The following is a conversation between Jack Kosakowski, President and CEO of Junior Achievement USA, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Over 50% of the world’s coral reefs have already been lost, and it’s projected that 90% of them will die out by 2050. This is not only a huge problem for the oceans and those communities that depend upon them, but for all of us. What can possibly be done to reverse this trend? Coral Vita is a company that is working on an answer in a very creative and innovative fashion. And here to tell us about it is Sam Teicher, the Co-founder of Coral Vita.
Good evening, Sam, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Sam: Good evening, Denver. Thanks for having me on.
Denver: Let me start with the most basic of questions, and that is: what is a coral reef?
Sam: It’s a good question. Corals are pretty cool creatures. Believe it or not, they are animals – a kind of distant cousin of the jellyfish. But a coral is also pretty fascinating because as an animal, it’s got plants living inside it that makes rock.
You can imagine Finding Nemo or Blue Planet, too, you think of all the beautiful colors you see in coral reefs. So, corals are animals that feed; they’re growing. But inside of their tissue, inside of their skin, is an algae that not only gives it its brilliant colors, but also helps feed coral as it photosynthesizes. The extra energy goes to the coral, which as it grows a skeleton, it makes a rock.
And so, when you see coral reefs, what you’re seeing are collections of sometimes millions of organisms all living together that are creating a living ecosystem that provides habitat for, believe it or not, up to a quarter of all marine life in the ocean…
Denver: That is incredible.
Sam: … In addition to being really cool creatures in and of themselves, they are really critical for the ocean, and certainly one of the most amazing ecosystems on the planet.
Denver: Sam, in what parts of the world are they most plentiful?
Sam: Coral reefs are most plentiful in the tropics. There’s nearly a hundred countries and territories around the world actually where you can find coral reefs, usually in warm places, thinking about sandy beaches and palm trees. But they’re found from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean, Hawaii, the Indian Ocean…all around the world.
But that stat I mentioned before, about a quarter of all marine life depending on coral reefs is even more astounding, for me at least, because coral reefs take up less than 1% of the ocean floor. So, they’re found in many places but there’s not a lot of them, but they’re still incredibly important for all of us. ,
Denver: What are the benefits of them then?
Sam: Coral reefs have a number of different benefits. With that marine life, it’s not only sustaining incredible biodiversity. Some of the stuff many people love like turtles, clownfish, stingrays, and all sorts of other sea life, that sea life in turn also feeds people all around the world. So, there’s up to a billion people who depend on coral reefs for things like food.
As well as with those beautiful reefs comes an amazing tourist attraction. So, people spend a lot of money to go snorkeling or scuba diving. Even if you do neither of those things, and you want to just stick your toes in some nice white sand, that white sand usually comes from coral reefs. So, they power tourism economies.
And then as a final piece, they also protect coastlines from storms. So when hurricanes and typhoons are coming through, and you got a healthy coral reef off the coast, on average, one meter of healthy reef will reduce wave energy by 97%. So, in addition to being incredible ecosystems that feed people and sustain economies, they also protect people’s lives and homes by acting as that buffer against storm surges.
So the fisheries, the coastal protection, and the tourism value of reefs…conservatively, they generate about $30 billion a year. So, when you’re thinking about half the world’s reefs already being dead… and on track to lose over 90% by 2050, it’s an ecological tragedy.
Denver: In addition to the environmental positive impacts they have, what is their socio-economic impact on those communities?
Sam: So the fisheries, the coastal protection, and the tourism value of reefs…conservatively, they generate about $30 billion a year. So, when you’re thinking about half the world’s reefs already being dead… and on track to lose over 90% by 2050, it’s an ecological tragedy. I’ve been a scuba diver since I was a kid, so that really hurts to lose such an incredible life, but that’s also the lifeblood of so many communities, nations, and industries all around the world.
Coral reefs sustain up to a billion people around the world, and if 90% of them are gone, you have to ask yourself: Where are these people going to go when they can’t take care of their families?
Denver: So if I’m living in Nebraska, and aside from being a good global citizen who cares about the environment, why should I care about the coral reefs?
Sam: Well, if you’re in the great state of Nebraska, obviously, the only coral reefs that might be around you are fossilized from a couple hundred million years ago. It’s a pretty reasonable thought – “Why would coral reefs matter to me?”
So, if it’s something as simple as: You like a good seafood dinner…if those reefs die, there’s no home for the fish and that food chain collapses. You’re not going to be getting that tasty dinner that you were hoping for.
