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Uncovering the Power of Biomimicry and Nanotechnology in Coral Reef Restoration

Building Homes for the Ocean's Homeless


Sint Maarten’s marine ecosystems have been degraded by overfishing, hurricanes, runoff, and a suite of other compounding natural and anthropogenic stressors over the past five decades. Like many ecosystems in the Caribbean, coral reef communities in Sint Maarten have been severely affected by hurricane activity. Hurricane Irma (September 2017) caused widespread damage to the island and was one of the strongest hurricanes to have hit in the Atlantic Ocean to date, with winds exceeding 185 MPH.


Hurricane Irma (September 2017): Storm surge & freshwater input caused massive damage to Caribbean reefs, with 185 MPH winds raging for 37 hrs and $50 billion damage in the United States alone.
Hurricane Irma (September 2017): Storm surge & freshwater input caused massive damage to Caribbean reefs, with 185 MPH winds raging for 37 hrs and $50 billion damage in the United States alone.

Large surge caused severe damage on reefs and intense rainfall increased freshwater and nutrient input. Sint Maarten coral communities also suffer from continued deterioration due to chemical runoff from land and physical damage from boating traffic.


In 2018, The Nature Foundation St Maarten partnered with Reef Life Foundation and IntelliReefs in an effort to find solutions for their vulnerable coral reef ecosystems.
In 2018, The Nature Foundation St Maarten partnered with Reef Life Foundation and IntelliReefs in an effort to find solutions for their vulnerable coral reef ecosystems.

Reef Life Foundation works to facilitate project development by supporting on-the-ground organizations and restoration initiatives through aiding in goal refinement, building strategic collaborations locally and internationally, designing site-specific restoration structures, and assisting ongoing monitoring and research efforts.



In November 2018, we deployed three IntelliReefs structures underwater near Philipsburg, Sint Maarten with SeaLegacy and Dr. David Vaughan (Plant a Million Corals) as part of our flagship restoration project. The structures were deployed on three sites: a coral reef in a marine protected area (MPA), a busy coral reef/seagrass bed through-way, and a highly disturbed and degraded seagrass bed in Cole Bay. Sint Maarten’s marine ecosystems have been degraded by overfishing, hurricanes, runoff, and a suite of other compounding natural and anthropogenic stressors over the past five decades. As a result, Sint Maarten has seen a severe reduction in coral cover, biodiversity, and ecosystem complexity.


Deployment of the world's first nanotechnology artificial reefs off the coast of Philipsburg, Sint Maarten with Reef Life Foundation, IntelliReefs, the Nature Foundation St Maarten, SeaLegacy, and Plant a Million Corals Foundation.

 

The deployment goals for the IntelliReefs nanotechnology artificial reefs were:


  1. to build complex fish habitat and shelter,

  2. to attract and rapidly grow wild corals,

  3. to provide shaded areas for cryptic invertebrate communities,

  4. to increase small-scale site biodiversity, and

  5. adhering to strict budgetary requirements.


After just over a year underwater, the Reef Life Foundation and IntelliReefs teams travelled back down to Sint Maarten to monitor the biological progress of the experimental IntelliReefs.
After just over a year underwater, the Reef Life Foundation and IntelliReefs teams travelled back down to Sint Maarten to monitor the biological progress of the experimental IntelliReefs.

IntelliReefs has developed and tested an unprecedented nanotechnology substrate that can be cast in any design and scaled up larger than any competing restoration substrate on the market. Twenty years of research and development have yielded Oceanite— proprietary, unique mineral mixture that allow artificial reefs to be fine-tuned and customized down to the nanoscale to support site, species, and function specific conservation goals.


After conducting fieldwork in the Caribbean, IntelliReefs' scientists have determined the benefits of Oceanite and IntelliReefs artificial reef systems:

biodiversity, feed fish, attract wild coral spawn
 

Enhance Biodiversity

Over 100% cover of diverse marine invertebrates on IntelliReefs, including species that attract corals to the substrate (crustose coralline algae).
Over 100% cover of diverse marine invertebrates on IntelliReefs, including species that attract corals to the substrate (crustose coralline algae).
After only 14 months of deployment, IntelliReefs' scientists found higher biodiversity on the structures when compared to nearby natural reefs.
After only 14 months of deployment, IntelliReefs' scientists found higher biodiversity on the structures when compared to nearby natural reefs.

