Scientists Are Grasping at Straws While Trying to Protect Infant Corals from Fish

This  July 26, 2023 image provided by phade® by WinCup, Inc., shows a "Coral Fort," made of biodegradable drinking straws that researchers are using to prevent laboratory-grown coral from becoming really expensive fish food, off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.  (Chris Gug/phade® by WinCup, Inc. via AP)
This July 26, 2023 image provided by phade® by WinCup, Inc., shows a "Coral Fort," made of biodegradable drinking straws that researchers are using to prevent laboratory-grown coral from becoming really expensive fish food, off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Chris Gug/phade® by WinCup, Inc. via AP)
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Scientists Are Grasping at Straws While Trying to Protect Infant Corals from Fish

This  July 26, 2023 image provided by phade® by WinCup, Inc., shows a "Coral Fort," made of biodegradable drinking straws that researchers are using to prevent laboratory-grown coral from becoming really expensive fish food, off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.  (Chris Gug/phade® by WinCup, Inc. via AP)
This July 26, 2023 image provided by phade® by WinCup, Inc., shows a "Coral Fort," made of biodegradable drinking straws that researchers are using to prevent laboratory-grown coral from becoming really expensive fish food, off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Chris Gug/phade® by WinCup, Inc. via AP)

South Florida researchers trying to prevent predatory fish from devouring laboratory-grown coral are grasping at biodegradable straws in an effort to restore what some call the rainforest of the sea.
Scientists around the world have been working for years to address the decline of coral reef populations. Just last summer, reef rescue groups in South Florida and the Florida Keys were trying to save coral from rising ocean temperatures. Besides working to keep existing coral alive, researchers have also been growing new coral in labs and then placing them in the ocean.
But protecting the underwater ecosystem that maintains upwards of 25% of all marine species is not easy. Even more challenging is making sure that coral grown in a laboratory and placed into the ocean doesn't become expensive fish food.
Marine researcher Kyle Pisano said one problem is that predators like parrot fish attempt to bite and destroy the newly transplanted coral in areas like South Florida, leaving them with less than a 40% survival rate. With projects calling for thousands of coral to be planted over the next year and tens of thousands of coral to be planted over the next decade, the losses add up when coral pieces can cost more than $100 each.
Pisano and his partner, Kirk Dotson, have developed the Coral Fort, claiming the small biodegradable cage that's made in part with drinking straws boosts the survival rate of transplanted coral to over 90%.
"Parrot fish on the reef really, really enjoy biting a newly transplanted coral," Pisano said. “They treat it kind of like popcorn."
Fortunately the fish eventually lose interest in the coral as it matures, but scientists need to protect the coral in the meantime. Stainless steel and PVC pipe barriers have been set up around transplanted coral in the past, but those barriers needed to be cleaned of algae growth and eventually removed.
Pisano had the idea of creating a protective barrier that would eventually dissolve, eliminating the need to maintain or remove it. He began conducting offshore experiments with biodegradable coral cages as part of a master’s degree program at Nova Southeastern University. He used a substance called polyhydroxyalkanoate, a biopolymer derived from the fermentation of canola oil. PHA biodegrades in ocean, leaving only water and carbon dioxide. His findings were published last year.
The coral cage consists of a limestone disc surrounded by eight vertical phade brand drinking straws, made by Atlanta-based WinCup Inc. The device doesn't have a top, Pisano said, because the juvenile coral needs sunlight and the parrot fish don't generally want to position themselves facing downward to eat.
Dotson, a retired aerospace engineer, met Pisano through his professor at Nova Southeastern, and the two formed Reef Fortify Inc. to further develop and market the patent-pending Coral Fort. The first batch of cages were priced at $12 each, but Pisano and Dotson believe that could change as production scales up.
Early prototypes of the cage made from phade's standard drinking straws were able to protect the coral for about two months before dissolving in the ocean, but that wasn't quite long enough to outlast the interest of parrot fish. When Pisano and Dotson reached out to phade for help, the company assured them that it could make virtually any custom shape from its biodegradable PHA material.
“But it’s turning out that the boba straws, straight out of the box, work just fine,” Dotson said.
Boba straws are wider and thicker than normal drinking straws. They're used for a tea-based drink that includes tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup. For Pisano and Dotson, that extra thickness means the straws last just long enough to protect the growing coral before harmlessly disappearing.
Reef Fortify is hoping to work with reef restoration projects all over the world. The Coral Forts already already being used by researchers at Nova Southeastern and the University of Miami, as well as Hawaii's Division of Aquatic Resources.
Rich Karp, a coral researcher at the University of Miami, said they've been using the Coral Forts for about a month. He pointed out that doing any work underwater takes a great deal of time and effort, so having a protective cage that dissolves when it's no longer needed basically cuts their work in half.
"Simply caging corals and then removing the cages later, that’s two times the amount of work, two times the amount of bottom time," Karp said. "And it’s not really scalable.”
Experts say coral reefs are a significant part of the oceanic ecosystem. They occupy less than 1% of the ocean worldwide but provide food and shelter to nearly 25 percent of sea life.



