Inside Coral Vita's Quest to Restore the World’s Dying and Damaged Reefs

Coral reefs are rapidly dying due to climate change, pollution, and overfishing. Over 30% have died since the 1970s, and 90% are projected to die by 2050. But Coral Vita co-founders Sam Teicher and Gator Halpern believe they’ve found a solution to protect and restore coral reefs for generations to come. Halpern caught up with SeaAhead recently to discuss their specialized land-based coral farms, and how they intend to protect reefs to be able to sustain communities and nations well into the future.

Tell me a little about your background and how you came to be involved with Coral Vita.

I have a deep love for the ocean, I grew up in San Diego. I spent as much time as I could in the waves and on the beach, I was kind of a water child growing up. It was a long and winding path toward Coral Vita, but it was always rooted in entrepreneurial activities.

I’ve been blessed to be able to travel a lot in my life. In high school I was actually able to live with some indigenous communities in the south of Mexico and experience a radically different way of life in these subsistence villages. From that experience at a young age, I knew I wanted to focus my life and my career in the environmental field, trying to find a way to bring a better balance between society and nature. That led me to a number of different projects in the environmental field, ranging from land use change in South Africa to watershed conservation in the Andes and fish farming/aquaculture in the Amazon throughout my undergraduate career and post-college.

Eventually I ended up at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies which is where my co-founder, Sam Teicher, and I ended up eventually founding Coral Vita. At Yale I was trying to combine my passion for the environment and for making a difference on a global scale, to my entrepreneurial tendencies, to try to build projects myself and ended up forming a strong partnership and friendship with Sam. Before he came to graduate school at Yale, he was living in Mauritius. While there he was helping run an NGO and he created a project with the Mauritian Institute of Oceanography to do a small, in-ocean, coral farming project to restore a lagoon. He was telling me the story of the process of building the coral nursery and fish coming back to the lagoon that was previously barren, and the fishermen starting to set up their traps just offshore because of so much life that had come back. I was inspired by this story—it was like a light bulb going off in my head. It was one of those ah-ha moments where I was thinking I’m studying climate change, and environmental science, and I understand that coral reefs are dying, I have this love for the ocean that started from when I was a toddler, and it all came together.

If we can restore reefs and bring them back to life, that’s an incredibly valuable service that could make for a great company, it could make a lot of impact. Sam and I decided to give it a go, and things snowballed from there. I ended up writing the business plan as my grad school thesis, and everything kept on rolling.

How did you decide on coral reefs as the focus?

I would have to give a lot of credit to Sam, my co founder, who opened my eyes up to the possibilities of reef restoration and the kind of impact you can make doing a restoration project. I think coral reefs make for the perfect place to start a company and try to make a huge difference when it comes to environmental work and especially working with the ocean because coral reefs are really the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. Coral reefs are one of the most vulnerable ecosystems that are currently being decimated by warming ocean temperatures and acidifying oceans. Climate change has already wiped out 50% of our world’s reefs, and by mid-century scientists project that over 90% of the world’s reefs will be dead. This isn’t just an ecological tragedy, which will wipe out up to 25% of all marine life that are dependent upon coral reefs, but it’s also a serious socioeconomic issue because up to a billion people around the world depend upon these coral reefs for their livelihoods. These tropical coral reefs are one of the most productive and valuable ecosystems in the world. A very conservative figure of how much they’re worth would be up to $30 billion dollars each year, and that’s mainly through three key benefits they provide:

1)    The first and most obvious is tourism. A lot of people go to the barrier reef and reefs all over the world to see the majesty and the beauty that these reefs have and it supports industries in coastal countries all across the world.

2)    The second key benefit is fisheries production. The majority of fish in the tropics actually depend upon coral reefs for part of their livelihoods. Often these reefs are the breeding grounds for fish, their fingerling baby fish will hide within the coral until they are mature enough to swim out to sea. Without these reefs the fish stocks decline greatly, so it’s a huge food security issue, as well as a fisheries industry issue, with reef degradation hurting fish stocks in countries all around the world.

3)    The third main benefit of reefs is coastal protection. Waves will break on the coral reef, and the amount of wave energy that actually hits the shore is greatly reduced in a place with a healthy coral reef. If that reef dies, and crumbles, then those waves go right onto shore and break causing much more erosion and more damaging storm surges for the communities that live in those coastal areas.

Reefs are really a cornerstone ecosystem for the oceans and one of the most biodiverse, important ecosystems in the world. That’s why at Coral Vita we are focused on ensuring we can sustain these reefs for decades to come, and for future generations to enjoy the benefits they provide.

