forest habitat and transplanting healthy kelp into newly urchin-free sites. Other organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, have worked both with researchers at universities and NASA to create the world’s largest digital kelp forest map. The map – freely available through Kelpwatch.org – applies machine learning to over 35 years of remote sensing (satellite imagery) data in order to show changes in kelp cover over that period. Canopy-forming kelps are suitable for remote mapping, as they are distinctive when viewed from above, particularly within the infrared spectral region. At present, the map covers kelp forests from Baja California in Mexico to the Oregon–Washington state border in the United States. It is regularly updated to provide information on target areas most suitable for kelp restoration. This is a first step toward monitoring kelp forests and their dynamics at scale.

Proven technologies  

  • Numerous square concrete blocks are stacked on top of each other underwater. This structure has been built to encourage coral to grow on it. Coral reefs worldwide are suffering damage at an alarming rate. Mainly due to global Warming, pollution and ocean acidification. Many artificial reefs such as these are being built in an attempt to revive or restore the corals. Location is Viking Bay, Phi Phi Le, Krabi province, Thailand. Sony mirrorless camera in underwater housing, with Iron Z330 strobe lighting used. Numerous square concrete blocks are stacked on top of each other underwater. This structure has been built to encourage coral to grow on it. Coral reefs worldwide are suffering damage at an alarming rate. Mainly due to global Warming, pollution and ocean acidification. Many artificial reefs such as these are being built in an attempt to revive or restore the corals. Location is Viking Bay, Phi Phi Le, Krabi province, Thailand. Sony mirrorless camera in underwater housing, with Iron Z330 strobe lighting used.

    Artificial reefs

    Reefmaker’s patented process for artificial reefs uses Florida limestone. This soft rock matches the pH levels of the ecosystems targeted and … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Proven technologies

    Artificial reefs

    Reefmaker
    Numerous square concrete blocks are stacked on top of each other underwater. This structure has been built to encourage coral to grow on it. Coral reefs worldwide are suffering damage at an alarming rate. Mainly due to global Warming, pollution and ocean acidification. Many artificial reefs such as these are being built in an attempt to revive or restore the corals. Location is Viking Bay, Phi Phi Le, Krabi province, Thailand. Sony mirrorless camera in underwater housing, with Iron Z330 strobe lighting used.
    Getty Images Plus /© Placebo365

    Reefmaker’s patented process for artificial reefs uses Florida limestone. This soft rock matches the pH levels of the ecosystems targeted and provides a good substrate for marine life, allowing it to grow naturally. The limestone is attached to a concrete structure in a sloping design to ensure durability while increasing surface area for reef. A special deployment vessel equipped with cranes has been designed for accurate placement of the artificial reefs out to sea. In addition to coral reef restoration, the limestone reefs can also be used for oyster reef restoration, wave attenuation and erosion control. Structures can be designed to fit along the length of permanently fitted vertical poles attached to the sea bed. The aim is to keep the concrete proud of the marine floor and firmly retain the artificial reefs during extreme events like hurricanes. More than 50,000 reefs have been deployed along the US coast.

    • Contracting type: For sale
    • Technology level: Medium
    • Country of origin: United States
    • Availability: United States
  • Seagrass, Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, Indonesia Seagrass, Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, Indonesia

    Seagrass monitoring and restoration

    Almost 20 percent of the world’s known seagrass has been lost.[1] Warming oceans are one of the … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Proven technologies

    Seagrass monitoring and restoration

    Project Seagrass
    Seagrass, Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, Indonesia
    Getty Images Plus /©Reinhard Dirscherl

    Almost 20 percent of the world’s known seagrass has been lost.[1] Warming oceans are one of the factors affecting seagrass growth rate. Seagrasses provide food and habitat for numerous marine species. They are also important to conserve because of their huge capacity for carbon absorption. Research on seagrass restoration has focused on a variety of techniques and anchoring methods. Pilots have included large-scale transplantation trials with both manual and mechanical planting, including with artificial seagrass and biodegradable pots. Traditionally, transplanted seagrass survival rates have been low. But recent transplants are increasingly surviving more than two years.[2] Project Seagrass is an organization focused on the conservation of seagrass. It has planted more than a million seagrass seeds in more than 10 countries. The Seagrass Spotter is a global tool developed with the aim of helping people locate and identify seagrass in support of conservation efforts.