What is China's Panda Diplomacy and How Does it Work?

Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)
Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)
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What is China's Panda Diplomacy and How Does it Work?

Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)
Wang Wang the panda is seen during China's Premier Li Qiang's visit to the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake / POOL / AFP)

During a visit to Australia this week, Chinese Premier Li Qiang made a classic goodwill gesture that boded well for relations between the two countries: he offered to send pandas.
The offer comes as ties between Australia and its largest trading partner improve after a diplomatic dispute that led to China imposing a raft of restrictions on Australian agricultural and mineral exports in 2020.
Native to China, pandas have through the years become "envoys of friendship", earning China's outreach to countries it gifts the animals to the name of panda diplomacy, Reuters said.
They have also been used to show Chinese anger.
So what is panda diplomacy and how does it work?
WHEN DID PANDA DIPLOMACY START?
Since its founding in 1949, the People's Republic of China has used panda diplomacy to boost its international image, either by gifting or lending panda to foreign zoos as goodwill animal ambassadors.
Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1957 gifted a panda, Ping Ping, to the former Soviet Union to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution that ushered in the Soviet regime.
To further cement ties with its socialist allies, China dispatched another panda to the Soviet Union in 1959 and five more to North Korea between 1965 and 1980.
In 1972, Beijing gifted two pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, to the United States after then President Richard Nixon's historic visit, in a sign of normalized China-US relations and marking a pivotal moment for China's foreign policy.
Since then, other countries including Japan, France, Britain and Spain have also been given panda.
WHAT'S THE PANDA DIPLOMACY POLICY?
Since 1984, China stopped gifting pandas due to their dwindling numbers and began loaning them to overseas zoos instead, often in pairs for 10 years, with an annual fee of up to about $1 million.
While keeping pandas can be costly for zoos, they are seen as drawcards for visitors and help generate income.
The pandas typically return home to southwest China after the loan agreement ends. Panda cubs born overseas are no exception, and would be sent home between the age of two and four to join a Chinese breeding program.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
China has a history of using pandas to reward its trading partners. A 2013 Oxford University study said the timing of China's lease of pandas to Canada, France and Australia "coincided with" uranium deals and contracts with these countries.
The panda agreements with other countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, also coincided with the signing of free-trade agreements.
Sometimes, pandas are also used to express China's displeasure with a nation.
In 2010, China recalled two US-born pandas, Tai Shan and Mei Lan, after Beijing warned Washington against a scheduled meeting between then-President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, which Beijing views as a dangerous separatist.
In a recent downturn in bilateral ties, Ya Ya, on loan to the US for 20 years, was returned in April 2023.
Concerns over her health had also fanned nationalist sentiment on China's social media, with animal advocates accusing the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee of providing inadequate care to the animal.
In November last year, three other pandas left, leaving only four giant pandas on US soil.
That month, Chinese President Xi Jinping then hinted that he was open to sending more pandas to the US after meeting with President Joe Biden in California, a gesture seen as Chinese willingness to improve ties.
ARE PANDAS STILL ENDANGERED?
China's domestic conservation programs have seen the status of pandas improve from endangered to vulnerable.
The population of giant pandas in the wild has grown from around 1,100 in the 1980s to 1,900 in 2023.
There are currently 728 pandas in zoos and breeding centers around the world.