Fujairah reef project is boosting coral survival amid climate change

Tiny coral fragments are grown in nurseries and transplanted on to the sea floor

Powered by automated translation

Coral off the UAE coast has in recent years been increasingly hard hit by climate change – but an initiative off Fujairah aims to stem the decline by creating artificial reefs that will one day be natural.

Project REEFrame, officially launched in 2021, has already created a one-hectare artificial reef off the UAE’s east coast on what had been bare sand, and is now well into crafting a second reef 10 times larger.

The intention is to create thriving natural habitats in seawater suitable for coral, but where reefs would not develop naturally because there are few rocky outcrops on which corals can grow.

When our sculptures have faded into history, there will be coral there
Darryl Owen, owner of Freestyle Divers

It means "we are creating an ecosystem where there wasn’t anything before", according to Darryl Owen, the British owner of Freestyle Divers, the company running the project.

"Coral needs something solid to attach to. You have these rocky pinnacles where there are natural reefs and between them there’s nothing, there’s just sand," he said.

By focusing on bare areas of sand well away from natural reefs, the project removes the risk that the existing coral could be affected by its artificial neighbours.

New ecosystems

After a year, the first reef created through the project had more than 100 species living in and around it, with some organisms "in quite considerable numbers".

In the second reef area, some coral is being planted at a depth of seven to eight metres, while others are being developed at about 12 metres.

The relative growth rates should help to pinpoint the ideal depth, which is a balance between ensuring there is enough sunlight for the coral to grow and avoiding the excessive warmth of water closer to the surface.

Phase 2 of the project has been running since October and is set to continue until late 2026.

Naturally broken coral fragments, collected from the seafloor at local reefs and initially just the size of a thumbnail, are grown in nurseries and transplanted to the artificial reefs, the frames of which are made of iron or steel.

Mr Owen said the materials had been chosen very carefully to ensure they did not break down and release chemicals into the environment, so copper, zinc and aluminium were out.

"They could create nasty chemical imbalances," he said. "We use primarily iron and steel. Iron is naturally present in the ocean and is good for growth. Coral attaches well to it."

As well as basic frames for the coral to grow on, the project has made novelty structures, including a 12-metre yellow submarine, an octopus and a gaming console with three metre-wide controllers.

The artificial reef structures will not last forever. They have an expected lifespan of between seven and 12 years, after which they will probably collapse.

"As the coral grows and becomes heavier and as the steel starts to weaken it will collapse and drop," Mr Owen said.

"But at that point there will be enough of a foot on the coral and it will be able to survive on the seafloor. It will develop into a natural reef.

"When our sculptures have faded into history, there will be coral there."

Infographic: Under Threat: The World's Reef-Building Corals | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

Limiting the damage

The aim is to have a "self-sustaining reef", which is important because artificial reefs can become overgrown by algae or sponges without maintenance.

Algal growth can be kept down by herbivores, which in turn attract the first wave of predators before, ultimately, larger apex predators are drawn in.

As well as Project REEFrame, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi has been carrying out coral restoration programmes since 2021.

That extra efforts are needed to help coral has been illustrated this year by the damage climate change is causing globally.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed in April that higher temperatures have caused corals to experience their fourth major worldwide bleaching event.

The Arabian Gulf, the Red Sea and much of the South Pacific are among the many areas affected.

Bleaching happens when temperatures are unusually high and involves corals expelling the single-celled algae, zooxanthellae, with which they live in mutually beneficial or symbiotic relationships.

Coral sometimes never recovers from bleaching and those that survive may be more vulnerable to disease.

Mr Owen said reefs on the UAE’s west coast, where water temperatures are slightly higher than on the east side, have been "decimated", with most of the coral bleached and dead in some areas.

Artificial reefs, aside from helping to increase biodiversity in areas where it may be threatened, are also credited with increasing fish numbers, which can make populations more resistant to the effects of fishing.

Lauren Haworth, head of marketing and partnerships at Zeroe, a UAE-based company that sponsors Project REEFrame, said that protecting the oceans was not just important from an environmental point of view, but also from a social and economic one.

"We are proud to contribute to a project that is making a real difference in preserving these invaluable ecosystems," Ms Haworth said.

Looking to the future

Project REEFrame, which also runs education and training programmes for citizen scientists, schoolchildren and university students, ultimately hopes to create a third, much larger reef off the UAE’s east coast.

The third scheme could consist of a long reef along the coast, possibly created over a decade or longer.

The project also aims to expand on to the UAE’s west coast, although the final location for a reef has not been finalised.

Developing artificial reefs on the west coast could be more difficult because of the large volume of sediment, which could overwhelm the coral.

But Freestyle Divers has filed a patent for a reef-growth system that involves units on which seagrass, oysters and mussels can be grown on land and then installed at scale on to restoration sites.

The system is designed to naturally reduce the sedimentation so coral can be reintroduced in deeper, cooler water.

"I’m hoping by the beginning of next year we should be in a position to start deploying these things to test them out fully in the environment," Mr Owen said.

Updated: June 14, 2024, 5:25 AM