    • Contracting type: Free
    • Technology level: Low
    • Country of origin: United Kingdom
    • Availability: Worldwide
  • Green abstract streaks on the water created by algae blooms in the summer Green abstract streaks on the water created by algae blooms in the summer

    Ultrasound technology for algae control

    Warmer temperatures are exacerbating algal blooms, allowing them to grow thicker and float to the surface. Further blooming is promoted as the … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Proven technologies

    Ultrasound technology for algae control

    LG Sonic
    Green abstract streaks on the water created by algae blooms in the summer
    Getty Images Plus /©TorriPhoto

    Warmer temperatures are exacerbating algal blooms, allowing them to grow thicker and float to the surface. Further blooming is promoted as the algae absorbs sunlight at the water surface. LG Sonic have developed a chemical-free algae treatment technology using low-power ultrasound. Ultrasonic waves are emitted in the top water layer from a device. This generates a constant pressure cycle around the algal cells. This pressure restricts the algae’s movements, blocking its access both to sunlight at the water’s surface and nutrients at the bottom of the water column. Deprived of these inputs, algae sink to the bottom and decompose naturally without releasing toxins. The technology has been applied in more than 50 countries.

    • Contracting type: For sale
    • Technology level: High
    • Country of origin: The Netherlands
    • Availability: Worldwide
  • Close-up of corals Close-up of corals

    Coral gardening using microfragmentation

    Coral gardening, or coral farming, has become a widespread method for restoring degraded reefs at a local level. Coral fragments are collected … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Proven technologies

    Coral gardening using microfragmentation

    Coral Vita
    Close-up of corals
    Getty Images Plus /©Tomekbudujedomek

    Coral gardening, or coral farming, has become a widespread method for restoring degraded reefs at a local level. Coral fragments are collected from reefs and raised in farms until mature, before being installed at selected restoration sites. Coral Vita, a company based in The Bahamas, grows coral on land-based farms using a microfragmentation process. This process consists of breaking the coral into small pieces, which stimulates rapid healing and growth. It makes coral grow 25 times faster, growing coral in months rather than decades. The company also applies an assisted evolution process that trains corals to survive in warmer, more acidic conditions by adjusting for these same conditions in growing tanks.

    • Contracting type: Services
    • Technology level: Medium
    • Country of origin: The Bahamas
    • Availability: The Bahamas
  • global maps of the world’s coral reefs global maps of the world’s coral reefs

    Coral reef mapping and monitoring

    The Allen Coral Atlas aims to provide high-spatial and thematic resolution, up-to-date global maps of the world’s coral reefs, and a monitoring … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Proven technologies

    Coral reef mapping and monitoring

    Allen Coral Atlas
    global maps of the world’s coral reefs
    Photo: © Allen Coral Atlas

    The Allen Coral Atlas aims to provide high-spatial and thematic resolution, up-to-date global maps of the world’s coral reefs, and a monitoring system to track changes in coral reefs over time. These and other emerging products of the Allen Coral Atlas support coral reef science, management, conservation, and policy around the world. The Atlas builds on satellite imagery and analytics supported by data on marine heatwaves, turbidity, wave modelling and other indicators. It also allows for the mapping of seagrass, microalgal mats and other resources. It comes with a detection tool that tracks coral bleaching events in near real time. The Allen Coral Atlas was conceived and funded by Vulcan Inc. and brings together a team comprising of members from The Arizona State University Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, Earth-imaging company Planet and partners at the University of Queensland and the Coral Reef Alliance.

