• coral reef california academy of sciences
    © California Academy of Sciences and Luiz Rocha
  • Dr. Rebecca Albright
    Dr. Rebecca Albright, new Academy curator
  • Dr. Pim Bongaerts, new Academy curator
    Dr. Pim Bongaerts, new Academy curator

SAN FRANCISCO (May 4, 2016) – Global coral reefs have a powerful new champion in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The California Academy of Sciences has announced an unprecedented $8.5 million investment in reversing the degradation and potential collapse of coral reefs worldwide. Building upon the Academy’s longstanding efforts to explore, explain, and sustain reefs from the South China Sea to Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, the pioneering coral reef initiative adds two world-renowned coral experts—Drs. Rebecca Albright and Pim Bongaerts—as Academy curators, and greatly expands the institution’s leadership in exploring and understanding reefs, advancing coral reef science by decades, and opening an ambitious suite of museum exhibits and educational programs to the public. This work is supported by visionary donors taking action before life-supporting coral reefs are lost forever.

“We’re thrilled to announce the Academy’s bold new plan to help save Earth’s coral reefs,” says Academy Executive Director Dr. Jonathan Foley. “Reef ecosystems represent less than 0.1 percent of the ocean yet house more than a quarter of all marine biodiversity. And they are facing critical threats. The Academy is perfectly poised to avert disaster with innovative science-based solutions, and we are kicking off those efforts by welcoming two of the world’s brightest coral scientists—Rebecca and Pim—to help lead the charge.”

The initial $8.5 million investment in the Academy’s coral reef initiative was announced at the institution’s Big Bang Gala last Thursday, April 28. During the after-hours event in Golden Gate Park, attendees—including many longtime Academy donors and conservationists—crowdfunded additional support for Steinhart Aquarium’s upcoming Coral Reefs of the World exhibit opening to the public on June 10, 2016. The immersive new exhibit, which includes a wing dedicated to Academy research in mesophotic “twilight zone” reefs, represents an important first step in engaging the public on the multi-year coral reef exploration and conservation efforts already under way.

Priceless reefs under threat

The Academy’s new initiative launches at a critical moment for global oceans. Nearly 75% of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by the combined impacts of overfishing, habitat destruction, water pollution, climate change, and ocean acidification. Often called the “rainforests of the sea,” reefs provide critical marine habitat and vital ecological services that support the livelihood and well-being of billions of people worldwide. All told, it is estimated that coral reefs provide human societies with vital goods and services worth several hundred billion dollars per year. With experts announcing the “worst bleaching event” in Great Barrier Reef history alongside predictions that another 30% of global reefs will die off in the next 30 years, the Academy is taking action to protect life-giving reefs in peril worldwide.

“The impacts of climate change and ocean acidification are systemic, global-scale challenges. And solving these issues will require new approaches,” says Academy Ichthyology Curator Dr. Luiz Rocha, co-leader of the Academy’s new initiative with Steinhart Aquarium Director (and fellow twilight zone expert) Bart Shepherd. “The Academy is gathering the sharpest minds and greatest outreach tools to help shift the coral reef story from tragedy to hope,” adds Rocha. “We know that it takes concerned citizens, policymakers, global leaders, and passionate scientists like Rebecca and Pim to move the needle.”

World-changing ocean experts

The Academy is thrilled to welcome Dr. Rebecca Albright as its newest curator in August of 2016. Albright, a former researcher at Stanford’s Carnegie Institution for Science, is a world-renowned coral reef biologist. Her research on the ability of coral reefs to cope with change ingeniously digs into the twin climate issues of ocean acidification and warming seas.

Albright’s work spans the academic, government, and nonprofit sectors, and has transported her to coral reefs from the Florida Keys to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. She works across scales (from single cell interactions to reef-scale processes) and disciplines (biology, ecology, biogeochemistry) to foster a systems-level understanding of how coral reef ecosystems will fare in today's changing world.

“Rebecca’s research exemplifies a growth area for the Academy in solutions-based science that greatly complements our assets in biodiversity exploration, evolutionary biology, and natural history,” says Dr. Shannon Bennett, the Academy’s Chief of Science. “It didn’t take us long to learn that her myriad talents extend beyond both lab and field. In addition to her commitment to research, Rebecca’s passion for community engagement will advance the Academy’s growing citizen science and education outreach efforts. We have no doubt that Rebecca’s leadership in science communication will similarly expand the impact of Academy research on a global scale.”

