The Problem and Why Intervene?

Coral reefs around the world have been suffering for decades from falls in live coral cover. Until recently, the Great Barrier Reef had fared better than most. However, three threats to coral reefs, warming water, severe storms and Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks, have had a serious impact on average coral cover (De’ath et al, 2012 and AIMS Long Term Monitoring).

Following the back-to-back global bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, a meeting was held in Townsville to assess the situation and way forward. As a result of that meeting, GBRMPA and the Government changed its approach to allow the investigation of interventions to help reef recovery as part of a strategy for building resilience . This led to the formation of Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP); a national framework to consider whether and how interventions may have a role in reef management (Anthony et al, 2017).

The consensus of opinion is that whilst coral reefs are resilient and able to recover by themselves under the right circumstances, current impacts from climate change are too large and too closely spaced together, so that the reef has insufficient recovery time between damaging events. This lack of recovery is compounded by the many other stressors from agriculture, industry and urbanisation locally affecting reefs. Intervening to help recovery and build resilience are now very real options, but a situation we hoped would never be required.

Whilst some believe reef-wide interventions won’t become affordable, most see that all options are worthy of some level of investigation to determine ‘feasibility’, so different intervention ideas are all in early stages of research. Intervention options are broad and range from mapping and monitoring, to help management decision-making, to eco-engineering improved reef conditions and facilitating coral biology that promotes resilience, such as larval enhancement, to finding or breeding heat tolerant corals. In the meantime, two things are clear: (1) good policy to limit climate change is the only long-term hope for coral reefs, (2) there are still huge logistical and financial constraints that restrict the ability to grow and plant corals affordably on a large scale.

From a tourism operator’s view-point, an important gap has been identified: reef adaptation and/or rehabilitation at a scale that is not enough to have reef-wide significance, but enough to influence the sustainability of the tourism industry in the short and medium term. This can be initiated straight away. At this scale, intervention has an important localised ecological effect, but potentially an enormous socio-economic effect. The patchiness of recent bleaching, COTS and cyclone impacts means that there are still many excellent sites for tourists to visit. However, whereas in the past you could choose a random bit of reef and it would likely be healthy, but there were also poor areas, now it is becoming the other way round. The risk of deterioration of tourism sites and a subsequent reduction of visitors due to climate change is very large unless adaptation options are increased. The best ecological outcome will result when an intervention starts before a reef has deteriorated too far.

Our local solution through the Coral Nurture Program does not create an alternative to these other interventions, but is one that can act in harmony. For example, there is limited use in studying and finding heat tolerant corals if there isn’t a realistic mechanism in the pipeline to plant them out; economically high value sites that have high visitation (i.e. tourism sites) are priority areas to do this. The true reef-wide ecological value of reef tourism is in both providing the economic incentive to protect the GBR and in educating visitors to the reef about the threats and solutions. If tourism diminishes then that relevance, and opportunity to inform, will be lost along with the jobs and economic benefits.

Coral Nurture Program Context
Coral Nurture Program Context

The Big Picture

Up until 2019 only something like 22 hectares of coral reef has been rehabilitated worldwide. It has been a laborious and very expensive undertaking and the outcome can’t fully reproduce the diversity of the original reef. Rehabilitating reefs after damage is harder than protecting them in the first place, but effective reef protection is far from straightforward. The main threats to the Great Barrier Reef are: increasing surface seawater temperatures due to global warming; Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) outbreaks; cyclones; over-fishing of herbivorous fish; and run-off from land of nutrients and sediment. Extensive management options already exist for the threats, but some are incredibly difficult to address.

Imagine the Reef is a Person …

  • The impact of a tropical cyclone is equivalent to a car crash; it might not be too bad, but it might result in broken bones or worse. In most cases recovery should be ok.
  • COTS outbreaks, over-fishing and excessive catchment runoff are equivalent to a serious illness – but one with a known cure that is reasonably straightforward to achieve, although it takes great effort.
  • Increasing surface seawater temperatures caused by climate change are like a very serious illness – also with a known cure, but one that is incredibly difficult to achieve because it requires the cooperation of so many people.

Some people advocate that only dealing with climate change matters. But even with a really serious illness, it’s still important to do little things … clean teeth, shower, get dressed … keep trying and keep moving; that’s what we’re doing with the Coral Nurture Program.

Coral Nurture Program Context

Education and Ecotourism

Tourism plays the main role in presenting the world heritage values of the reef to the public. They have the most at stake when it comes to helping educate visitors, not only about the wonders of the reef, but about threats and solutions. This is only possible if tourism continues into the future.

The Coral Nurture Program is about helping sustainability of reef ecotourism, as well as trying to help the reef. This can be achieved on a localised level by a combination of:

(1) Stewardship – the protection of existing coral and the planting of new corals to help maintain a high level of live coral cover.

(2) Adaptation – contributing to research into how corals adapt to heat stress and incorporating new knowledge about heat tolerance into coral planting regimes, in a cautionary and scientifically rigorous way that addresses the conditions specific to each individual site.

Coral Nurture Program Context

Minimising Environmental Risks

The GBRMPA have published guidelines on reef interventions and these include a ranking of the risk of different actions. This program improves the ability of individual operators to undertake low risk activities and contribute to the collective knowledge about their effectiveness and viability on the Great Barrier Reef.

Careful planning, compliance, scientific supervision and monitoring, all play a role in minimising risks and avoiding negative consequences.

The program is initially restricted to five reefs and operators as a precautionary approach.

The structure of the program is that a minimum level of intervention is undertaken, to achieve the desired outcome.

A core objective of this program is to introduce coral planting into localised stewardship and adaptation. This is to help ensure sustainable reef ecotourism and promote education on the major threats to coral reefs and possible solutions, which involve the whole community.

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