On a more serious level, if people can’t feed themselves, if their homes are going underwater, if they’re not able to pay the bills because the tourism industries collapsed, you’ve got to also wonder: Where are they going to go? So, things like the movement of refugees really can be spurred in large part due to environmental degradation.
Coral reefs, like I said before, sustain up to a billion people around the world, and if 90% of them are gone, you have to ask yourself: Where are these people going to go when they can’t take care of their families?
Denver: We talked about we’ve lost already 50% of them, and the projections are to lose 90% by 2050. What is killing them off?
Sam: It’s a series of different factors.
On the local level, you got things like pollution; overfishing, which might not come to mind, but basically, if we’re catching all the fish that eat the plants and algae in the ocean—those are some of the big competitors with corals.
So, if corals die, they can come back. But if you caught all the parrot fish, for example, which loves to munch on algae, and the corals died, then the algae is going to take over and the corals can’t come back. So, there are ways to do better types of fishing so that we’re not harming coral reefs.
We’re hearing in the news a lot that there are certain chemicals found in a variety of sunblocks. Oxybenzone is the most common chemical that’s bad for corals. So, sometimes, the skincare products we’re wearing, we can do better where zinc-based sunscreens are not harming corals.
But really moving forward, the big thing is climate change. Warming and acidifying oceans are devastating already coral reefs. It’s not just some prediction for the future. We’ve seen incredible spikes in ocean temperatures in recent years that are unparalleled in human history that are killing corals. And so, moving forward, that’s really going to be one of the big threats to their health.
We are growing climate change-resilient corals up to 50 times faster to restore dying reefs.
Denver: Well, this is quite the crisis, which brings us to Coral Vita. What is your company doing to address the problem?
Sam: Coral Vita is a company I founded with my friend Gator Halpern, and we are growing climate change-resilient corals up to 50 times faster to restore dying reefs.
In the past 15-, 20 years or so, the field of coral restoration has emerged, and as your listeners can almost imagine, like reforestation… planting trees to bring a forest back, we can grow corals and plant them to help revitalize reef health.
So what we do at Coral Vita is we’ve teamed up with some of the world’s leading scientists, using methods known as “assisted evolution” to strengthen the resiliency of corals to threats like warming and acidifying oceans, as well as this technique known as “microfragmenting” where we can basically grow corals that normally take decades to reach the size of a dinner plate, we can reach that size in a few months.
So, we grow these diverse and resilient corals, and then use a land-based farm. So almost imagine an aquaculture facility where we’re pumping seawater through tanks and the corals grow in there for 6-, 12-, 18 months before we then go back out in the ocean. I often head down with drills and marine epoxy glue and just plug the corals back out into the reef. And with that type of work, especially as our leaders are putting in measures to stop killing corals by ending pollution and overfishing and addressing climate change, we can help preserve reefs into the future despite the threats they face.
And then the last piece of it is that we are doing this as a mission-driven company, looking at those values around coral reefs I mentioned before with tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection, trying to transition the reef restoration space out of small-scale grant-funded projects to a large-scale, self-sustaining industry, where the customers who depend on healthy reefs can pay to restore them.
Denver: Let me dig a little bit deeper on all of what you just said, beginning with: How do you make corals climate-resistant?
Sam: It’s a great question. We often get asked: If corals are dying, what’s the point of putting them back out there if they’re going to die? And it’s something that has to be considered.
So, one of the things we can do, is because we have this land-based system, we control the growing conditions in our tanks. And so not only can we make those conditions ideal for the corals to grow in, and they’ll be happy as is, but we can also look at future projections – for example, temperature rise – and crank up the temperature in our tanks and effectively train the corals so that they have this ability to internalize these new conditions and build that into their own resiliency. We can see which corals are the winners, which are the losers.
It’s worth noting we’re always using native coral, whatever country were working in, so that the corals we put back out there not only are from that place, but actually have been shown to survive better. They’re like, “I know what the jacuzzi kind of feels like,” so that they have an ability to withstand the deteriorating ocean conditions as we do our restoration work.
Denver: A little bit of natural selection going on, it sounds like, which is really very, very smart. And you also can acidify the water to a greater degree than what they would have been coming from, right?
Sam: Yes. So, we can also play around with things like pH to help the corals acclimate to acidification as well.
Denver: You talked a little bit about assisted evolution, and I guess I’ve read you can grow these things at 50 times the rate of nature. How does that occur?
Sam: Yes. That’s pretty exciting. So that’s courtesy of some research that was done by our advisor, Dr. David Vaughan. He helped pioneer this technique known as “microfragmenting” for the reef restoration field.