I know the goal of Coral Vita is to be operating at a large-scale, more commercial level of restoration. Can you speak to any pilot projects you may have done as you begin to scale up? Can you tell me about the farm operation down in the Bahamas?

In the Bahamas we are mid-construction on our first high-tech, land-based farm as a company Coral Vita, but we have collaborated and worked with marine institutes in both the Florida Keys and in Hawaii, with those who have developed the methods we use for coral farming. We’ve been working closely with researchers from the Mote Marine Lab in the Florida Keys and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in Hawaii to learn from their experience and also contribute to the projects they’ve been doing where they’ve out planted tens of thousands of corals in those locations and have had really great success in developing the methods, getting better and better at not only growing the coral and out planting them with higher survivorship rates, but also boosting their resilience against the warming and acidifying oceans and also mixing in sexual reproduction and increasing species diversity in corals. We definitely benefit from those partnerships and from the work being done in these research institutes in order to combine the latest methodologies here in our farm in the Bahamas.

We, as I said, are well under construction right now. We’ve been here for about a year, we’ve gotten all the permits and started operations here finally. It looks like in the next 6 weeks or so we will have the aquaculture facility operational with baby corals here in our farm in the Bahamas. We’ve also been surveying the reefs offshore and getting all the permits we need to handle coral and to plant the coral back on the reefs. It felt like it was moving at a crawling pace when we were doing all of the government meetings and the red tape and also raising some money, but finally it’s becoming very tangible.

Speaking of raising money, what kind of early capital did you get as you were trying to get off the ground? Can you speak about that and how you have since funded the company?

We are very different than any other reef restoration company out there in that we are tackling the problem of reef degradation from a commercial company direction, as opposed to almost all other restoration projects that are done by non-profits who have done amazing work to do local, community-based restoration projects. We’re trying to really take the techniques done by research institutes and scale them up in a way that we can inject a lot more capital into the space of reef restoration and really create a marketplace and an industry capable of doing large scale restoration and make a significant impact when it comes to the scale of this problem, this global issue.

With that vision, we have been able to raise the majority of our funds from what I would call “impact angels”, they are high net worth individuals that are interested in the impact we are making and they believe that as a commercial organization we’ll be able to do a lot more impact when it comes to the amount of reef we are looking to restore.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the global network of land based coral farms you’re creating, specifically how this will be more efficient than what you’d be able to do underwater?

Right now we’re building a relatively small scale farm in the Bahamas, it will be capable of growing around 5-10 thousand corals a year to plant out into the reefs of Grand Bahama, depending on how large we want to grow them before we plant them out there. The idea is that in about 18 months we’ll be looking toward raising a series A funding round which will enable us to expand our farming operations so that we are not growing 10,000 corals, but instead we’ll be growing maybe 100,000 corals or a couple hundred thousand corals each year. At that scale it’ll be by far the largest scale restoration project ever undertaken. The idea eventually is to create a global network of these large scale farms so that, in as many countries and territories as possible that have reefs, we would be able to build one of those large scale coral farms growing hundreds of thousands if not millions of corals for restoration projects in those particular countries. That’s really what we think is going to be necessary to keep these reefs around for decades to come.

As far as the land-based coral farms, our models versus the more traditional in-ocean tree nursery-type farms, there are a few key advantages:

1)    One advantage is that we can accelerate growth rates by up to 50 times how fast they grow in nature through a process known as microfragmentation. That is key because it unlocks species diversity, enabling us to grow slower-growing corals on the timescale that makes sense for a restoration project. For in-ocean coral farms you basically hang coral from ropes and you watch them grow and you really can only do it with fast growing, branching corals because those grow from being pinky-sized to a hand or a wrist in maybe a year and then you can plant them back out into the reef. The bouldering species of corals (brain corals, star corals) that form the foundation of a reef structure, grow very, very slowly.  They could take fifty years to reach the size of a dinner plate. In our land-based farm we’re able to accelerate those growth rates by up to 50x, we can grow one of those corals in just a year before we plant it out into the ocean.

