Coral Nurture Program gives reefs a fighting chance

When it comes to saving the world’s coral reefs from climate change the solution is as much political as scientific, but UTS marine biologists, Associate Professor David Suggett and Dr Emma Camp, are determined to make a difference to high-value sites on the Great Barrier Reef.

It all started with a boat.

In a serendipitous moment bobbing aboard a Wavelength Reef Cruise chartered for research off Port Douglas, Emma Camp and David Suggett realised that they and its captain, eco-tourism operator John Edmondson, had a lot in common.

“He was really passionate about the state of the reef and what can be done to build its resilience to stress, as were we, and so we started thinking about what we could actually do together to be doing science that has a direct benefit to stakeholders.”

What they came up with, was the Coral Nurture Program. Part science, part ‘business’ model—and a lot of hard work and ingenuity—the program sets out to improve coral cover and diversity at high-value sites on the Great Barrier Reef by out-planting nursery grown corals and re-planting natural fragments from the reef recovered after events like storms. This will help the team understand more about coral populations that have the greatest potential resilience to climate change.

“For the out-planting, we chose sites that would have the most impact, both ecologically and economically,” says Suggett. “Because the charter boats are at these tourist sites on the reef every day, we have a unique opportunity to regularly out-plant, evaluate success of this out-planting, and, importantly, to do so on a sustained and highly cost-effective basis.”

Using a ‘CoralClip®, developed by Edmondson, the team—including John’s wife, Jenny; the Wavelength crews; and PHD student Lorna Howlett—have so far planted out more than 10,000 corals at three identified sites on the reef in this way. Another five operators have since become involved, with aim to plant out over 25,000 corals by May 2020.

Jointly funded by the Queensland and Australian Governments, the program is a first for Australia, a partnership that harnesses tourism infrastructure and resources—boats, moorings, staff and site-specific knowledge—to help scientists better understand how coral might have a better chance to survive climate change.

“The longer term vision is that by monitoring these sites on a sustained basis we’ll start to understand more which corals have greater resilience to stress.” says Emma Camp.

This knowledge can then be used to support reefs in the hope that when a bleaching event does occur, these more resilient corals will help maintain coverage and diversity at these local high-value sites, and ensure these beautiful but complex ecosystems can eventually recover.

While positive about the program’s potential benefits for specific areas, Emma also stresses that the program is no ‘cure all’.

“First and foremost, we have to address carbon emissions—no amount of intervention is going to solve the problem if we don’t. But we also have other tools like those used by this program that can help build resilience and give reefs the best chance possible while we work to get the policy where it needs to be. To do nothing is not an option.”

The Problem

The Great Barrier Reef is under increasing stress from warming ocean currents and acidification caused by climate change. Little is known about what role heat-resilient coral could have in maintaining small, high-value sites on Australian reefs.

The Response

UTS Marine Biologists, David Suggett and Emma Camp, are working with tourism operators to out-plant coral, helping maintain coverage and diversity at selected sites whilst learning ways to recognise the species and individual corals that are most resilient to climate change.

What helped accomplish this?

Working closely with existing tourist infrastructure and making the most of local charter boat operator’s knowledge, means the program is not only cost-effective but more likely to be sustainable long term. The CoralClip®, developed by eco-tourism operator, John Edmondson, also allow the team to plant out corals at much faster rates, boosting the program’s economic viability.

What has changed as a result?

Seven coral nurseries have been established, and over 10,000 branches of coral have been planted out at three sites across the reef. While it’s too early yet to determine how successful they will be, the team has set up a system that they ultimately hope will be self-sustaining—with reef operators working alongside scientists over the long term to look after both their livelihoods and the beautiful ecosystems they are lucky enough to make their living from.
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Interviewee

Dr Emma Camp, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Climate Change Cluster
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Interviewee

Associate Professor David Suggett, Associate Professor, Climate Change Cluster
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Interviewee

John Edmondson, Eco-tourism operator
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