Restoring Reefs and Making Waves in Sustainable Business

Gator Halpern has always loved the ocean. Growing up in the vibrant city of San Diego, Gator found comfort in dipping deep beneath the waves into the serene, slow-motion realm of the world’s biggest aquarium. Now, a decade later, Gator has parlayed his love of the sea into a burgeoning business, working to restore dying coral reefs in the Caribbean. And at only 27, he’s already making waves of his own in the sustainability sector.

Until now, coral restoration – the process of installing healthy corals into degrading reefs – has happened only on a small scale, mostly with the help of nonprofits and research institutes. However, Gator’s business, Coral Vita, recently opened the world’s first land-based, commercial coral farm in the Bahamas, and this model has the power to take coral restoration global. “It’s estimated 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be dead by 2050. In this crisis situation, highly technical solutions are essential,” said Gator.

For his innovative solutions in coral restoration, Gator received one of the United Nations’ Young Champions of the Earth awards in 2018. This award is powered by us to help support young people who have big ideas to protect or restore our environment.

As part of our interview series “You Can’t Feel Comfortable Leaving Your Comfort Zone. Why Not?”, Baratunde Thurston spoke to Gator to learn how Coral Vita expands the comfort zones of corals, improves the comfort zones of coastal communities, and merges sustainability with profitability to preserve the most precious comfort zone of all: our planet.

“The more we are able to work with our ecosystems and help them to adapt to future conditions, the more comfortable we will be.”

Expanding the comfort zones of corals

As the founder of a green club in high school and a contributor to multiple sustainable development projects in college, Gator has always advocated for harmony between society and nature. But the idea for a company dedicated to coral restoration wasn’t born until he met Sam Teicher at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where they both completed their master’s degrees. Fueled by their mutual love for the ocean, Gator and Sam founded Coral Vita in 2015.

Today, Coral Vita provides lifesaving treatments to the world’s dying reefs through a technique called “assisted evolution.” This process involves growing corals on land, training them to be resilient against the conditions threating their survival, and then transplanting them back into the sea. In the first part of our interview, Gator discusses his own comfort zone, the endangered comfort zones of corals, and the importance of preserving our ecosystems to create a more comfortable future for us all.

Talk to me about your own experience with comfort zones.

I feel extremely fortunate to have grown up in a place where I was relatively comfortable. I had everything I needed to live and get by. That allowed me the luxury to think about what I wanted to spend my life doing, rather than what I needed to spend my life doing. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to use my position of comfort to contribute to climate change action and hopefully make the world a more comfortable place for everyone.

It seems corals are included in your “everyone” because with the ocean temperature rising, things are becoming habitually uncomfortable for these corals.

Corals are in an incredibly dire state. All around the world, ocean temperatures are rising too quickly. When the ocean temperatures are too warm, corals expel their algae and turn white, a process called coral bleaching. If these bleaching events last for an extended period of time, the coral will eventually die. At our land-based coral farms, we’re trying to expand the comfort zones of corals. We train corals to survive and be comfortable in warmer ocean conditions.

It’s like a coral boot camp – coral conditioning. You are a trainer essentially.

Yes, we’re getting the corals ready for the oceans that threaten their survival. When we plant the corals back in the ocean, we know they have a much better chance of surviving the El Niño events of 2050 or 2100.

It sounds like what you are doing with the coral is a powerful metaphor for what we need to do with the human species: Train up for what’s to come, given challenges we will face with the environment.

A lot of change needs to happen in our generation and the generations to come. We have to adapt to new conditions. The more we are able to work with our ecosystems and help them to adapt to future conditions, the more comfortable we will be. We completely depend on our environment for a comfortable lifestyle.

Are you seeing any shifts in people’s understanding of this dependence? That we need the environment for everything we take for granted?

I don’t like the frame “we need the environment” as much as “we are part of the environment.” Our human species is just one small part of what makes the larger organism of earth. If we’re going to be comfortable within our environment, we need to respect it and try to take care of it. Slowly but surely, people are starting to understand this.

“The Young Champions of the Earth award provides us with an amazing platform to expand our operations from the Bahamas to the rest the world.”

Improving the comfort zones of coastal communities

Coral reefs are one of the world’s most important ecosystems, providing over $30 billion in global tourism value per year and supplying food for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. With coral vanishing alarmingly fast, many coastal communities are threatened with economic disaster. By running coral nurseries on land, Coral Vita overcomes key limitations of traditional ocean-based farming and provides a viable, scalable solution to the environmental, social, and economic issues of coral degradation.