2)    Another key advantage is that we’re able to closely control the conditions that we are growing the coral in. As we are growing the coral, we can crank up the heat and crank up the acidity to mimic what an El Nino event might be like in 2050 or 2100 and actually watch the corals and see how they fair in those conditions, stress them out a bit, and then cool it back down and bring them back to full health, and then crank the heat back up. Repeating that process, each time you do it, the corals build a natural resilience, a tolerance to those conditions within themselves. It’s kind of like coral boot camp to get the corals ready for the oceans that they’ll face when they’re put back into the ocean. We can also see which individual corals are most well adapted to those future ocean conditions, which individual genotypes are naturally most resilient. And we can use those resilient corals to seed the next batch of coral that we grow so that each batch we out plant is even more resilient to acidifying oceans than the last batch.

Those are two key technical benefits to our land based farming model. It’s also far more scalable, so we can just add more tanks to our farm and grow more coral and distribute those corals from a single farm to different restoration sites around a region.

Tell me more about the business model that you guys have developed for Coral Vita, and the restoration services you are looking to provide as you scale up. Who are some of the key stakeholders in this large-scale restoration effort? 

There are a few revenue streams that we are developing here at Coral Vita. The quickest entry to market one that we are working on is the ecotourism space. Our farms, in addition to being places where we grow coral to plant back into the reef, are also ecotourism attractions in themselves. On Grand Bahama it’s mostly cruise ship passengers who will be coming through our farm as part of their daily excursion package, where they come to our farm — it’s kind of like an aquarium, there’s signage on the walls teaching you about coral — and we lead you through a tour to our touch tank, and to the tanks we are using to grow coral. They have a bit of an educational experience, where visitors can learn about coral reefs, why they’re so important, what’s happening with reef degradation and how we are trying to make a difference in that field. Visitors as well as anyone who sees us on the internet can support what we are doing through our Adopt a Coral campaign that we have live and running on our website and we’ll probably do a larger push for at some point later on this year once things are all up and running.

The scaled revenue stream is really selling the service of reef restoration to interested stakeholders that benefit from having a healthy coral reef. There’s a large range of those, we’ve been getting a large traction so far with developers, that could be someone who’s looking to develop a resort or a new community, or have a new attraction at an old resort or old community that would benefit from having a healthy, thriving, coral reef and doing a more modern, sustainable development. Also, cruise port developers, cruise lines who are developing new cruise ports and would like to have beautiful coral reefs for their visitors to be on, they are another potential stakeholder.

You could scale it up to governments and international development agencies, who are working on innovative climate change adaptation funding streams. The debt for adaptation swaps that are currently being worked out, and things like blue bonds that would pay for these types of restoration projects, all the way to mitigation banks, so if there’s a ship grounding or a dredging project or something that harms the reef, they can hire us to bring that reef back to life and to plant coral into the area that’s been disturbed.

The super large-scale customer would be the insurance industry. Because of the coastal protection value that reefs provide, reef restoration is a good way to lower the risk of erosion and storm damage to coastal properties. So there’s an insurance angle in there. There’s a large range of customers and we’re in discussions with all of them as far as when we’re able to scale up to provide reef restoration services to a lot of different parties who are benefitting from having a healthy coral reef.

Speaking of collaborating, there are a lot of nonprofits that do similar work but often on a much more local scale. How do you fit into this world of nonprofits?

We have great relationships with almost all of the people working in the reef restoration space. We really see it as more of a collaboration than a competition between what we are doing and what the non-profits are doing. We can’t praise them enough for the groundwork they’ve laid in order to bring restoration to what it is today. In the future we see a lot of ways we can work together. Like I mentioned, we could provide corals for their restoration projects; they can provide expertise and labor for some of our stages of restoration projects. I think there a lot of ways we can work together because we really do have the same mission and end goal of restoring coral reefs and keeping their benefits around for decades to come.

I think that as a for-profit we are in a bit of a different space when it comes to being able to attract the capital and the partnerships necessary to really increase the scale of reef restoration so that we’re not out planting a few tens of thousands of corals around the world like we are nowadays, but we can really start making a significant difference by planting millions and millions if not eventually billions of corals around the world. We see the marketplace and being a commercial company as the way we’re going to be able to get there. That’s the advantage of being a commercial company and why we are tackling it from a slightly different direction.

With that being said, a lot of the work we do is mission-driven, and a lot of it would fall very smoothly within a nonprofit. So all of our projects are incorporated within the communities where we work.

What’s next for Coral Vita?

It’s a super busy time for us, we are finishing construction on the farm right now. As soon as that’s done in the next six weeks or so we’ll be collecting our first batch of coral babies and have them growing in our farm to grow out over the next 6-12 months. We’ll be starting ecotourism operations and then having our first out plants probably at the end of this year (next winter). There’s a lot on our plate right now. We’ll also be staffing up over the next six months, we have a job posting up right now that we’re doing interviews for, and we’ll be hiring a few more staff to help run operations here at our farm once we’re up and running. Growing our team and our corals are the next big stage.

