Science: Ruth Gates

Saving Hawai‘i’s Reefs
ruth gates takes a break at her research facility on coconut Island in kāne‘ohe bay. 
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


As a string of isolated islands in the middle of the Pacific, Hawai‘i is certain to be affected by the climate change that’s predicted in the next several decades.


It’s easy to feel like the problem is larger than any one of us, but marine biologist Ruth Gates is doing her part to help Hawai‘i, and other coastal areas, adapt to the unpredictable and potentially ill effects of rising temperatures and oceans—by figuring out how to save reefs.


She’s been researching coral, the tiny invertebrates that build reefs, for years, and in 2015 locked down $4 million in funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation for a five-year project that aims to make these colonies hardier and more resilient.


Here’s the pitch: Coral reefs are vital because they provide a home for at least a quarter of all marine species, and also protect the shoreline from the erosion of ocean waves. Unfortunately, they’re also fragile; warmer-than-usual waters can bleach and kill off the coral organisms, allowing reef structures to disintegrate. (Also dangerous: human interaction, pollution and agricultural and urban runoff.)


Some corals are tougher than others, though. “There are places like Kāne‘ohe Bay where the corals are 100-percent cover,” Gates says. “It’s the least expected place for that; it was a devastatingly polluted place for a very long time. And yet these corals seem to be extremely healthy and they’ve just made it through two major bleaching events.”


What if you could transplant some of that super coral into other, ailing stretches of reef, to jumpstart that reef’s recovery or even grow an entire new colony of coral?


Gates’ project, operating at the UH Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island, is modeling the stresses that coral can face and plans to speed up the course of evolution, selectively breeding stronger, better strains.


If things go well, we may be able to move strong, healthy corals into endangered reefs. These corals would potentially breed with the existing population, raising the entire reef’s resilience, supporting the larger ocean ecosphere and protecting coastlines from erosion.


“I think this project breaks the inertia that people feel about the magnitude of the problem of climate change,” Gates says. “I can do something. I’m a biologist and I’m taking my skill set and throwing it at this question. We’re trying to highlight two things: We can act. And we should.”