How Green Tech Can Help Save Corals: Lessons from the Red Sea

By John Pagano, CEO, Red Sea Global,

A century of exploitation has severely harmed our planet’s biodiversity, particularly in our oceans, where pollution, overfishing, and more recently climate change, are pushing nature to the brink.

Coral reefs are especially vulnerable. Rising ocean temperatures have triggered widespread coral bleaching events, devastating reefs worldwide. At the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, as many as 22% of the corals died due to bleaching in 2016. This matters because corals support more than a quarter of all marine life despite covering less than 1% of the ocean floor.

The tourism industry bears some of the responsibility for putting things right. Tourism contributes up to 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. At the same time, climate change threatens tourism destinations themselves. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is at risk of losing more than one million annual visitors and 10,000 tourism jobs if coral bleaching continues.

Indeed, whole economies come under pressure as corals die. Some one billion people worldwide benefit either directly or indirectly from the ecosystem services that coral reefs provide, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Green technology offers at least a partial solution. AI tools can accelerate efforts to not just maintain the world’s reefs but enhance them. Red Sea Global is deploying such technologies on the western coast of Saudi Arabia, where we’re creating two ground-breaking solar-powered luxury tourist destinations. The Red Sea is home to some of the world’s most vibrant coral reefs, and we believe it may hold answers to the challenges that corals face globally.

A Potential Pathway to Global Coral Health

Most corals have little tolerance for high temperatures. If the surrounding water gets too warm, corals will expel an important food source: the symbiotic algae zooxanthellae that live inside them. This phenomenon causes the ‘bleaching’ effect that turns corals white.

However, coral reefs in the Red Sea have adapted genetically to withstand extreme heat due to the region’s arid climate. This makes them unusually resilient to global warming. Some scientists believe that the Red Sea’s corals can serve as donors to areas where corals have been depleted as a result of climate change.

To help us study the corals in our areas – and potentially unlock the secrets of their vigorous health — Red Sea Global uses CoralNet, an AI-powered platform that organizes coral reef survey data. CoralNet delivers results with the accuracy of human experts, but it does so much more quickly and at a lower cost. We use this data to fully automate the process of estimating the amount of coral cover at reefs at our destinations. TagLab, another AI tool, streamlines the way we assess coral growth, mortality, and reproduction rates by automatically identifying individual coral colonies from large area images.

We were also the first in Saudi Arabia to introduce SubSLAM, widely considered to be the most accurate underwater 3D real-time system to measure underwater ecosystems. Its photogrammetry and real-time intelligent data collection systems are transforming how underwater ecosystems are mapped and preserved. We used SubSLAM to produce 3D digital representations of the Al Wajh Lagoon’s coral reefs and vital habitats.

From satellites to coral gardens

In addition to AI, we harness satellite technology to monitor environmental changes within our destinations. Most of our satellite technology analysis focuses on chlorophyll activity in plants. Some satellites can collect global data daily, enabling us to monitor the growth of important plants and locate invasive species such as Prosopis juliflora, a mesquite native to the western hemisphere. We can also use satellite imagery to monitor shallow-water habitats and gather information on coral health, water quality, and marine traffic.

We are already reaping the benefits of our pilot project to garden corals, in which we monitor some 300 reef sites, rescue corals through relocation, and test techniques to restore reefs. We have completed the project’s first phase, which involved 800 coral fragments from 75 donor colonies and 20 different species. About 87% of the fragments survived despite warmer-than-usual water temperatures in the peak of summer. Phase two, involving 2,000 fragments from more than 150 donor colonies, is now underway.

At COP28 in Dubai last December, we unveiled our Coral Commitment to safeguard and regenerate corals in the Red Sea and beyond, in partnership with The Coral Research & Development Accelerator Platform, an initiative launched by the G20 Group of Nations. We are also building a marine life institute at our AMAALA destination. We named this facility Corallium, after a species of coral native to the Red Sea. Corallium will include specialized rooms where scientists can support coral farming and reef rehabilitation as well as advance conservation efforts for sea turtles, sharks, dugongs, and cetaceans.

Our Vision of Tomorrow

As proof of our commitment to corals and biodiversity, we have set an ambitious target of contributing a 30% net conservation benefit across our flagship destinations by 2040. Red Sea Global has adopted a new model of development that goes beyond simply protecting the environment to actually improving it for future generations to treasure and enjoy – a concept we call ‘regenerative tourism’.

In a further step, we will take delivery this year of a million-dollar coral breeding laboratory. There our scientists will be able to speed up the frequency of coral reproduction and breed juveniles several times throughout the year. By comparison, corals in the wild only breed over a few days each year. This lab could lead to an exponential increase in the number of corals we grow to enhance reefs.

Thanks to these and other advances, we are aligned with or are making progress toward all 20 of the COP15 biodiversity targets that are relevant to our business. Through continuous monitoring, we will ensure that we meet our environmental goals and prove that a better approach to tourism is possible, for people and planet.

The world cannot afford a future other than one in which humanity and nature thrive in harmony. Going forward, we hope to spark change within our industry and inspire others to join our efforts to create a legacy for our planet’s oceans that future generations can enjoy for millennia to come.

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