So the simplest way of thinking about it is: A coral, going back to it being an animal, is made up of all these little…almost mouths called polyps. That’s where the corals eat from, and they all sort of make clones of themselves as they grow out further and further. What we basically do is cut the corals almost down into the individual polyps, put them into tiny little pieces, separate them from one another. And then, they have a natural healing process, and then these corals will fuse back into themselves.
So, instead of one polyp growing into 3, growing into 12, growing into 25, and for some corals, that can take years and years; now, that can happen in months. So that we can grow something like a big boulder brain coral in 6 to 12 months instead of 25 to 50 years.
Denver: That is incredibly cool! Sam, do you work with the local community on these projects?
Sam: We do. That’s a big part of our model. So Gator and I – I’m from Washington, D.C.; he’s from San Diego – we love the ocean, but at the end of the day: one, we’re not from places with coral reefs; and two, whatever country we’re working in, the reefs that are in that country matter most for the people who are there. So, bringing them into the project – whether it’s fishermen, students, local community leaders, you name it – is essential for really this long-term success of these projects.
So, we actually recently launched our first coral farm down in Grand Bahama in partnership with the Grand Bahama Port Authority. We already hired our first Bahamian staff member just the other week and are looking to sort of expand it so that eventually this farm will be hopefully run by Bahamians. While at the same time, the farm being on land, we make it really fun, interactive, and informative. So, it’s both a tourism attraction for guests visiting the island, as well as an education center for local students. So hopefully, we can sort of empower and inspire the next generation of ocean caretakers.
…anyone who cares about… or has skin in the game on the benefits reefs produce can hire us to restore the reefs they depend on. Because if they don’t take care of these reefs and they disappear, then they’re going to be in a really tough spot because they’ll no longer be able to benefit from them like they once were.
Denver: You mentioned a moment ago that you decided with Gator to make this a social enterprise business and not a nonprofit organization, and part of that was because you wanted to accelerate the process and not depend on grant money, which also can come with a lot of restrictions as well. So then, who would your potential customers be?
Sam: We have two main ways of generating revenue. One is selling reef restoration as a service, and the other I just touched on is ecotourism.
So, as we grow farms to restore the reefs, we figured, “Let’s make this a place that people can come visit.” So, we’ll generate revenue by guests visiting the coral farm. If they’re really excited, they can adopt corals, whether they’re in person or even on their computers. They can plant them… the corals that is… with local dive shops. And so you have this whole opportunity to basically support our operations through that ecotourism experience.
And then, what we’re looking at again is that coastal protection, fisheries, and tourism benefits that reefs provide. So, we can sell restoration to developers, hotels, governments, coastal insurance companies, cruise lines, international development agencies, corporate sponsors, you name it…anyone who cares about… or has skin in the game on the benefits reefs produce can hire us to restore the reefs they depend on. Because if they don’t take care of these reefs and they disappear, then they’re going to be in a really tough spot because they’ll no longer be able to benefit from them like they once were.
Denver: How is that piece of it working? Because sometimes when a great community benefits from the largesse of an individual hotel or a real estate developer…everybody wants this to happen, but they don’t want to be the ones to pay for it. So I’d be curious as to how that part of it has been going for you.
Sam: Our first partnership actually was with the Grand Bahama Port Authority here in Freeport where we’re based. We just launched our first coral farm with them. It’s the world’s first land-based commercial farm. They basically saw how reefs are really valuable to everything that they care about.
I think a good example of how you can navigate this issue of the commons is, if you have a reef off of, say, your hotel, and you restore it, the hotel down the road could potentially send their snorkeler guests over to that hotel. But one, they won’t be able to really fill room nights or use any sort of positive PR around the work they’ve done to restore the reefs, but also they won’t benefit from that coastal protection value.
So right now, actually Swiss Re is one of the largest reinsurance companies in the world, they’re piloting a scheme down in Mexico with hotel owners, the Mexican government, and the Nature Conservancy. They’re just saying, “Hey, hotel owner. If you pay to restore the reefs off your property, we’re going to lower your insurance premiums.” So if a hotel restores that reef right off their property, they are able to directly benefit from it. Anyone else who tries to dovetail off that, they’re not going to get that wave protection value, so not only will they deal with the damages, but they also won’t get that premium discount from the insurance company.
So, it is an important question, and it’s one that we’re going to be navigating, but when you’re able to demonstrate the direct benefits you have to restoring that reef, it makes it a much easier sell to customers.
Denver: Very interesting. What has the response of governments been?
