Coral reefs are vital to a vast number of human livelihoods depending on them for fisheries, tourism and coastal protection. Facing dramatic global declines in coral cover and reef habitat degradation due to climate change and other anthropogenic impacts, coral reef restoration has become imperative to maintain their ecosystem services. In the Kunming-Montreal biodiversity framework the international community set ambitious goals, such as restoring, or being on the way to restore, 30% of degraded habitats by 2030. However, meeting these goals is currently constrained by the high financial costs associated to coral restoration. The current realized median cost of restoring a single coral colony is approximately 15 USD. These costs arise from high expenses associated to maintaining landbased coral aquaculture facilities, in particular labor costs, and the high cost of marine operations culturing or outplanting corals in the ocean. Therefore, there is an urgent need for new approaches in robotics and automation to reduce costs. While advances in automation and robotics in the farming sector can be translated to benefit landbased aquaculture facilities, marine restoration operations face many challenges due to their complexity. To be effective, any solution must be scalable, cost-effective, and suitable for different environments, including those in developing countries with low infrastructure.
Sebastian's coral reef research journey began in 2005 while pursuing his studies at the University of the West Indies in the Caribbean Islands of Trinidad and Tobago. He then carried on his research on coral reefs in Indonesia and Australia, where he embarked on a PhD thesis in 2009 at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Tasmania. His PhD research expanded our current understanding of species boundaries, reproductive divergences and phenotypic traits in corals and prompted a paradigm shift regarding the species status and distribution of one of the most extensively studied coral species.
Sebastian joined KAUST in 2017 after completing his postdoctoral research in Germany, and he has since focused on studying the thermal tolerance of corals and developing innovative technologies to scale up coral restoration efforts. As the lead inventor of Maritechture coral restoration technologies, Sebastian has been at the forefront of the field and has made significant contributions to the development of novel approaches for restoring damaged coral reefs.
In addition to his research, Sebastian also played a key role in conceptualizing and preplanning the Shushah coral reefscape project in NEOM. His technical leadership and expertise were critical in securing funding approval for this ambitious project, which will be the largest coral reef expansion in the world once completed. The project will feature the biggest on-shore coral nursery for Red Sea species globally, and it represents a significant milestone in the ongoing efforts to restore and preserve the world's coral reefs.