Saudi Arabia to host one of the world’s largest coral restoration projects

Shushah Island, located in the Red Sea of Saudi Arabia near NEOM, will be the site of one of the world’s largest coral reef restoration projects as part of a KAUST-NEOM partnership. Photo: KAUST

Extraordinary circumstances often call for extraordinary actions. As climate change accelerates and ecosystems are impacted in dire and unpredictable ways, scientists, policy makers and experts from wide-ranging fields are necessarily rethinking response strategies. Bold models are needed that address the urgency of climate change with timely, adaptive and visionary approaches. 

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a world-class graduate research university on the Red Sea north of Jeddah, is launching such approaches to support and restore coral reefs at a time of unprecedented environmental change. The KAUST Reefscape Restoration Initiative at Shushah Island is one of the world’s first large-scale coral reef restoration projects, administered and funded by KAUST in partnership with NEOM, a sustainable-focused giga project initiated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to improve the quality of working, living and natural environments. The combined research expertise and technical infrastructure of the two entities provide the traction needed to advance coral restoration at significant scales.

KAUST President Tony Chan commented, “We are in a race against time to save coral reefs, which are arguably amongst the most valuable ecosystems on the planet. Coral reefs throughout the world are in crisis, and KAUST has joined hands with NEOM and global partners to deploy our best science and technology solutions for coral reef regeneration, and demonstrate that at Shushah.”

The genesis of the project began with KAUST’s Coral Hub, a team of faculty and researchers working to develop new approaches to coral reef restoration. What started with an already ambitious plan for Shushah Island has now grown to be the foundation of a larger initiative that will likely support restoration throughout the region for decades to come. The initiative is designed to be a demonstration of innovative coral restoration technologies and approaches that can be applied in the Red Sea and to other coral reef systems around the world.

The KAUST Reefscape Restoration Initiative at Shushah Island will preserve and enhance ~100 hectares of reefscape around Shushah Island, located approximately 20 km offshore NEOM in the Red Sea. Photo: KAUST

The project involves growing hundreds of thousands of corals in nurseries to be planted first across a 100-hectare pilot site located in the Red Sea east of Shushah Island, approximately 20 kilometers from NEOM in the Tabuk province of Saudi Arabia. The work underscores the Kingdom’s commitment to study and protect corals and coral reefs in the region and beyond. It will also include a research and ecotourism center to further knowledge about coral reef ecosystems and the biodiversity of species they support.

NEOM CEO, Nadhmi Al Nasr said, "We are delighted to partner with KAUST on this pioneering coral reef restoration program off the coast of NEOM. NEOM's Red Sea coral reef ecosystem may hold the secret to the future of coral reefs around the world that are experiencing extreme temperature changes due to global climate change. The program is key to our efforts to rewild, reforest and preserve NEOM and reflects our commitment to protecting our rich marine ecosystems and our efforts to pioneer the future of conservation." 

Building a restoration foundation

Complex, large-scale projects involving multiple teams and layers of logistics require the direction of a seasoned leader. Veteran environmental policy and coral reef restoration expert Tom Moore was brought aboard in 2021 to help launch the Reefscape project. He arrived at KAUST in late 2021. Having worked for more than 23 years with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S., Moore brings a history of coral reef conservation management and a network of global affiliations that will shape the project’s scope and implementation.

Coral reefs at Shushah Island are in both pristine and poor condition, which brings opportunities to apply and test different restoration strategies. Photo: KAUST

At the heart of the effort is KAUST, providing the funding, comprehensive research infrastructure, sophisticated labs and KAUST-developed, pioneering techniques and technologies. NEOM brings the umbrella vision, operational infrastructure and dedicated sites for coral propagation and in-situ planting. An international team of multidisciplinary experts will shape the work — from engineers who can build the critical life support system, to project managers who can operate complex facilities, to marine scientists with in-depth knowledge of coral restoration and the Red Sea, to a workforce of divers needed to plant the corals.

“What makes the initiative a potential gamechanger in the field of coral restoration is a synthesis of independent elements brought together in one project,” Moore said. “This is an opportunity to implement world class science coming out of KAUST, with superlative resources and the mechanisms needed to take restoration to scale.”

Different regional and international organizations are also contributing to KAUST’s in-house expertise, including The Coral Restoration Consortium, Coral Restoration Foundation, NOAA, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Oceanis Inc., Coral Vita, Sustainable Oceans International and CORDAP (Coral Research and Development Accelerator Platform), a G20 initiative and global entity headquartered at KAUST, born from Saudi Arabia's Presidency of the G20 in 2020 with a mission to support, complement and scale up existing and new initiatives focused on coral conservation, resilience, adaptation and restoration.

