Coral rehabilitation startup aims to rebuild coral reefs through micro-fragmentation

A researcher points out coral polyps growing on a net-like structure.

A researcher points out coral polyps growing at ONDA’s on-shore nursery facility in Florida. (Image courtesy of ONDA Design)

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By Catherine Odom

The world has lost 50% of its coral reefs in the past 30 years as oceans have warmed and acidified. Climate change drives these changing ocean conditions, which lead to coral disease and bleaching.

ONDA Design is one company working to counteract this trend by developing technology for coral restoration and rehabilitation.

Daniel Hills-Bunnell and Peter Lowe, two Bay Area-based engineers, are working remotely on this project. The company, which was founded last year and has received funding from the Nature Conservancy, is planning to move its operations to Florida where offshore reefs are bleaching and dying. 

“We both came to the space of coral restoration from a call for proposals from the Nature Conservancy about a year ago, and we have been working on developing a high throughput coral farming in on-shore nurseries,” Hills-Bunnell said.

ONDA’s strategy, a process called micro-fragmentation, involves taking small pieces of living coral and allowing them to reproduce asexually in on-shore nurseries. Once the coral has grown for about six months, the team transplants the coral back into the ocean, where it can fuse with preexisting reefs and continue to grow.

By using small pieces, or micro-fragments, of coral in the nurseries, Hills-Bunnell said the coral can grow up to 40 times faster than it can in nature. These corals also tend to be more resilient because the team selects samples that have survived bleaching events.

Lowe said this rehabilitation is particularly important because of the important role coral reefs play in their ecosystems.

“When you have a barrier reef out beyond the shoreline, it can mitigate 97% of wave energy,” Lowe said. “If you have a big storm event, you have huge waves coming in, and that will destroy all the property on the land close to the shoreline.”

Partnering with investors who want to prevent coastal erosion and damage is one way ONDA hopes to fund its projects, Hills-Bunnell said. These groups could include hotel companies or local governments in coastal areas.

Even with the proper funding, though, rehabilitating the world’s coral reefs is a tall order, especially because much of the technology ONDA is using operates on a small scale or is not even fully developed yet.

“Currently what we’re doing is handling individual coral using practices largely borrowed from the aquarium hobby,” Lowe said. “If you think about trying to terraform a planet using that technique, essentially, it doesn’t work.”

Both Hills-Bunnell and Lowe are working on developing and scaling up this early-stage technology as engineers on the project.

Hills-Bunnell said individuals can get involved in coral restoration by contributing financially to projects, raising awareness and pursuing careers in the field.

“There’s a lot of different ways you can start to contribute to this ecosystem rehabilitation, and it’s very urgent,” Hills-Bunnell said. “These ecosystems touch pretty much every facet of life.”

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Biodiversity, coral, oceans, rehabilitation, startup, sustainability

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