Coral-Focused Climate Change Adaptation and Restoration Based on Accelerating Natural Processes: Launching the “Reefs of Hope” Paradigm

Austin Bowden-Kerby

Oceans 20234(1), 13-26;


The widespread demise of coral reefs due to climate change is now a certainty, and investing in restoration without facing this stark reality risks failure. The 50 Reefs Initiative, the dominant adaptation model for coral reefs is examined, and a new coral-focused paradigm is proposed, based on helping coral reefs adapt to rising temperature, to ensure that as many coral species as possible survive locally over time. With pilot sites established in six Pacific Island nations, genebank nurseries of bleaching resistant corals are secured in cooler waters, to help prevent their demise as heat stress increases. Unbleached corals selected during bleaching events are included. From these nurseries corals are harvested to create nucleation patches of genetically diverse pre-adapted corals, which become reproductively, ecologically and biologically viable at reef scale, spreading out over time. This “Reefs of Hope” paradigm, modelled on tropical forest restoration, creates dense coral patches, using larger transplants or multiple small fragments elevated on structures, forming fish habitat immediately. The fish help increase coral and substratum health, which presumably will enhance natural larval-based recovery processes. We also hypothesize that incoming coral recruits, attracted to the patch, are inoculated by heat adapted algal symbionts, facilitating adaptation of the wider reef. With global emissions out of control, the most we can hope for is to buy precious time for coral reefs by saving coral species and coral diversity that will not likely survive unassisted.