• Todd Petrella

Coral Reefs Are Dying, But This Intelligent Student Can Save Them

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

This week, I'll be going over an interview with a former classmate, about their idea to restore coral reef habitats.

Coral reef with fish swimming around

Coral reefs are some of the most beautiful and biodiverse habitats on our planet. They serve as a home to many marine flora and fauna, from fish ad eels to crustaceans and anemones, providing food and shelter for all these creatures. Not only do they serve a utilitarian purpose, but as I mentioned before, coral reefs are gorgeous places. Many coral reefs serve as tourist attractions. Coral can take several different shapes, colors, structures, etc, and when a bunch of it comes together to form a reef, coral creates an environment reminiscent of a bustling, neon city.


Regrettably, however, coral reefs are suffering and dying, much like many other things on our planet. All the trash, chemicals, and other pollutants floating around in the ocean, and even global warming, have damaged coral reefs globally, causing them to “bleach”, the act of having the algae in corals’ tissue expelled, causing them to turn white. Bleached coral is not dead coral, but bleached coral is under more stress, and therefore subject to mortality. And if the coral were to die, all the other marine life that depends on it would have to either adapt quickly and find some new shelter, or be subject to natural selection. This would be very bad, and would slowly but surely lead to many global problems, as many higher players in the food chain rely on the species that rely on the coral.

Healthy yellow coral with fish swimming around it
Healthy coral - Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels
Bleached coral reef
Bleached coral reef

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia is the world’s largest coral reef, is home to over 1500 marine species, is a World Heritage Site, and so much more! But like most other coral reefs out there, the Great Barrier Reef is suffering from damages and bleaching as a result of pollution and ocean warming. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently lowered the status of the GBR from “significant concern” to “critical”. The loss of this reef would be felt all over the world.


This post has gotten rather dreary, so let me provide you with some hope and good news! If you recall, I recently posted about plastic-consuming mushrooms and a project I did in the Ratcliffe Eco-Entrepreneurial Fellows class involving them (if you missed it, read up on it here). In that class, I had the pleasure of working alongside Samuel Koeck, a fellow student at the University of Delaware, as well as one of the winners of the REEF (Ha! Get it?) Award, who’s idea and project was based on the conservation and rehabilitation of coral reefs. Called Coral Connectors, Sam is hoping to create 3D printed bases that resemble small bits of coral. The idea is to use them as a base for coral larvae to live on, grow, and expand in the hopes of restoring and rehabilitating reefs that have been devastated by climate change and pollution.


Recently, I had the chance to interview Sam and ask him a few questions about Coral Connectors. What follows after this paragraph are the questions and answers from said interview.


Before diving into Coral Connectors, let’s talk about Sam a little bit. Who is Sam? Samuel Koeck is a junior in the dean’s scholar program in marine science and mechanical engineering from Connecticut. Passionate about the marine environment, he decided to come to UD after learning that UD has a pretty good marine science program. He also really likes using new and innovative technologies to help conserve and restore marine habitats. Hopefully, it’s clear why he decided to create Coral Connectors. So, now that we know a little bit about Sam, let us move on to Coral Connectors.

Samuel Koeck

How did you come up with Coral Connectors?

Two years ago, Sam interned for a shoreline restoration company in Connecticut. The area he worked in was once devastated by lead pollution for 30 years. Although the lead was removed, the process destroyed a nearby marshland, which served as a barrier for erosion. With the marsh gone, the shoreline began to erode, and Sam was tasked with finding out a way to prevent this erosion. Using bese elements (small starch-based sheets that grass can be planted in that also provide support for the roots) and other erosion mitigation tools, Sam and his team were able to build an ecosystem on the shoreline, something that would not have been possible if they were to simply build a concrete wall. The creation of the ecosystem, the use of bese elements, and knowledge of reef balls are what sparked Sam’s interest in artificial coral reef development. After a couple more projects revolving around marine and ocean wellbeing, and working with other like-minded individuals, Sam was motivated to create a product that would help the ocean. REEF was the final push that led to Coral Connectors.


What challenges did you experience along the way?

The biggest challenge Sam said he faced was figuring out who his market would be. He described it as “foggily-defined”. This is due to the fact that there’s usually 2 things artificial reefs are used for: erosion or habitat restoration. Sam needed to figure out what he wanted to do; he has a passion for habitat restoration, but he also knows that erosion is an important thing to be monitored. Another challenge he faced was coming up with the design of the coral connector. After much thought, he set his mind on his passion of habitat restoration, and based the initial coral connector design on a coral species called Pocillopora damicornis, a strong reef building coral that fish and other corals really like.


Did you ever think about pivoting?

He wouldn’t say that he pivoted, but Sam did consider moving into the erosion market rather than the restoration market after discussing his thoughts with an advisor. However, he ultimately decided to stick with his original idea, saying that what he really wanted to do was to build habitats, and his time would be better spent doing that. (I respect that decision a lot.)


Tell me about the Make It Happen Challenge.

You might recall that this is one of the competitions that UP Cycle Design participated in this spring. I covered that in another blog post, which you can read for yourself here. Sam also competed in this competition, and placed with UP Cycle Design.


“That was really good! I really enjoyed that!” Sam exclaimed when I asked him to tell me about his experience. He was really nervous, especially when seeing how well Sierra and Michelle did pitching Up Cycle. In the end though, he pulled through, and received a prize package. This enabled him to begin learning about 3D printing from the super helpful faculty at the Maker Gym, allowed him to create his first prototype, and made his idea more convincing. In his own words, Sam said that he “couldn’t have made the progress he did without the Maker Gym.”

Sam's prototype coral connector based on Pocillopra damicornis
Sam's prototype - Based on Pocillopora damicornis
Organic Pocillopora damicornis for comparison
Real Pocillopora damicornis for comparison

How did it feel to win the REEF Award?

“Really exciting!” Winning the award is allowing Sam to continue development on Coral Connectors, which he is really hyped up about. He’s not sure if it will be a successful business or not, but he’s fine with it either way. Sam is hoping that he can develop this idea enough that if his business does fail (or he decides to take a different life path), enough progress and development will be made so that others can pick the concept up, innovate it, and enact it for the successful restoration and rehabilitation of coral reefs.


What are you currently working on/ next steps?

Not too much time has passed since the REEF competition, but Sam has already put a development plan in place. Understandably, he did not give too much detail, but he’s currently outlining a plan to begin testing in the field and putting a team together. After that, he’s just “going from there.”


And that concludes the interview! I had a great time talking to Sam and learning more about marine life, coral, and Coral Connectors. I am excited and looking forward to seeing how he develops this idea for the future. Hopefully, someday we’ll all see something like “Coral Connectors Saves The Great Barrier Reef.” That would be astounding. Sam definitely has the potential to do that. And if anybody would like to reach out to Sam and contact him firsthand, you can do so by emailing him at skoeck@udel.edu.


I hope you guys enjoyed this interview and learning about Sam and Coral Connectors! Feel free to share your thoughts, ideas, and opinions down in the comments below. As always, thank you so much for reading, and we hope you have an amazing weekend!


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