KAUST Distinguished Professor of Marine Science Dr. Carlos M. Duarte is among the scientists in the KAUST Coral Hub engaged in finding and applying coral restoration solutions at Shushah Island, and also in international locations through his role as the executive director of CORDAP.

"Coral reefs are the first ecosystem at risk of near-functional extinction under climate change, and we have a need to scale-up our capacity to restore them from a few hectares to square kilometer and beyond,” Duarte said. “The KAUST Reefscape Restoration Initiative at Shushah Island provides, therefore, a unique opportunity to test and advance our knowledge and learn by doing in this critical area for the future of our oceans and the Red Sea. It is a beacon of hope that comes from the Kingdom to the world.”

Moore recalled how much coral reef restoration has evolved since the 1990’s, a time before coral bleaching was the daily threat it is today, and when biologists were tackling restoration largely in response to ship groundings and coastal construction, and with limited financial and technical support. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that NOAA marine biologists, responding to frequent ship groundings in the Caribbean, also noticed the decimation of two keystone coral species due to bleaching and disease. However, no direct conservation actions were in place to manage their decline.

“We knew how to fix other habitats like seagrasses and mangroves, but we didn’t know how to fix reefs,” Moore said.

A KAUST marine scientist uses coral fragments to grow colonies in controlled aquarium environments.
Photo: JWest / KAUST

As reef declines continued, scientists in the region started to wonder if the same techniques that the small community-focused projects and the aquarium trade had been using for decades — fragmenting individual corals into hundreds of smaller pieces (genetic clones) and growing coral colonies — could be used to repair corals at damaged sites. While others had tried this on reefs at small scales, NOAA began a concentrated, coral restoration effort using this approach, establishing small coral nurseries in the Atlantic throughout Florida and the Caribbean.

The method worked, but Moore said that, excepting a few engaged parties, the rest of the world wasn’t paying attention; the focus was on marine protected areas, land-based pollution, overfishing and climate change solutions.  While each area plays a critical role toward reef recovery, it cannot remedy the challenge on its own. It wasn’t until 2015 when coral bleaching had become increasingly widespread that conservationists globally started to talk in earnest about coral restoration strategies.

In 2016 Moore and collaborators formed the Coral Restoration Consortium, a space where practitioners, educators, managers, scientists and others involved in coral reef conservation could share information and brainstorm solutions in response to the increasingly urgent situation. What began as a largely Caribbean-based group quickly grew to be an international community of practice.

At its first conference, Reef Futures 2018, consortium participants began discussing how to take coral restoration to scale in a more focused fashion. While many groups developed plans, no entity was willing to take on the true investment needed, until KAUST, in collaboration with NEOM and the Government of Saudi Arabia, stepped forward and formed the KAUST Reefscape Restoration Initiative at Shushah Island, and began the serious business of setting the gears of coral restoration in motion.

“Biologists have been trying to solve engineering problems in the coral restoration space with duct tape, zip ties, PVC pipes and super glue for the better part of two decades now, when really what we needed were engineers developing purpose-built solutions to the problems. Fortunately, KAUST researchers were already thinking outside of the box.” Moore said. “This project is unprecedented for having full government support, with the investment and willingness to take coral restoration to scale, and a team of experts who can make it happen.”

Bringing vision to scale

As the backbone of the project, KAUST will contribute resources from across disciplines to deliver the project, including KAUST-developed technologies designed to provide more efficient and resilient ways to grow and outplant corals to the reef. This work will improve the supply chain using the KAUST-developed ‘maritechture’ approaches to growth and outplanting;  they will innovate project delivery with new approaches to robotics and 3D adaptive manufacturing; and will boost resilience with new approaches to improve coral health.

The KAUST Reefscape Restoration Initiative at Shushah Island will use KAUST Maritechture™ technologies to populate the coral gardens surrounding Shushah island. Photo: KAUST

In one example, Dr. Manuel Aranda, KAUST professor of evolutionary biology, is applying his expertise in coral genomics to the project by identifying the genes that make certain coral colonies more heat tolerant than others. Through selective breeding, these resilient traits can be introduced to populations of less tolerant coral colonies to give them a better chance of survival under warmer temperatures. In another, Dr. Charlotte Hauser, professor of bioscience, is developing 3D-printed skeletons coated with a material that accelerates coral growth — forms the project scientists will use to grow the corals for the project. Dr. Raquel Peixoto, KAUST professor of marine science and a Fellow of the International Coral Reef Society, has spent decades researching how bacteria can be used to support different organisms and vital natural ecosystems, both on land and underwater. Her revolutionary work in coral probiotics is another important example of KAUST faculty contributions to the restoration solutions at Shushah Island.