The Academy is also honored to welcome Dr. Pim Bongaerts to its curatorial team. Bongaerts, a coral reef scientist at The University of Queensland, will serve as an Academy Research Associate until officially joining the Academy following a fellowship in Australia.

As one of the world’s leading experts on mesophotic coral reefs, Bongaerts explores hundreds of feet beneath the shallow reefs that dominate modern research. Scientists know very little about the biodiversity and ecology of twilight zone reefs, the genetic connection between their shallow-water counterparts, or the ways these twilight zone ecosystems are responding to changing ocean conditions. Bongaerts’ work takes him throughout the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific, where he zeroes in on the health and biodiversity of mesophotic reefs—200 to 500 feet beneath the ocean’s surface—to understand their vulnerability to warming oceans and climate change. The Academy’s Center for Comparative Genomics will play an important role in his future projects; Bongaerts is known for his work using genetic information locked in coral DNA to explore how reefs are connected, and how those connections might sustain them in a changing world.

“When both Rebecca and Pim decided to join the Academy, they completed a critical team for solving the future for global coral reef systems,” says Bennett. “Rebecca’s work on the ecological responses of corals to climate change coupled with Pim’s evolutionary focus on the connections between mesophotic reefs and shallow ecosystems as a mechanism for resilience will perfectly complement the Academy’s current work on the rich diversity of coral reef systems using state-of-the-art underwater technologies and genomics. We’re excited to watch Pim, Rebecca, and our incredible research staff help bridge the gaps between scientists, world leaders, and a non-expert public in charge of shaping the future.”

Game-changing plans to protect and restore global reefs

From local California discoveries to large-scale expeditions to the Philippines, Academy scientists are no strangers to global reefs or the collaborative work involved in effective conservation. While the new coral reef initiative—led by Shepherd and Rocha—leverages deep investments the Academy has made through decades of work, Executive Director Foley calls the bold action plan a “game changer.” Reinvigorated by donor support, the Academy is exploring unknown mesophotic reef frontiers, implementing novel approaches to coral restoration, and sharing its work with the museum guests in Twilight Zone: Deep Reefs Revealed (opening June 10).

Mesophotic reef exploration is in full swing; Academy scientists are currently diving to mysterious, half-lit twilight zone reefs around the world. In these narrow bands of deep reefs, animals live in partial darkness, well beyond recreational diving limits yet above the deep trenches patrolled by submarines and ROVs. Reaching extreme depths requires Academy divers to push the boundaries of both technology and the human body, using closed-circuit "rebreathers" that extend the amount of time they can spend underwater. This year, the team is bringing a dazzling array of live fishes, corals, and jelly-like creatures safely to the surface and back to Steinhart Aquarium for Twilight Zone.

“We need to understand these deeper reefs, which have been largely unexplored by scientists until now, because they may hold the key to how the oceans respond to climate change and changing ocean chemistry,” says Foley. “If reef species can go deeper, trading light for cooler temperatures and calmer waters, they might buy some time in the face of future global environmental change.”

The initial $8.5 million investment constitutes the first phase of the Academy’s expansive coral reef initiative, which includes roughly 20 future expeditions to Earth’s most remote and unknown reefs. Back on dry land, the Academy is partnering with SECORE International to dramatically accelerate the world’s knowledge of coral biology and develop advanced techniques for coral reef restoration, using sexual reproduction and large-scale cultivation. Already global leaders in this field, the Academy and SECORE will continue to develop and apply science-based technologies to increase survival of coral reefs on a global scale. This unique mix of scientific expertise, world-leading ocean exploration skills, on-the-ground conservation efforts, world-class aquarium and coral culturing facilities, and innovative educational platforms will give critical marine ecosystems the science-based help—and global attention—they deserve.

The first phase of the Academy's global coral reef initiative is made possible through the support of visionary donors. The Academy gratefully acknowledges the partners listed below.

  • William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation
  • Eva and Bill Price
  • Diana Nelson and John C. Atwater
  • Dalio Ocean Initiative
  • Jennifer Caldwell and John H. N. Fisher
  • Charlotte and Nick Giovanni
  • Hellman Foundation
  • Laura and Peter Fenton
About the California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences is a renowned scientific and educational institution dedicated to exploring, explaining and sustaining life on Earth. Based in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, it is home to a world-class aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum, as well as innovative programs in scientific research and education—all under one living roof.

About Research at the California Academy of Sciences

The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to understand two of the most important topics of our time: the nature and sustainability of life on Earth. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 400 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analysis of vast biological datasets, the Institute’s scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for sustaining them into the future. Through innovative partnerships and public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical sustainability and conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.

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