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Can sound provide hope for coral reefs?

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In the past several years, researchers have documented the death of coral reefs due to changes in the environment. Because living reefs play an important role in the health of the world’s oceans, providing sustenance for as much as 25 percent of the fish there, losing them would have dire consequences. The task of restoring them has seemed hopeless — until now. Scientists are experimenting with a new technique that could help bring life back to bleached coral reefs. If this technique works, it could be a game-changer for the planet’s oceans.

Dying Coral Reefs

When reefs become compromised and die off, the change is both dramatic and noticeable. Usually vivid and glowing reef structures become pale, and signs of life are vastly diminished. In one description, sedentary animals connected to the reef had died, while more mobile animals, like crabs and lobsters, had moved to the top of the structure as if they were trying to escape something. According to coral expert Sarah Davies from Boston University, when she examined one scene, “The coral appeared to be de-skinning; its tissue was falling off, and there was this gray mat of algae that we think was sulfur-oxidizing bacteria.”

Hope Through Sound

Because of the severe threat dying coral reefs pose to the nation’s oceans, experts have been fervently working to find a solution. Now teams of scientists from Australia and the United Kingdom may be on to something with some recent research that uses an innovative technique to attract new life to dead reefs. They’re placing underwater speakers that play the sounds of a healthy reef in patches of bleached coral. They wanted to see if these sounds, such as the pops and crackles of fish as they move or the calls of one fish to another (imagine smaller versions of the noises made by whales and dolphins), would attract new life to the abandoned areas.

So far, this technique is inspiring hope. Compared with areas where the sound wasn’t played, the areas with speakers attracted about twice as many fish who seemed curious about what was going on. While the dead reefs without speakers had the quiet of a ghost town, the areas with the speaker were far more appealing.

Can New Fish Spark a Recovery?

It is the scientists’ hope that if even just a few new fish come to a formerly-abandoned reef and make it their home, the noise and other signs of their presence will attract further life. It would also encourage natural plant growth, which will additionally attract marine organisms. Scientists hope that in this way, things will ultimately build back to their former levels.

There may be a further benefit to the presence of just a few fish. Even if the populations don’t stick around or build on themselves, it is hoped that the fish can clean the reef of toxic substances so that fresh, new coral may grow.

Just a Single Tool

As promising as sound techniques are, the scientific community recognizes that it is just one tool to help the world’s oceans — and that it may only be successful to a point. Meaningful reef recovery likely requires more than the presence of a few carefully-placed speakers. It requires political action for change to attempt to reverse some of the glacial melting and environmental warming that is happening worldwide.

While scientists understand that changes won’t happen quickly, they do believe that if applied properly and consistently, they could make a difference in the long term. Over time, a persistent system of change could have a positive impact on both coral reefs and other ecosystems throughout the planet.

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