Engineering Ecological Resilience in Near Shore and Coastal Areas

Coral reefs, mangrove forests, and coastal wetlands represent some of the most biologically diverse habitats on earth, but we are overwhelming the intrinsic capacity of these ecosystems to adapt and survive.
Open for Entries

The Problem

Coastal Ecosystems—coral reefs, mangrove forests, and coastal wetlands—are facing constant pressures, coupled with chance events, that threaten their survival. They face the stress of human development, including pollution from industrial and agricultural activity, pressures from tourism, and destructive resource extraction, which are magnified by the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, increased storm energy, and acidification. Due to these stressors, the critical ecological functions of these habitats continue to be lost at alarming rates. How can we improve the capacity of these systems to respond to stochastic perturbations, in the face of increasing deterministic pressures?

The Challenge

Engineer resilience of near shore & coastal ecosystems (coastal wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs) against greater perturbations of stress, reduce & reverse proximate stressors, and restore degraded habitats through science, technology, and innovation. Specifically, this challenge seeks innovations that:

  1. Enhance ecological resilience to perturbation and accelerate adaptation to global climate change and local stressors through molecular and microbiological engineering
  2. Identify, reduce, and reverse proximate drivers for habitat degradation and destruction through new financial and infrastructure innovations
  3. Restore degraded coral reefs, coastal wetlands, and mangroves through ecological engineering

Problem Statement

Coral reefs, mangrove forests, and coastal wetlands represent some of the most biologically diverse and productive habitats on earth. Coastal wetlands (which include salt marshes, sea grass beds, and mangrove swamps) provide critical habitat to wildlife, filter out pollutants, and serve as nurseries for fisheries. Coral reefs similarly provide habitat, spawning, and nurseries to multiple fish species and are immense warehouses of biological diversity. Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species, with perhaps an even greater number of species yet to be discovered. These three coastal habitats are critical to humans as well. They offer food and livelihoods, provide coastal armament, store carbon, assist with nutrient cycling, provide important geophysical regulatory services and harbor novel pharmaceutical compounds that have provided treatments for cancer, HIV, and malaria.

However, these ecosystems are in danger due to human activities that are intense and increasing; 50% of salt marshes, 35% of mangroves, and 29% of sea grasses have been either lost or degraded worldwide. More than 60% of the world’s reefs are under immediate and direct threat, and tropical reefs have already lost more than half of their reef-building corals over the last 30 years. Reefs are threatened by coastal development and habitat destruction, watershed-based pollution, marine pollution, and overfishing and destructive fishing through the use of explosives and cyanide. Thirty-five percent of mangroves have been lost due to clearance for aquaculture or agriculture, overharvest for firewood and construction, and pollution. Global climate change further stresses these ecosystems, exacerbating local threats through changes in sea level, ocean temperature, ocean circulation, and acidity.

There is great concern that the high rates, magnitudes, and complexity of environmental change—including habitat degradation, pollutants, resource use, and climate change—are overwhelming the intrinsic capacity of corals, wetlands, and mangroves to adapt and survive. Although it is important to address the root causes of changing climate, it is also prudent to explore the potential to augment the capacity of reef and coastal organisms to tolerate stress and to facilitate recovery after disturbances. For all these ecosystems, the ability to understand the rate and drivers of change and reverse them, to adapt to changes under way, and to restore already degraded habitats is critical to ensuring long-term persistence.

Respond to this Challenge!

Going from an idea to a tangible solution is no easy task.

Share your project on the Digital Makerspace to shape and improve your idea. You’ll benefit from the technical expertise of the Tribe and connect to additional financial and technical resources. We’ll help you navigate the tech development process and identify market opportunities. Through collaboration, we build conservation solutions that are impactful and have the potential to scale.


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Barbara Martinez [270]
Open Innovation Director
Conservation X Labs
Baltimore, United States