Sam: Thus far, great. So the government of the Bahamas fully supports our projects. We actually have the Deputy Prime Minister come to our grand opening and give remarks. Our plan is to start in 2020, likely to scale model to countries around the world. We want coral farms in every country and territory with reefs. We’ve already started discussions with island nation governments in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean, in the Red Sea, who are interested in how large-scale restorations can benefit their communities.
So, we’re getting a lot of good response, both from the regulator side of things, dealing with the permits, as well as governments looking at ways that they can tap into international funding mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund or Blue Bond debt for adaptation slots, where they can pay for these restoration activities.
Denver: I know you started scuba diving, Sam, when you were 13 years old, but this certainly is an interesting career path you have chosen. How did it all come about?
Sam: That is an interesting journey for me because if you’d asked me five or six years ago, “Are you going to be a coral farmer?” I would have looked at you with an odd expression because I had no idea what that was.
I actually grew up wanting to work on international diplomacy, growing up in D.C. – I went to D.C. public schools, and I was interested in education reform. But basically, in college, I ended up studying climate change when I sort of recognized that it was an existential and direct threat to everyone, everywhere, and that it touched on some of the issues I cared about.
Originally, I was coming at it more from the policy perspective. My senior thesis was on climate change as a national security threat and was thinking about a range of different things I wanted to do. Got into grad school at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, which is where I met my co-founder, Gator. But I took a gap year beforehand. I went out to the country of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, where a friend of mine from college had started up a small NGO called ELI Africa, and he was like, “I’d love for you to set up the environmental branch of the organization in your gap year.” And I was like, “22, tropical island for a year, I think I can do that. That sounds great.”
And one of the projects I got going was a United Nations-funded coral farm in partnership with the Mauritius Oceanography Institute. So, I got to see fishermen returning to a lagoon they had abandoned 10 years before, setting up their traps a hundred yards away from the restored reef because there was so much more life. But what was also clear from that experience was one grant from the UN to restore 5,000 corals isn’t sustainable, especially when you think about this being a global problem. There are other limitations with the traditional means of doing coral farming. Usually, underwater coral farms, they don’t really scale. You can’t really grow the corals faster or make them more resilient, not to mention if a storm happens or a fisherman drops an anchor, the whole project can wash away.
So, I knew that there was potential but also saw that there had to be something different and better and bigger. And so, when I got to grad school, I became friends with Gator, and we were thinking about big environmental challenges that policy and academia and nonprofits weren’t solving quickly.(19:49-19:58) They weren’t doing it big or fast enough, and we thought, “What if we create a mission-driven business where customers that depend on these reefs can pay to restore them? So that way, we can unlock the large-scale reef restoration needed to keep reefs alive,” and that led me to launching Coral Vita.
Denver: Very cool. Well, let me close with this, Sam. Although you are a mission-driven business, and I know there are opportunities for people to visit the land coral farm, but not too many people are going to be able to make it down that way, is there a way for the public to get involved in this in any kind of fashion?
Sam: Absolutely! You can follow us @coralvitareefs on our social media for Instagram and all that kind of stuff, but we also are starting a campaign around adopting corals. So, we’d love for people to be able to come down to Grand Bahama; as we launch more farms, to come to farms all around the world and get in the water with us. But you can even just adopt a coral sitting at your computer.
Ultimately, the best thing to do for coral reefs is to stop killing them…I would encourage people to go out and tell their representatives, or anyone they know that can make a difference on the policy side of things, to really enact measures to take care of the planet because, at the end of the day, the planet takes care of us.
Denver: How does that work?
Sam: So, you go on our website www.coralvita.co, and you can find a link to adopting a coral. Basically, we’ll grow and plant a coral for you, and you’ll get a certificate. However many you’d like to adopt, if you want to give it as a birthday or a holiday gift, or you’re just feeling like doing something fun for the ocean, you can make a difference yourself by following on with that.
The other thing I want to also say though, which is really important, is that ultimately, the best thing to do for coral reefs is to stop killing them. We really need our leaders in government, in business, and in the media to really address the things that are killing them. So, I would encourage people to go out and tell their representatives, or anyone they know that can make a difference on the policy side of things, to really enact measures to take care of the planet because, at the end of the day, the planet takes care of us.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, Sam Teicher, the Co-founder of Coral Vita, I want to thank you so much for being here and for such an interesting conversation. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Sam: Denver, thanks for having me on, and looking forward to seeing you on the reefs one day soon.
Denver: Absolutely! I’ll be back with more the Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.