Home 9 Impact Economy 9 Restoring Coral Reefs Is One Key to Puerto Rico’s Economic Future

Restoring Coral Reefs Is One Key to Puerto Rico’s Economic Future

Back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 did a combined $94 billion of damage to Puerto Rico and left 3,000 inhabitants dead. One message buried in the losses made is that coral reefs matter. But the coral around Puerto Rico is dying. Globally, about half the reefs are already dead.

Coral dies due to climate change, pollution, overuse, misuse, and abuse. Christelle Garcia, a marine biologist who manages sponsored programs for Bluetide Puerto Rico, explains that the warming ocean kills coral. The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also creates a chemical reaction that raises the acidity of the sea, killing more. Plastic pollution blocks sunlight, killing the algae that coral needs to survive.

Diver and coral reef

A photoshopped rendering of a diver exploring a constructed reef after it matures and is populated by life. Courtesy of TerraFirma.

Coral also suffers from overfishing, too much tourism, boats anchoring on the reefs, and divers standing on it. This invaluable natural resource is in dire straits.

The value reefs provide extends beyond protection from violent waves associated with hurricanes; reefs are essential to Puerto Rico’s day-to-day economy. Commercial fishing depends on the vital role reefs play in the food chain. Puerto Rico’s tourism economy parallels its coral reefs.

The coral around Puerto Rico is dying. Globally, about half the reefs are already dead.

Ramon Carlos Barquin, president of the board of directors for Bluetide Puerto Rico, says the Federal Government has made a grant of $25 million to Bluetide. Of that, $3.4 million funds a variety of projects including a pilot scale effort to construct viable artificial reefs that will support new coral, enhance fishing, beautify the shoreline, and protect the island.

Bluetide engaged a local tech firm, TerraFirma, to design 3D printable modules. The clay modules are hollow, stackable domes with holes that allow for micro-inserts of live coral and for water to flow through and around them.

Reef Restoration modules

Prototypes for the coral reef restoration modules. Courtesy of TerraFirma.

Fabiola Guzmán Rivera, chief marketing officer of TerraFirma, says, “When we were talking with the biologists, they were mentioning that the surface area towards the sunlight is very important and the best shape to get the most surface area is a dome. Also, structurally, it’s quite capable of distributing forces equally.”

Unlike concrete seawalls, the reefs — in nature and the designs for recreating them — comprise an intricate and hollow ecosystem, providing places for small creatures to hide from larger ones in a vibrant, conductor-less visual orchestra.

“A fish doesn’t have a dead end anywhere. So, it can just go through all of the arrangements,” says Alejandro Miesas, the CEO of TerraFirma, of the dual role the structures will play as an environment for sea creatures and erosion protection. “And, still, the water will be obstructed because it doesn’t have a clear point through it.”

Each module or tile will weigh about 35 pounds. The team plans to stack them in decorative patterns up to five tiles deep on the ocean floor. Alejandro and his team designed a seahorse roughly the size of a football field that, once built, would be visible from the air.

The testing is ongoing; the first modules could be in the ocean before the end of August. Printing will begin soon.

The value reefs provide extends beyond protection from violent waves associated with hurricanes; reefs are essential to Puerto Rico’s day-to-day economy.

Working with the City of San Juan and its Workers Investment Opportunity Act Consortium, Bluetide chose youth with learning disabilities to operate the 3D printers. This choice epitomizes the efforts to create a positive local impact with every dollar of grant funding.

Prospects for success are good. UNESCO recognized IntelliReefs for its artificial reef work in the Caribbean. Founder Melody Brenna says, “Ninety-six percent more corals went to our ‘oceanite’ reef than the degraded reef. So what that shows is the corals are leaving anyway from a housing complex that’s really degraded, and they’re seeking a fresh place to make a start.”

Bluetide’s Garcia says she is familiar with Brenna’s work and believes they will see comparable results.

The Federal Grant from the Economic Development Administration gives the project a running start, but, ultimately, Puerto Rico will have to take local responsibility for the project.

Divers laying coral reef modules

Photoshopped rendering of a diver placing the tiles on the sea floor to construct a new reef. Courtesy of TerraFirma.

Gilles Rollet, a retired investment banker, raised in Puerto Rico, is looking to play a catalyzing role in the project going forward. “Our friends from Bluetide are very active, and I’m looking to help them further develop what they’re doing here.”

His network on the island gives him hope that, in addition to philanthropic capital, he can raise some investment funds that reasonably expect a financial return. He acknowledges that this requires putting his investment banking thinking cap on to design financial connections between reef restoration and commercial fishing, tourism and reduced economic losses from hurricanes.

Bluetide chose youth with learning disabilities to operate the 3D printers. This choice epitomizes the efforts to create a positive local impact with every dollar of grant funding.

One challenge for the island will be increasing tourism without damaging the reefs that support it. Garcia is optimistic that tourism can increase without harm to the new reefs through education. Years ago, commercial fisherfolk dumped chlorine into the ocean to kill fish to harvest and sell. An educational campaign taught them the environmental harm, and they ended the practice.

The connection between land and sea is closer on an island. “On an island, you can feel it because it’s so small,” TerraFirma’s Rivera says. Regarding the recent failure of a retaining wall, she says. “If you look at the problem and you want to solve it, you need to solve it in the water, not necessarily on the land.” People now appreciate the value of the reefs.

Puerto Rico faces significant challenges. Sustainable solutions require coordinated, collaborative effort. “If it were a US State, it would be the poorest US state,” Rollet says. “So we’re talking about an area that doesn’t get a huge amount of financial resources and certainly not that much for reefs.”

Climate change threatens to bring back-to-back hurricanes to Puerto Rico again one day. The economy will flag without healthy growth in commercial fishing and tourism. The work on durable solutions has begun. Resilience and economic growth depend significantly on the island’s ability to rally in support of reef restoration and other sustainability initiatives.

This article is Part Four of a series produced by Impact Entrepreneur about current and planned “blue economy” and resilience initiatives in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and broader Caribbean. This series is an outreach effort to communicate the Blue Economy Course of Action ECN 10 found in the Economic and Disaster Recovery Plan for Puerto Rico and bluetidepr.orgOther articles in the series are listed below as they appear.

I. A New Framework for Economic Revitalization in Puerto Rico

II. Measuring Impact in Puerto Rico’s Emerging Blue Economy

III. Resilience: Two experts discuss its importance to the impact economy

V. Technology and Sustainability: A Way Forward for Puerto Rico?

VI. El Bienestar Común, or How Puerto Rico is Taking Care of Itself

Coral Reef Modules Demo

Devin is a bestselling author who calls himself a champion of social good. He travels extensively as a volunteer doing service, as a new-media journalist finding heroes and as a speaker sharing what he’s learned. As a Forbes Contributor, he covered social entrepreneurship and impact investing, reaching an audience of ... Read more

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