After only 14 months of deployment, IntelliReefs' scientists found higher biodiversity on the structures when compared to nearby natural reefs. The complex system of pores produced by our mixtures optimizes animal settlement, creating more surface area per square inch. This enhances biodiversity and protects early growth stages of marine species. Together, these two features make Oceanite the ideal substrate for capturing and growing wild coral spawn and farming coral fragments and transplanted colonies.

 

Feed and Shelter Fish

Goatfish taking a nap on IntelliReefs 1 month after deployment. IntelliReefs are pH-balanced with the marine environment (pH 8.1), while normal building materials (i.e. concrete) has a pH of 12 and has been observed to burn animal tissues.
Goatfish taking a nap on IntelliReefs 1 month after deployment. IntelliReefs are pH-balanced with the marine environment (pH 8.1), while normal building materials (i.e. concrete) has a pH of 12 and has been observed to burn animal tissues.
Fish were observed resting directly on and sheltering within the IntelliReefs.

The pilot structures are home to a vibrant fish community that feeds on the marine plants and animals that grow directly on the IntelliReefs. Fish were observed resting directly on and sheltering within the IntelliReefs. The porosity of Oceanite provides more surface area for animals to live in the crevices, creating a living substrate that is unparalleled in marine construction materials. Within months, Oceanite can foster nearly 100% coverage of a healthy benthic coral reef community, feeding fish populations quickly.

 

Attract Wild Corals

Large Lettuce coral recruit (Agaricia agaricites) that chose to settle and grow on 2 year old IntelliReefs.
Large Lettuce coral recruit (Agaricia agaricites) that chose to settle and grow on 2 year old IntelliReefs.
Oceanite has a complex matrix of pores that increase the surface area for animals to settle and allow for small animals like new coral recruits to survive predators in the early stages of life.
Oceanite has a complex matrix of pores that increase the surface area for animals to settle and allow for small animals like new coral recruits to survive predators in the early stages of life.
 IntelliReefs has several proprietary Oceanite growth matrices that are designed down to the nanoscale to attract and foster healthy coral growth, targeting imperatives for increased coral restoration.
IntelliReefs has several proprietary Oceanite growth matrices that are designed down to the nanoscale to attract and foster healthy coral growth, targeting imperatives for increased coral restoration.
 

Rapid Settlement of Coral Reef Species

Sponges and important nutrient cycling reef invertebrates living directly inside the pores of IntelliReefs' mineral matrix.
Sponges and important nutrient cycling reef invertebrates living directly inside the pores of IntelliReefs' mineral matrix.

Within only 14 months of deployment, researchers found that the IntelliReefs structures in our Sint Maarten test sites were nearly 100% covered with a healthy, early stage coral community. The porous nature of Oceanite facilitates the settlement of animals on the surface of the structures and deep within the mineral matrix itself, mimicking a living reef substrate where animals burrow and live in crevices and beneath the surface of coral skeletons and natural rocks. IntelliReefs facilitate the settlement and growth of traditional coral reef species and are designed to deter "biofouling" and undesirable species that plague reefs worldwide.

 

Scalability & Durability

IntelliReefs designs range from important ocean infrastructure and restoration systems to underwater performance spaces and eco-tourism experiences (Photo: Podium design).
IntelliReefs designs range from important ocean infrastructure and restoration systems to underwater performance spaces and eco-tourism experiences (Photo: Podium design).

As the market currently stands, no other company has the capacity to deploy artificial reefs on an ecologically meaningful scale - 10s of metres to 10s of kilometres. IntelliReefs innovative restoration technology and casting abilities allow us to truly approach the discussion of coral restoration over a landscape for the first time.

IntelliReefs innovative restoration technology and casting abilities allow us to truly approach the discussion of coral restoration over a landscape for the first time.

Never before have we been able to consider putting technology in the water that mimics natural substrate so closely, and even enhances small-scale biological processes, such as coral attraction and settlement. Similarly, never before have we been able to imitate the large physical presence of a barrier or fringing reef. It is time to implement restoration solutions that are not bound by size and sustainability limitations.

