Dog may be man’s best friend, but Dave Lackland’s favorite pal is that underappreciated little invertebrate called coral. Yes, it’s animal, not plant, one that supports nearly one-third of all marine animal life, despite the fact that it spreads over less than one percent of the earth’s surface. Lackland, a coral culture biologist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in the Florida Keys, grows 24 species of coral in 20 tanks to help replace the ocean’s rapidly dwindling population. But recently, Lackland noticed an incongruity. He was working to right an environmental wrong, but wasting a lot of resources to do it — heating the water, running the pumps. To create artificial sunlight, he was using 1,000- watt, $275 light bulbs, which needed replacing twice a year.

So Lackland decided to build an energy-efficient coral lab in his own home using $25,000 from savings and a personal bank loan. He literally sliced into his two-story concrete house to add skylights this summer. Six solar-powered tanks are illuminated by those skylights plus LED lights that use 40 percent less electricity than the ones at work. “They create almost no heat and last up to 22 years,” he says. 

But will the ocean’s coral population hang on even that long? Seventy percent of the world’s reefs are now threatened or destroyed. Though coral is able to grow its own food supply in the form of algae, it depends on adequate sunlight to do so. “That’s why they’re dying so quickly — partly because they can’t get enough sun.” Part of the problem is that fertilizer run-off from agriculture and lawns is causing marine vegetation to proliferate and block out sunlight. “When Mr. Johnson puts fertilizer on weeds in Kentucky — guess what? That’s coming down to the Florida Keys,” he says. And that’s just the beginning. Pollution, careless boaters, snorkelers and good old global warming are also taking a toll.  “It’s not a one-two punch. It’s a barrage of punches,” says Lackland. “At the going rate we’re not going to have a single coral by 2040.”

Even Lackland’s not sure he can mitigate the coral crisis. “We might be able to produce a few thousand corals in a few years, but that’s nothing when there are hundreds of thousands of corals going to hell.” He admits that he’s only one man with one coral lab — well, two — but his plan is to show businesses like fisheries that they can get into coral repopulation with low overhead and a minimal carbon footprint. It’s in the best interest of anyone that relies on marine life — pretty much everybody. If we don’t get involved, he says, “Everything up the food chain is going to disappear.”

Story by Lisa Selin Davis. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007. The story was added to in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007