    • Contracting type: Free
    • Technology level: Medium
    • Country of origin: Global collaboration
    • Availability: Worldwide
  • underwater automated vehicle for maritime monitoring underwater automated vehicle for maritime monitoring

    Autonomous underwater vehicles for maritime monitoring

    REMUS is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that uses wings and small changes in buoyancy to move through the water. It is particularly … Read more

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    Autonomous underwater vehicles for maritime monitoring

    Huntington Ingalls Industries
    underwater automated vehicle for maritime monitoring
    Photo: © Huntington Ingalls Industries

    REMUS is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that uses wings and small changes in buoyancy to move through the water. It is particularly suitable for long-term measurement of physical, chemical and biological oceanographic parameters. REMUS moves under water and regularly comes up to the surface in order to navigate using GPS. Here, it also transmits collected data and receives commands via satellite telemetry. The technology makes use of external sensors to continually scan the ocean to determine various water or environmental properties.

    • Contracting type: For sale
    • Technology level: High
    • Country of origin: Norway
    • Availability: Worldwide

Frontier technologies  

  • Rov (remotely operated vehicles),are very useful in the exploration of the bottom of the sea without the need to send divers and the risks that this can lead. Rov (remotely operated vehicles),are very useful in the exploration of the bottom of the sea without the need to send divers and the risks that this can lead.

    Autonomous underwater drones for reef protection

    Researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia have repurposed a drone to deliver coral larvae onto targeted reefs. The … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Frontier technologies

    Autonomous underwater drones for reef protection

    Queensland University of Technology
    Rov (remotely operated vehicles),are very useful in the exploration of the bottom of the sea without the need to send divers and the risks that this can lead.
    Getty Images Plus /©Humberto Ramirez

    Researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia have repurposed a drone to deliver coral larvae onto targeted reefs. The RangerBot is an underwater drone deployed in the Great Barrier Reef since 2018. This drone had previously been used to monitor reef status and protect coral from predatory starfish. Researchers first collected hundreds of millions of coral spawn during the massive spawning events that occur on the Great Barrier Reef. Most coral reproduce through spawning, releasing sperm and eggs into the water at the same time. The spawn were reared into baby coral inside floating enclosures. The drone, renamed LarvalBot, then carried and released the coral larvae onto damaged reefs in order to help restoration.

    • Contracting type: Research collaboration
    • Technology level: High
    • Country of origin: Australia
    • Availability: Australia
  • A robot named CHARM A robot named CHARM

    Automated coral farming

    Coral farming activities can be time-consuming and repetitive tasks. This includes feeding and monitoring. A robot named CHARM automates such … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Frontier technologies

    Automated coral farming

    Beyond Coral Foundation
    A robot named CHARM
    Photo: © Beyond Coral

    Coral farming activities can be time-consuming and repetitive tasks. This includes feeding and monitoring. A robot named CHARM automates such activities so as to make coral reef farming more efficient and halve labor costs. It also includes an inspection instrument to help catalog the coral and a soft bristle brush to clean away the algae that hinders coral growth. This patent-pending robot uses commercially available parts to make it more affordable. With the help of this robot, one aquaculture unit could grow up to 10,000 coral polyps a year.

    • Contracting type: Research collaboration/Investment
    • Technology level: High
    • Country of origin: Australia
    • Availability: Australia
  • Close up shot of a 3D printer. Close up shot of a 3D printer.

    3D-printed reefs

    Various groups and research institutions are exploring the potential of 3D-printed artificial reefs as a less labor-intensive marine restoration … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Frontier technologies

    3D-printed reefs

    archiREEF
    Close up shot of a 3D printer.
    Getty Images Plus /© brightstars

    Various groups and research institutions are exploring the potential of 3D-printed artificial reefs as a less labor-intensive marine restoration method. Among them are The University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong-based organization archiREEF. They have developed 3D-printed reef tiles for coral restoration. Artificial reefs are typically made of sand or limestone. This 3D-printed version is made of terracotta, which has similarities to the calcium carbonate found in natural coral reefs. The tiles are based on a hexagonal modular system to allow easy expansion. According to the developers, the design can be tweaked for other marine ecosystems such as mangroves and oyster reefs.