KAUST marine scientist Raquel Peixoto uses probiotics to boost resilience and prevent mortality of corals in the Red Sea. Photo: KAUST

Ian Campbell, KAUST Executive Director of Special Projects who oversees the Initiative at Shushah Island, said, “Not only do we want to deliver a large-scale coral restoration project at pace,wealsowant to be inclusive of traditional restoration methods, modern innovative approaches and the incorporation of data and AI in establishing a working model that will last into the future.In working with world-leading resources,ourgoal is to build solutions that could support other projects across the region and the world.”

The site selected for the project contains coral reefs that are in both pristine and poor condition, which he said brings opportunities to apply and test different restoration strategies. More than 5000 corals are slated to be planted each day, with an approximate yield of a half million corals a year, and two million corals over the course of a five-year period. Structures will be used where needed to support the corals — from pods designed to have corals grow on them to larger forms for habitat — and for planting corals on the existing reef. 

The corals will come from a variety of sources, with a focus on those grown in nurseries, both ocean-based environments and also land-based facilities with optimal lighting and controlled growing conditions. The team will minimize wild harvest as much as possible. The project will also make use of corals dislodged from reefs, such as those damaged from storms or construction projects that would otherwise be lost without intervention, but Moore emphasized this is not a mitigation project.

The KAUST Reefscape Restoration Initiative at Shushah Island will use KAUST Maritechture™ technologies to populate the coral gardens surrounding Shushah island. Photo: KAUST

“You can’t move corals all over the region from different depth zones and light zones to new sites,” he said. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We need to think smart about the corals that can grow and thrive at the site. In addition to asexually reared corals, the team plans to harness corals’ natural sexual reproduction process to further maximize diversity and resilience.”

The masterplan being developed for the site will contain hundreds of operational areas — a grid of cells, each with its own prescriptive plan. Sensors and other digital monitoring technologies will track which corals are doing well and at what site — information the team will use to make decisions about strategies that will help corals thrive in the future. KAUST’s computational resources will play a big part in this effort.  

“KAUST is committed to this project being a demonstration of its current technologies, and also a demonstration of things to come,” Moore said. “Diversity is still one of the most important things when it comes to the survival of the fittest; however, at the same time, we’re asking what we can do to incorporate more selection into the process in a smart way that will make the corals even more robust and healthy.”  

An educational center for future generations

Once the project is underway and flourishing, a visitor center and research facility will be created to provide ongoing educational and exchange opportunities for scientists, students and tourists alike, and enhance accessibility throughout the Kingdom and world. The visitor center will feature educational, interactive exhibits to raise awareness about marine environments, including visual displays that Moore said will be a “digital twin” of the underwater restoration experience. The research facility will be a state-of-the-art outpost for NEOM researchers, KAUST researchers and scientists-in-residence to study the coral reefscape there and in nearby regions.

Moore said they’re still unpacking the opportunities about this and other aspects of the project. He reflected that the project will likely inform innovation as much as innovation will inform the project.    

“It’s a two-way street,” he said. “What works for a scientist in a lab at a small scale might not work as well on a large construction scale. The more we can have a feedback loop on that effort, where people involved at the site can report back to scientists and help them understand what works better in the field, then along the way we’ll hopefully end up with new and improved technologies and approaches that we hadn’t initially contemplated.”  

It is this kind of circular transparency that the team sees as essential for guiding and refining restoration processes so that they can be exported and applied to other coral reefs around the world.

Director of the KAUST Red Sea Research Center Michael Berumen said, “There has never been a more pressing need for bold, ambitious interventions to preserve coral reefs. Addressing the challenges that reefs face globally requires innovative approaches spanning multiple scientific disciplines. KAUST, with the Red Sea as our biggest laboratory, is uniquely positioned to be a hub for research and technology developments that will have impact locally and worldwide."

The Reefscape team kicks off a soft launch of the project at Reef Futures 2022, September 26–30, 2022 in Key Largo, Florida. Reef Futures is a coral restoration symposium for restoration practitioners, researchers, managers and policymakers from around the world “to gather and share the latest techniques, technologies, and science to dramatically scale-up the impact and reach of coral reef restoration.”

Related links