Hannah Armstrong is an associate editor at SeaAhead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me more about the business model that you guys have developed for Coral Vita, and the restoration services you are looking to provide as you scale up. Who are some of the key stakeholders in this large-scale restoration effort? 

There are a few revenue streams that we are developing here at Coral Vita. The quickest entry to market one that we are working on is the ecotourism space. Our farms, in addition to being places where we grow coral to plant back into the reef, are also ecotourism attractions in themselves. On Grand Bahama it’s mostly cruise ship passengers who will be coming through our farm as part of their daily excursion package, where they come to our farm — it’s kind of like an aquarium, there’s signage on the walls teaching you about coral — and we lead you through a tour to our touch tank, and to the tanks we are using to grow coral. They have a bit of an educational experience, where visitors can learn about coral reefs, why they’re so important, what’s happening with reef degradation and how we are trying to make a difference in that field. Visitors as well as anyone who sees us on the internet can support what we are doing through our Adopt a Coral campaign that we have live and running on our website and we’ll probably do a larger push for at some point later on this year once things are all up and running.

The scaled revenue stream is really selling the service of reef restoration to interested stakeholders that benefit from having a healthy coral reef. There’s a large range of those, we’ve been getting a large traction so far with developers, that could be someone who’s looking to develop a resort or a new community, or have a new attraction at an old resort or old community that would benefit from having a healthy, thriving, coral reef and doing a more modern, sustainable development. Also, cruise port developers, cruise lines who are developing new cruise ports and would like to have beautiful coral reefs for their visitors to be on, they are another potential stakeholder.

You could scale it up to governments and international development agencies, who are working on innovative climate change adaptation funding streams. The debt for adaptation swaps that are currently being worked out, and things like blue bonds that would pay for these types of restoration projects, all the way to mitigation banks, so if there’s a ship grounding or a dredging project or something that harms the reef, they can hire us to bring that reef back to life and to plant coral into the area that’s been disturbed.

The super large-scale customer would be the insurance industry. Because of the coastal protection value that reefs provide, reef restoration is a good way to lower the risk of erosion and storm damage to coastal properties. So there’s an insurance angle in there. There’s a large range of customers and we’re in discussions with all of them as far as when we’re able to scale up to provide reef restoration services to a lot of different parties who are benefitting from having a healthy coral reef.

Speaking of collaborating, there are a lot of nonprofits that do similar work but often on a much more local scale. How do you fit into this world of nonprofits?

We have great relationships with almost all of the people working in the reef restoration space. We really see it as more of a collaboration than a competition between what we are doing and what the non-profits are doing. We can’t praise them enough for the groundwork they’ve laid in order to bring restoration to what it is today. In the future we see a lot of ways we can work together. Like I mentioned, we could provide corals for their restoration projects; they can provide expertise and labor for some of our stages of restoration projects. I think there a lot of ways we can work together because we really do have the same mission and end goal of restoring coral reefs and keeping their benefits around for decades to come.

I think that as a for-profit we are in a bit of a different space when it comes to being able to attract the capital and the partnerships necessary to really increase the scale of reef restoration so that we’re not out planting a few tens of thousands of corals around the world like we are nowadays, but we can really start making a significant difference by planting millions and millions if not eventually billions of corals around the world. We see the marketplace and being a commercial company as the way we’re going to be able to get there. That’s the advantage of being a commercial company and why we are tackling it from a slightly different direction.

With that being said, a lot of the work we do is mission-driven, and a lot of it would fall very smoothly within a nonprofit. So all of our projects are incorporated within the communities where we work.

What’s next for Coral Vita?

It’s a super busy time for us, we are finishing construction on the farm right now. As soon as that’s done in the next six weeks or so we’ll be collecting our first batch of coral babies and have them growing in our farm to grow out over the next 6-12 months. We’ll be starting ecotourism operations and then having our first out plants probably at the end of this year (next winter). There’s a lot on our plate right now. We’ll also be staffing up over the next six months, we have a job posting up right now that we’re doing interviews for, and we’ll be hiring a few more staff to help run operations here at our farm once we’re up and running. Growing our team and our corals are the next big stage.

Hannah Armstrong is an associate editor at SeaAhead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Main photo credit: Xl Catlin Seaview Survey.

Hannah Armstrong