    • Contracting type: For sale
    • Technology level: High
    • Country of origin: China
    • Availability: Worldwide

Horizon technologies  

  • Close-up of coral in sea Close-up of coral in sea

    Coral genome sequencing

    The human genome was sequenced in 2003. More recently, the organization Great Barrier Reef Foundation, along with an international consortium of … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Horizon technologies

    Coral genome sequencing

    Great Barrier Reef Foundation + ReFuGe2020
    Close-up of coral in sea
    Getty Images Plus /©Malakpet Ps / 500px

    The human genome was sequenced in 2003. More recently, the organization Great Barrier Reef Foundation, along with an international consortium of scientists named ReFuGe2020, sequenced the world’s first coral genome along with co-existing organisms. DNA was sequenced from nine species of coral. The researchers also designed a way to fast track the sequencing process.[1] The data obtained are freely available to the public through the Reef Genomics open access database to support new research. Several other coral genomes have since been sequenced. Such research hopes to answer questions related to corals’ behavior, and what can be done to help them adapt to changing environments.

    • Contracting type: Research collaboration
    • Technology level: High
    • Country of origin: International
    • Availability: Worldwide
  • Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef outside Cairns Australia during a mass bleaching event, thought to have been caused by heat stress due to warmer water temperatures as a result of global climate change. Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef outside Cairns Australia during a mass bleaching event, thought to have been caused by heat stress due to warmer water temperatures as a result of global climate change.

    Climate-resistant coral species

    Researchers at Oregon State University have identified two common coral species that may be resilient to climate change impacts. The team … Read more

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    4. Water and coastal regions / Marine ecosystems / Horizon technologies

    Climate-resistant coral species

    Oregon State University
    Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef outside Cairns Australia during a mass bleaching event, thought to have been caused by heat stress due to warmer water temperatures as a result of global climate change.
    Getty Images Plus /©Brett Monroe Garner

    Researchers at Oregon State University have identified two common coral species that may be resilient to climate change impacts. The team subjected Hawaiian coral to a simulated ocean warming of up to 2oC for almost two years. Two-thirds of identified coral survived the simulated temperature increase. Unlike typical experiments on coral resilience, the researchers did not study the corals in a lab. Instead they built offshore tanks exposing the coral to more real-life weather conditions. Of the corals exposed to acidification and warming temperatures, 46 percent of rice coral, 56 percent of lobe coral and 71 percent of finger coral survived. These findings can help inform active restoration work.

    • Contracting type: Research collaboration
    • Technology level: Medium
    • Country of origin: United States
    • Availability: Worldwide

Rainforests of the sea under threat

The world’s coral reefs support more than a quarter of marine species. The economic importance of these goods and services is significant. The value of coral ecosystems alone is estimated at USD 172 billion a year. … Read more

Rainforests of the sea under threat

The world’s coral reefs support more than a quarter of marine species. The economic importance of these goods and services is significant. The value of coral ecosystems alone is estimated at USD 172 billion a year.[58] In the last decade alone, around 14 percent of coral has been lost from the world’s reefs. The main culprit has been the massive and recurring coral bleaching events caused by ocean warming. Moreover, increased CO2 in the atmosphere also leads to ocean acidification which has increased by 30 percent over the last 200 years.[59] A more acidic ocean is especially detrimental for hard-shelled sea life, including coral reefs. Other pressures come from coastal development, pollution, overfishing and tropical storms. The IPCC predicts that 90 percent of coral reefs could be destroyed in a 1.5oC climate change scenario. At a 2oC scenario they would be almost entirely lost to the marine ecosystem.[60] With more frequent mass bleaching events, reefs do not have enough time to recover. Furthermore, harmful algal blooms on reefs has increased by around 20 percent within the last decade.[61] Theses blooms thrive in warming oceans. Meanwhile, higher temperatures and acidification is causing massive die-off in kelp forests, seagrass beds and other types of marine ecosystems crucial for marine life.[62] Heat is driving wild fish to seek cooler and deeper waters, altering their migratory patterns and decreasing fish catches.[63] Read less