 

Community and Ecosystem Resilience for Future Generations


The Nature Foundation Sint Maarten works to monitor the region's coral reefs and restoration projects to safeguard them for future generations.
The Nature Foundation Sint Maarten works to monitor the region's coral reefs and restoration projects to safeguard them for future generations.
The Nature Foundation St Maarten is a non-governmental / non-profit organization, working to promote conservation of St. Maarten’s environment.

The Nature Foundation St Maarten is a non-governmental / non-profit organization, working to promote conservation of St. Maarten’s environment.

“To preserve and enhance the natural environment of St. Maarten through proper management, education, public awareness, law enforcement, scientific research and monitoring relating to all aspects of the terrestrial, wetland and marine surroundings.”
The Nature Foundation Sint Maarten working with local volunteers to protect nesting Hawksbill turtles.
The Nature Foundation Sint Maarten working with local volunteers to protect nesting Hawksbill turtles.

The Nature Foundation's Man of War Shoal Marine Park Restoration Initiative aims to rebuild coral reef communities following the destruction of Hurricane Irma in 2017 and raise awareness for endangered Hawksbill turtle populations in Sint Maarten. Working with the Nature Foundation, the overarching long-term goal is to build support amongst public and ocean stakeholders for MPAs by creating awareness of their value for the provision of ecosystem services, ocean risk mitigation, food security, ecotourism, moderation of climate change, and improving resilience to impacts of other global stressors. Underwriting the Man of War Shoal Marine Park Restoration Initiative is a social media advocacy and awareness campaign called “Ocean Impact”, which hopes to help advance protection of the oceans around Sint Maarten through MPAs – 10% by 2020 and 30% strongly protected by 2030.


 

Next Steps: Research and Scaling Up


Our flagship project in Sint Maarten will enter Phase 3 this year. With ocean science and outreach partner, IntelliReefs, Reef Life Foundation is forging ahead with analysis and expansion of current restoration efforts in the Man of War Shoal Marine Park off the coast of Philispburg for 2021. We will be returning to the Caribbean with research, technology, and outreach partners iSENSYS, Absolute Vorticity, and Isla Mar Research Expeditions to conduct high resolution surveys of current and future deployment sites, gather much needed oceanographic data on and around current IntelliReefs, and advance understanding of fish community dynamics at study sites.


Additionally, Phase 3 will include biological and oceanographic site surveys for Phase 4 large-scale IntelliReefs deployments, biological analysis of current underwater IntelliReefs, a 15 minute environmental documentary, and dive and logistical support for the Nature Foundation. The completion of Phase 3 will provide the tools and decision-making framework to increase the efficacy of local restoration projects and anchor individual projects within regional conservation management plans.

Scuba Diving Buddies Project

IntelliReefs is focusing on providing nature-based solutions to storm protection, erosion, economic and food security in 2021. They are harnessing and enhancing the best practices used by nature, designing building materials from the nanoscale up that use the same minerals that coral reefs are made of. IntelliReefs’ blue barriers are also designed to mimic natural reef formations, protecting coastlines, building beaches, reducing flooding, self-healing, and cleaning water with minimal maintenance.


To enhance the shoreline benefits of this new product line further, IntelliReefs researchers are also using blue barriers to mitigate the effects of climate change. The team will be kicking off the UN Decade of Ocean Science by addressing regional and ecosystem-wide methods for reducing ocean acidification, anoxia, and spikes in water temperature that cause bleaching. This spring, they have been invited to submit a National Science Foundation (NSF) to further develop IntelliReefs products that will address coral disease remediation.


Aerial view of coral reefs off the coast of Kauai, Hawai'i.
Aerial view of coral reefs off the coast of Kauai, Hawai'i.

IntelliReefs is expanding their company’s research this year by deploying a small pilot in Hawai’i. The aim is to monitor coral attraction and growth on IntelliReefs biomimicking substrates during a coral spawning event this summer. This work will lay the groundwork for a larger Hawai’ian pilot project later this year that will examine how to jump-start healthy coral reef growth by “doping” underwater construction materials with key species prior to deployment. For this project, IntelliReefs will be collaborating with Lynker Technologies and Zac Forsman from the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB).



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