Being awarded Young Champion of the Earth by the UN and Covestro, Gator plans to continue expanding Coral Vita and strengthening coral reefs around the world. In the second part of our interview, Gator explains how he felt to be nominated as a Young Champion of the Earth, his vision for the future, and his thoughts on the sustainable development Coral Vita is already accomplishing.

I feel excited to be sitting with a Young Champion of the Earth. Congratulations on that title! Did it come with a cape?

I haven’t gotten a cape yet, but it could be in the mail.

What did it feel like to join this community of people who, in some ways, literally save the world?

I am so humbled to have been named a Young Champion of the Earth. It’s quite a title to be bestowed with, and one day, I hope to be an old champion looking back on the successful work [that has been done] instead of the forward thinking [left to be done].

When you say “forward thinking,” did you take this award as recognition of the things you’ve already done or of all that you’ve yet to do?

A bit of both. I think this recognition shows Coral Vita’s potential to make a significant impact on the world’s ecosystem. This award also provides us with an amazing platform to expand our operations from the Bahamas to the rest the world. It gives us the opportunity to link with different governments, organizations, and businesses that can help us improve current coral farming practices and create new technologies. Through partnerships and innovation, we can make sure coral reefs are around for years to come.

You are helping achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through Coral Vita. What is your perspective on these goals and how do they affect your work?

The UNSDGs are a great way for people all over the world to begin working towards a shared vision of the future. At Coral Vita, we embrace many of these goals. “Climate action” and “life below water” are two obvious SDGs we work towards, but there are others that are more under the surface. For example, fishing villages depend on healthy reefs for their food and livelihoods. That means coral restoration can help reduce poverty and hunger. Additionally, coral reefs provide natural coastal protection, so restoring these reefs helps build sustainable communities. In total, coral reefs provide coastal communities with over $30 billion in tourism each year. Of that $30 billion, some comes from “on-reef” tourism like diving and snorkeling. Other revenues come from “reef-adjacent” tourism, which includes everything from enjoying beautiful beaches to eating local seafood. These activities are all made possible by the sheltering effect of the reefs.

“Climate change is happening so fast, and the power of business and technology is absolutely necessary to create a more sustainable economy.”

Preserving the most precious comfort zone of all

With coral reefs vanishing at twice the rate of rainforests, Gator understands the need to build a profitable business around coral restoration. Today, Coral Vita has two revenue streams. On the Grand Bahama, the coral farm is designed as a tourist attraction, and visitors can pay to be part of an adopt-a-coral program. In addition, funding also comes from resorts and businesses that benefit from preserving coral reefs near their properties.

In the last part of our interview, Gator shares why aligning sustainability with profitability is necessary to restore the reefs, sustain the economy, and preserve our planet.

Coral Vita is a for-profit company, not an NGO, not a charity, not a GoFundMe. But you are doing charitable things. Why did you set this up as a business?

We built a business model around reef restoration very intentionally. From our perspective, we see that 50% of the world’s reefs have already died. By mid-century, we project over 90% of reefs will be dead.

Wow...

Reef degradation is an enormous global issue. In order to make a significant difference and keep the world’s coral reefs alive for generations to come, there has to be an industry around reef restoration. We need stakeholders to invest in reef restoration, and it’s an incredibly valuable thing for them to invest in. There is a lot of economic benefit generated by these reefs.

Talk to me about that value. Who’s your customer base and what are you selling?

We sell reef restoration to any stakeholder who benefits from having a healthy reef. On a small scale, that could be resorts, hotels, developers, or cruise lines. On a larger scale, it could be governments, international development agencies, large corporations, or the insurance industry that benefits from the reef’s coastal protection.

Because the reefs act as a barrier against big waves from storms?

Exactly. Reefs are a natural sea wall. The best sea wall that has ever been built on earth is built out of coral. During storm surges and hurricanes, waves will actually break on coral instead of breaking on land. But when the coral reef dies, those waves erode the land and devastate communities.

It seems like you could have a nice Mafioso type of business. [Laughing] Approach a coastal resort development and say, “That’s a nice resort you got. It would be a shame if something happened to it.”
[Laughing] Well, sadly, things are already happening in these communities. On the island we work on, Grand Bahama, the largest resort and casino shut down due to hurricane damage. The government also had to build a massive sea wall on the beach because a road washed away from erosion. These damages can partially be contributed to the degradation of the reef offshore.

What do you think about the concept of balance between business growth and a positive environmental impact? It seems it’s possible, but there are cases where it isn’t?

Business often comes at the cost of the environment, but I think this is detrimental to both realms. If businesses ignore the environmental impact of their work, the future of business in general will be less profitable and more difficult in our degraded environment. Climate change is happening so fast, and the power of business and technology is absolutely necessary to create a more sustainable economy. We just have to choose to value that impact.

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