As part of International Year of the Reef, we spoke to Dr. Mary Hagedorn, Director of MarineGEO Hawaii and creator of the first genome repository for endangered coral species, who gave us a "call-to-arms about the future of our life on the planet".
What is your typical day?
My typical day often starts out in a boat where I am motoring over to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in their launch to my laboratory on Coconut Island. This marine laboratory is one of the best in the world for studying coral because we are surrounded by acres of coral reefs and have excellent tools for studying their biology.
A lot of my time is spent writing and talking to people to help fund my work but my summers are filled with field work where we collect coral in the Bay, bring them into our seawater tanks and then study their reproduction.
It can be exhilarating when everything goes as planned. However, it is often very tiring physically; it’s hard work and there are lots of long hours without a lot of sleep, as there are many, many long nights and early mornings involved in this type of endeavor.
Dr. Hagedorn is the Director of MarineGEO Hawaii, a global near-shore long-term monitoring program, J Daniels
When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?
I started working on coral reef preservation as the result of an accident, on an expedition in the Amazon in 2002. This accident altered my view of safety for expeditions in such remote areas.
I was already working on the cryopreservation of fishes in the laboratory and decided that this same approach would be useful and needed for coral reefs in the future.
What inspires you in your work?
I am a futurist. I am always looking to the future to see how my science can make life better for people and animals.
When I first started my work, few people saw the value or need for banking coral. Today’s students see a direct connection to their lives, so I am inspired to continue by their interest and enthusiasm.
If 40 years from now, kids get to see a coral reef as a result of my work that is a great thing to contemplate and gives me a great sense of satisfaction.
The Smithsonian Institute's MarineGEO on Coconut Island is also home to the HawaiÊ»i Institute of Marine Biology., Smithsonian Institute
What would your message for the future of reefs be?
To me, the future of our reefs is really a call-to-arms about the future of our life on the planet.
We may think that saving species, especially marine species, is something that other people must figure out because the ocean seems so distant, vast and unapproachable. However, all our individual actions impact the Earth in some way. Even though we are one of a collective of billions of people on Earth, our footprints matter. So, I would urge all people who love the ocean for any reason take responsibility for our own actions and impacts.
A critical first step is starting to imagine how these impacts will affect future generations.
I try to imagine what life on Earth will be like without coral reefs. Will we have fish? Will more people be hungry because there are fewer fish? Will our oceans be less able to produce oxygen because reefs are degraded? I see all these scenes very clearly.
It does not mean that it will happen, but it drives me to move forward with my work. My feeling is that unless we can band together in a moral imperative across nations, we will not be able to save our reefs.
What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?
Although this may sound odd, one of my favorite creatures on the reef is the sea urchin embryo. They are amazingly beautiful and fascinating.
They develop eight arms as they grow and swim around like unearthly underwater starships. From there they develop into some of the most essential creatures on the reefs - herbivores. These keep the reefs from being overrun by algae. Sea urchins will be some of the most important components to keep reefs intact for the future, and it all starts with these beautiful little spaceships.
Sea urchin larvae develop eight arms as they grow and swim around like unearthly underwater starships, Elizabeth Lenz
What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?
I can’t imagine anything in nature being odd.
What’s the next big thing for your work?
Coral have some of the most restricted reproduction on the planet. Most coral spawn once a year for 45 mins each of two nights. This is a very short time window to figure out how to collect and preserve them. Unfortunately, bleaching is now becoming more common on most reefs, and this stress is damaging coral reproduction.
For example, last year we organised a field expedition to Mo'orea and the coral did not even spawn. This is both expensive and disheartening. As a result, we are initiating a new project to cryopreserve tiny fragments of coral, we call them micro-fragments.
If this is successful, we can work anywhere in the world at any time to help freeze coral. We are hoping that, once thawed, these tiny fragments of coral will quickly grow into mature coral in a few years that can reproduce.
Freezing micro-fragments will allow us to work more quickly, and train more people more broadly to help create these essential cryobanks. It is crucial to gather these frozen collections while the genetic diversity on the reefs is still broad.
Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?
One of my heroes is Ken Nedimyer. Ken embodies the ethic of ‘going out and trying to help fix the world one person at a time’. He is an amazing person. His work on coral restoration using coral trees, and his inspiration to a generation of people working in the field, has helped turn around a major loss of coral coverage in the Caribbean.