Rebuilding Reefs – With Lego

In a makeshift saltwater nursery located on an offshore Singapore island, a vital scientific experiment is taking place involving corals and sea invertebrates – and Lego bricks.  

“We needed to create flat and stable surfaces for the animals to rest on,” explained Neo Mei Lin, a leading marine biologist and senior research fellow from the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute. “Detachable Lego bricks proved very useful in helping us to hold corals and giant clams in place.”

This quirky and ingenious approach has benefited Neo and her colleague Jani Tanzil, a fellow marine scientist at the institute. Together they are spearheading an ambitious reef rejuvenation project to revitalize and restore Singapore’s coral populations, wrecked and damaged by decades of major land reclamation, coastal development, and sea port activity. 

“Land development harshly affects the sea,” Tanzil said. “As marine scientists, we have definitely seen the effects of that on our coastlines, mangroves and seagrass.” 

Their approach echoes others in the region who have turned to unconventional means to facilitate coral reef reproduction. In Hong Kong, marine biologists turned to 3D printing as a means of repopulating dead and damaged reefs.

Working with government agencies like the National Parks Board (NParks), Neo and Tanzil hope that their ambitious project will help increase the resilience of local coral populations and gradually expand reef surface area. 

“Climate change is moving faster than we can imagine but our coral reefs have proven to be much more resilient than we thought, having survived in marginal and highly urbanized environments,” Neo said.  

“Our coral reefs may not be as colorful or pretty as those in Australia or the Maldives, but they have certainly proven to be very resilient given the high levels of stress and pollution they’ve had to endure over the years, and that is a unique and very encouraging sign.” 

In their offshore research facility located less than an hour’s boat ride away from mainland Singapore, rows of saltwater tanks are filled with coral fragments, barnacles, sea squirts, giant clams, and marine invertebrates like sea urchins and sea cucumbers — all the makings of a new reef. 

Neo and Tanzil have begun the arduous process of fragmenting coral collected from the seabed and attaching them onto Lego bricks, donated by friends and colleagues.

“The Lego bricks have been very useful for our research and we welcome more donations from the public for our reef restoration project,” they said.

But the Lego bricks are just a small piece of a bigger and more complicated puzzle. 

Their reef restoration project is expected to take years due to complexities surrounding coral and its slow growth rate. 

“The culturing and restoration of coral is not a one-off thing,” Tanzil said. “Growing them out takes a very, very long time. Some of the corals in our tanks have been there for years and have been fragmented again and again.”

Apart from rejuvenating local reefs, they also wanted to explore space-saving methods like vertical farming, which are commonly used in land-scarce Singapore. 

“Vertical farming isn’t new but this is the first time it is being tried out on coral in Singapore,” Tanzil said. “We want to grow coral that is genetically different and diverse. This will build more resilience and increase their chances of survival in the wild.” 

“It also isn’t easy to keep corals alive,” Neo added, highlighting various complications surrounding coral, which tend to get stressed easily over changes in the environment.  

“We want to see them thrive and become stronger and more vibrant.” 

With a significant decline in boat traffic and port activity as a result of the pandemic, Singapore’s waters have said to been flourishing. Groups of local fishermen and park goers even reported witnessing extremely rare sightings of massive eagle rays and juvenile whale sharks off the coast. 

“The pandemic was actually a pretty good case study that showed that the world could work together towards a common goal if it wanted to,” Neo said. “These times have also highlighted the importance of appreciating nature in our backyard.” 

Her observations also come at a time of green awakening for Singaporeans, many of whom are experiencing a greater sense of awareness about nature and environmental destruction taking place in their country.  

Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, with many species now being fiercely protected — but many populations still remain gravely at risk due man-made issues like oil spills, pollution and climate change. Vast swaths of coral in the Great Barrier Reef have also turned skeleton white as result of bleaching.

But recent studies yielded positive findings, suggesting that the risk of extinction had been lowered and there were now as many corals in the Pacific as there were trees in the Amazon. Seagrass and mangroves were also shown to soak up as much carbon dioxide from the air each year as 15 hectares of rainforest.

In the case of Singapore, an island nation surrounded by sea, experts and conservationists said that more than half its reefs have been lost to date, with land reclamation and waste dumping also taking a huge and heavy toll on the surrounding sea beds.

But Neo and Tanzil have chosen to remain optimistic about the current situation despite challenges. 

One rare species known as the Neptune’s cup sponge, came under serious threat from overfishing and was thought to have gone extinct in Singapore waters. But Neo said that some of the rare sponges were recently re-discovered in reefs found near offshore islands. 

“It’s easy to see why we should save marine creatures like dolphins and whales, but not many people realize that we first have to start with their habitats which are under threat from man-made activities,” she said. 

Marine conservation remains one of the most important parts of the project and Neo and Tanzil plan to raise more public awareness about Singapore’s coral reefs, as well as the “uncharismatic” sea creatures which inhabit them, like sea urchins, mollusks, and sea cucumbers, which are often overlooked in favor of more popular animals like clownfish, sharks, whales and otters. 

“Singapore has many green plans and goals but marine issues are often out of sight,” Tanzil said. 

“We want to embark on our own ‘blue plan’ for our oceans and seas and teach Singaporeans new values like retention, rejuvenation and restoration, so that we can appreciate what we already have before it’s too late.”

Neo, also a prominent advocate renowned for her work in saving giant clams, said that she always harbored a soft spot for unconventional creatures of the sea.

“Giant clams aren’t the cuddliest of creatures but they are still important animals that have been severely undervalued and unappreciated, and definitely worth saving.” 

She added, “Our coral reefs have not given up hope. As marine scientists, we should not give up on saving them, as well as the creatures that rely on them for life.”