Artificial reefs, coral gardens and digital technologies

Artificial reefs are being created in locations the world over to help corals adapt to climate change. Of various shapes and materials, their impact has so far been limited. Challenges include maintenance and unintended negative effects on … Read more

Artificial reefs, coral gardens and digital technologies

Artificial reefs are being created in locations the world over to help corals adapt to climate change. Of various shapes and materials, their impact has so far been limited. Challenges include maintenance and unintended negative effects on wildlife behavior. Coral gardening in which nursery-farmed corals are transplanted into reefs is more widely used. Techniques such as microfragmentation (breaking coral into tiny pieces) is speeding up the growth rate of farmed corals. Yet the impact is not expected to spread much beyond local ecosystems. Other adaptation techniques are now under development. They include assisted relocation of threatened species, developing climate-resilient coral species and coral microbiome manipulation.[64] Technology may play an important role in supporting such climate-resilient marine conservation efforts. Software programs and underwater images can be combined to reconstruct 3D maps of coral reefs, saving time and enabling analysis of reef status in new ways. On a more global scale, remote sensing technologies can map out climate impact on reef distribution and conditions in high resolutions and at more frequent intervals.[65] Remote sensing and GPS technologies are especially relevant for their ability to track and manage data on species' migratory routes and human activities in real-time, allowing for a quick management response. Regular monitoring is key to informed management decisions. Knowing where and when coral reefs and other ecosystems are under climate pressure could guide scientists and governments toward better adaptation intervention points. Here, citizens are getting involved through open digital databases enabling crowdsourced data to map important species such as seagrass. Digital technologies are also enabling innovative adaptation measures such as mobile marine protected areas (mMPAs). Such mobile ocean sanctuaries have been proposed as a way of adapting to changes in species migration and shifts in space and time caused by climate change.[66] Read less

Novel technologies in support of marine ecology

Harmful algal blooms are generally prevented or managed in one of two ways. By limiting nutrient-rich surface water runoff into waterways or controlling them through mechanical, biological or chemical means. Ecosystem conservation benefits from … Read more

Novel technologies in support of marine ecology

Harmful algal blooms are generally prevented or managed in one of two ways. By limiting nutrient-rich surface water runoff into waterways or controlling them through mechanical, biological or chemical means. Ecosystem conservation benefits from integrated measures. But novel technologies for managing climate-related threats such as harmful algal blooms are also being explored. For example, ultrasonic waves can be sent across the water surface to increase pressure around algae and limit their movement. With limited movement and access to sunlight and nutrients, algae die off and sink to the marine floor where they decompose. Innovative technologies also support coral reef conservation. Underwater drones and robots for example may make coral gardening processes more effective. Drones carry farmed coral larvae to designated reefs. Meanwhile, robots can automate time- and labor-intensive processes such as cleaning, feeding and growing more coral in a shorter amount of time. On the horizon, researchers want to know more about what is happening below the water surface. In the first ever sequencing of coral genome, DNA from nine species were sequenced in order to answer questions related to corals’ adaptability, and what can be done to help them thrive in a changing environment.

Adapting coral reefs to climate change is particularly important for tropical coastal communities who rely on their services. However, marine ecosystems are complex and IPCC research shows that at high degree scenarios, many adaptation techniques will prove ineffective. Efforts like restoring and replanting coral could have a localized role. Yet only limited evidence on the relative costs and benefits of adaptation measures such as coral farming is available.[67] Reduction in global emissions, along with a stop to overfishing and pollution of oceans, is key to delivering a positive future for marine ecosystems and the people that depend on them. That we cannot adapt our way out of the climate crisis seems especially true for marine life. Read less