In our conversation with Aki, we learn about coral restoration at impressive speed and get to know a fish who shows real loyalty to Aki restoring his environment.
Aki, let’s just dive into our conversation today, what makes you so passionate about the ocean?
Let’s just dive in – did you just say that on purpose? Aki laughs at my question as if his laughter was a school of fish tickled by anemone. I didn’t – it just surfaced from the ocean of my mind in just the right moment before Aki continues:
Humanity came from the ocean and the ocean is in all of us. There will always be this fascination that everyone has when looking out at sea and listening to the sound of waves
As a diver, I like being in the water. I have seen how amazing the underwater world can be – I saw the beauty of it but also the destruction and decline of diversity. I wanted to do something for the coming generations and try everything to make the ocean a better place than it is at the moment.
How is your project contributing to Sustainable Development Goal No.14– Life Under Water?
Corals play a central role in the food chain and network of life under water. Even though they only cover 0.1% of the global surface, they are home to an abundance of species like fish, invertebrates and so many other animals. If we fix the problem of coral decline, we have a long chain of other problems solved so 30% of humanity, who is directly dependent on fish, can have a reliable food source.
Usually there is an interdependence between corals, mangroves and sea-grass beds. Fish usually lay their eggs in sea-grass beds. When they hatch and grow to a certain size, they migrate to mangroves where they can hide from predators and also find enough food to mature. Reaching a certain size, they will then migrate back to the coral reefs where they live. If one of these three components, and especially the corals, is taken away, this very important circle of life will be destroyed. There will be no offspring and surplus of fish, hence there will be no fish to catch by fishermen. Food will become scarce especially for people whose livelihood depends solely and directly on fishing which is often the case in developing countries. So fixing the corals not only fixes the Sustainable Development Goal number 14 – life under water, but many other goals connected to it.
What is your vision for Coralive.org?
The main goal in the long run is that our job is not needed anymore. I don’t want to live in a world where we have to protect nature. I want to live in a world in which nature is just fine being nature itself and where there is no need to do protection and restoration work.
I am aware that this is a very utopian goal, at least at the moment. But then again, I want to make sure our restoration efforts will leave behind a network of diverse coral hotspots along coastlines where biodiversity under water can be protected and maintained. The regions in between these hotspots can recover themselves, if left alone.
Can you share a rewarding outcome you have achieved with Coralive.org?
In the Philippines, I have seen nature bouncing back in a project we worked on within two and a half years. That was probably the most rewarding outcome I can wish for, seeing nature healing itself when given her a break and a little jump-start. In the beginning, the ocean floor was completely destroyed by dynamite fishing, flat and covered in coral rubble. After restoration, we even noticed predator and prey behavior returning meaning barracudas were hunting squids, which again were going after catfish. These kind of events give me a lot of energy and motivation to keep doing what I do.
Wow – that’s fast! You can really restore coral reefs in two to three years?
Yes, it is possible. With the mineral accretion technology Coralive.org uses, we can bring back coral reefs at a much faster pace than naturally. It just needs to be done. We can’t just sit around and say – hopefully it will solve itself or somebody should do something.
What other threats does the ocean have to cope with?
Newer threats are caused by the effects of climate change and also the acidification of the oceans. The current carbon dioxide output into the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fules is largely absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans. Together with sunlight H2O and CO2 produces a surplus of H+ ions which results into lower pH levels of the water. Delicate and slow adapting species like corals will have a big problem to cope with. At some point they produce only enough calcium to maintain their size and as the oceans are getting more and more acidic, it will become very difficult for corals to even grow.
Are the results of acidification something you can tackle with the technology you are using?
Yes, with the technology we are using and the support of electricity we spark the growth. Our corals are like on “steroids” since they are constantly pushed to grow. Therefore the calcification becomes much thicker and tougher. As a result the coral are stronger and even grow faster in order to become better prepared against ocean acidification and warmer waters. I know this isn’t a long term solution to save all the corals, but this is a shortcut until humanity realizes we need to reduce carbon dioxide outputs, since it is the global number one threat. On a local level, bad news for corals are fishermen who do dynamite fishing and use dragnets but also mass tourism that leads to over exploitation of these delicate natural resources.
How do you finance your organization?
At the moment I work for money during the summer doing all kinds of jobs. Coralive.org also does coral restoration projects for private entities like hotels or companies who would like to have a restored reef for snorkelers and divers. This creates cashflow for projects that Coralive.org can initiate with for example a local fishing community in a developing country. Parallel to that, I am applying for grants with foundations and associations in Switzerland but also worldwide. Hopefully at some point we will receive enough funding but for now – I mainly finance the projects myself. This is o.k. for me but I can’t continue like this for the rest of my life.
Who is one person you would love to work with?
Elon Musk from Tesla, is a really interesting and futuristic thinking guy plus he works with solar power. Since I need electricity to grow the corals, I would love to work with him. I am sure he could come up with some brilliant ideas on how to power my reefs autonomously or how to get it to work more efficiently.
What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you while building corals?
There was this one area in the Philippines where we restored a reef. Every morning, I was checking the corals on the structures where they are growing on and there was this one fish who always seemed to be around when I was diving. At some point I had the feeling that he was my friend, like my pet fish and that it knows me. I mean of course there was always some algae brushed off in the process and they knew they can easily get their food this way but I still felt there was some kind of a connection. I had moments where I was almost able to pet it. Those are really good memories and at the same time very rewarding.
What would you tell someone without an ocean background but who is still passionate about its protection and also wants to get engaged?
You can do a lot in your daily routine. Try to reduce plastic usage on a daily basis, fill up your water bottle, refuse straws in drinks, ride your bicycle or public transportation, don’t eat processed food or become a vegetarian since reducing the consumption of meat lowers your carbon footprint massively. Be creative, there are many things you can do.
If you want to become more of an activist, start by educating yourself through documentaries and blogs on the internet. A next step could be volunteering. Coralive.org does have volunteers. We can teach you how to dive, how to do coastal clean-ups, how important alternative livelihoods for local fisherfolks are, how we do coral restoration or just getting to know life under water much better. If that is interesting to you maybe continue to study marine biology or continue to work for an organization that really tries to make a difference. Just write us an email and we can help out.
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Unterwasserwelten supports sustainable development goal 14: Life below Water. Sustainable Development Goal Nr 14 focuses on conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. The interview was conducted by our team member Sonja Bichsel and is part of an interview series that was first launched in collaboration with Impact Hub Zurich.