INTERVIEW: Australian coral restoration tech company hoping to tap into biodiversity markets

Published 04:10 on February 10, 2023  /  Last updated at 04:10 on February 10, 2023  / Mark Tilly /  Biodiversity

An Australian company looking at a novel approach to restore coral populations has suggested future biodiversity markets could provide the scale needed to save the fast-eroding species where blue carbon markets so far have not.  

An Australian company looking at a novel approach to restore coral populations has suggested future biodiversity markets could provide the scale needed to save the fast-eroding species where blue carbon markets so far have not.

Amid ever more frequent reports of coral bleaching and deaths, marine biologist Taryn Foster started Coral Maker in 2019 and has set a target to restore a million corals per year.

Meeting a goal of such scale requires a steady, predictable flow of finance, however, and after initially considering seeking options under the emerging blue carbon market Foster is now looking at biodiversity credits as a possible future source of funds, she told Carbon Pulse.

“The problem we’re trying to solve is an issue of scale in the coral reef restoration world,” she said.

“We have the issue of not being able to do it at a large enough scale to really have an impact.”

Coral Maker is pursuing three prongs of research and development in order to achieve its goal, Foster explained.

The first is to use manufacturing techniques inspired by the construction industry to mass produce moulds, in order to create coral skeletons that living corals can be graphed on to.

Such a system allows for the cheap and fast production of 10,000 skeletons per day, each with the capacity to hold 6-8 coral fragments, according to the company’s website.

The second is in robotics, whereby a robot with a vision system and AI can pick and place corals in depleted reefs, as part of the coral propagation work, at a speed that the delicate task has so far been unable to achieve.

Finally, the company is partnering with local commercial coral growers Abrolhos Coral and Live Rock to begin placing its seedlings and coral skeletons off the coast of the Abrolhos Islands off the west coast of Western Australia.

The company is working with Foster’s family manufacturing business, the Blockmakers, to produce limestone coral skeletons, while it’s working alongside tech company Autodesk to oversee the robotic side of project.

“We’re using a combination of technology from masonry manufacturing, which is a more traditional manufacturing technique, and advanced robotics using computer vision and AI to automate parts in the coral propagation process,” she said.

“We’re testing things like ease of deployment, ease of transportation, and then also whether or not the coral actually like growing on [the limestone skeletons], and so far they seem to really like it.”

While the company is currently in its first round of seed funding, Foster said she had explored the possibility of using blue carbon credits as a way to fund the company’s work, but had been left wanting.

“Overall they are a carbon sink, but quite a small one, especially compared to other blue carbon sinks like mangroves and seagrass, for example, but they also protect seagrass and mangroves, which increases their storage potential,” she said.

Foster referred to a 2020 study by a group of international scientists, peer reviewed by Australia’s peak scientific body, the CSIRO, and Spain’s Environmental Hydraulics Institute, published in scientific journal Frontiers.

The study found seagrass meadows that were protected by coral reefs stored around 36% more carbon than seagrass in exposed areas.

It said that sediments in seagrass meadows protected by a reef barrier helped avoid erosion and enhance seagrass capacity to retain organic matter in soils.

“Loss of coral reef structure due to bleaching and other stressors will likely result in a reduction of the blue carbon storage capacity of adjacent seagrass meadow,” the study concluded.

The study did not consider the connectivity between coral reefs and mangrove forests, but noted previous research found that seagrass carbon sequestration increases when they are adjacent to mangrove forests.

“Therefore, connectivity with all three systems needs to be further explored,’ the study said.

Foster said: “At the moment, coral reefs are kind of slipping through the cracks when it comes to the carbon market, because they’re biology, they’re not actually a huge carbon sink, even though they really need protection from climate change”.

She said the biodiversity market could have a much greater potential to meeting the needs of coral restoration work, but noted they were still in the early days of development.

“[Coral reefs] are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, so it should definitely be one to tap into the biodiversity credits,” she said.

Foster added that Coral Maker was interested in working with corporates and governments, once the biodiversity market establishes itself.

While the first handful of biodiversity credit standards are in the process of being tested and finalised, a lot of work remains to be done for project developers and it will likely be some time until a methodology gets developed suitable for coral restoration programmes.

In the meantime, Foster said the company was focussing on the robotic side of its endeavour, having achieved a proof-of-concept model working in the lab, and would now move to test the robots in more true-to-life ocean environments.

Longer term, the company plans to do a large scale pilot whereby the three elements are brought together at a larger scale, in a more rapid timeframe to prove the scalability of the concept.

“We’re attempting to do something like a year’s worth of current coral deployments using manual methods, and try and get that done in a month,” Foster said.

Foster added that the company’s tech could also potentially be used to relocate corals to parts of the ocean where they’re more likely to survive.

By Mark Tilly –

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