1. A New Approach Empowering Stakeholders

Everyone has a stake in the future of coral reefs. Many people worldwide are directly dependent on the food and unique cultural resources reefs provide. In Australia, the vast majority of stakeholders are within the tourism industry, people who visit high value sites every day and make their living from showcasing the wonders of the coral reefs to about 2 million tourists annually. This community does not want to be a by-stander. A productive partnership is needed between the reef tourism industry and scientists, to secure a healthy future for Australia’s reefs.

Everyone visiting Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef also has a role, since collective actions determine the trajectory of future reef quality.

Without a tourism-science partnership, the resources of personnel and equipment within the tourism industry remain untapped. There is potential for a reduction of understanding by scientists about site specific needs and it is much harder to optimise interventions for the best socio-economic as well as ecological return.

Reef scientists, managers and tourism operators all want to help protect the ecological functionality of the GBR. The Coral Nurture Program is initiated by tourism and aims to integrate these groups to facilitate meaningful action at individual high value reef sites, to not only boost live coral cover but also keep it high.

Coral Nurture Program Objectives

2. Site Stewardship and Adaptation

There are already ways in which dive and snorkel tourism operators care for reef sites, these include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. One of the most important is the removal of Crown of Thorns starfish and Drupella snails. Many operators have permits that allow them to remove these coral predators at or near their sites. Because of the significance of coral predation on live coral cover, the result is higher coral cover sometimes exists at the more visited reef locations, contrary to what many people imagine.
  2. Operators also play an important role in reef monitoring through involvement in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) Eye on the Reef program.
  3. Operators limit any localised damage by tourism activities to coral via such actions as using permitted moorings, teaching visitors to not touch or stand on coral, and having good management practices developed through ecotourism-accreditation.

The Coral Nurture Program extends beyond these activities by enabling stakeholders to actively maintain coral stock at the sites they frequent in accordance with clauses set-out in our GBRMPA research permit by:

  1. Propagation and out-planting of coral where live coverage has fallen in order to boost coral abundance.
  2. Targeted coral out-planting of “fragments of opportunity” at sites with good coral cover to maximise growth potential. These are small pieces of coral broken off by physical actions such as storms, Bumphead Parrotfish feeding, and overgrown coral breaking and falling on colonies below.
  3. Incorporation of knowledge about heat tolerance and adaptation into coral planting regimes at high value sites, as it becomes appropriate.
  4. We have a target of a minimum of 5000 corals planted out at each site during the 12 month proof-of-concept stage. (5800 corals fragments have already been planted at the first reef during the 8 month proof-of-feasibility stage, with another 1500 corals still growing on nursery frames now ready for re-fragmentation and out-planting.)
Coral Nurture Program Objectives

3. Capacity Building

A very common response from reef tourists is that the reef they see when they visit is better than they expected. There also continues to be active recruitment with an abundance of juvenile corals in the areas where tourists visit. So, although the Coral Nurture Program includes actions to improve resilience and boost live coral cover where it has fallen (this might be just one section of a site), an important benefit is also developing expertise within the reef worker’s community to have better tools to respond to future events.

With this Coral Nurture Program, the actual people conducting the day-to-day underwater work of planting corals are mainly reef tourism crew. Within this diverse collective of individuals are experienced and qualified divers, numerous marine science graduates, and many, many staff that are just passionate about the Great Barrier Reef. Some of these individuals have felt helpless after cyclones or coral bleaching, yet have a real desire to do something positive.

The most viable pathway for widespread intervention to help reverse the decline in coral cover, even at a limited scale, is for many people to be involved: more hands, more sites, more scale. Many people are out there and are willing and able to be involved, but this has to be done in a coordinated and controlled way, to get the right outcome and avoid any environmental risks. That is what the Coral Nurture Program is for; identifying what works best, where and when, then taking action!

An important advantage of utilising reef tourism personnel, is that the amount of effort can easily be scaled up or down, depending upon the need each year. Expensive additional infrastructure is not involved. Combining this existing equipment and human resource with a new way of out-planting coral, that is faster, cheaper and more convenient than existing methods, means the cost/benefit of planting corals on a meaningful localised scale, and that is targeted to the local conditions, is now becoming a reality.

Coral Nurture Program Objectives

4. Research and Legacy

Research in the Coral Nurture Program is a two-way street between stakeholders and scientists. The Program will collect important data on growth, health and survival of all out-planted coral. Currently taxonomy indicates there are around 600 coral species on the Great Barrier Reef, all of which thrive across different environmental regimes of light, temperature, pH (how acidic the water is), oxygen, sedimentation and nutrients. Only through a large-scale out-planting process sustained across many reef sites over time, can we identify the optimum planting timing and location for different species.

Research into propagating more heat tolerant coral, avoiding risks to population collapse through genetic bottlenecks or genetic erosion, and optimising procedures, is incorporated into field activities. New genetic, biochemical and bio-optical approaches are being developed to understand how functional diversity within a species aids its long-term survival as the environment changes. Using this knowledge will be central to how coral abundance is maintained longer term at high value sites on the Great Barrier Reef.

Whilst our research is directly driven to support long term maintenance of Great Barrier Reef sites, the same research questions apply to reefs globally. We work with a large national and international network of researchers towards these goals.

Coral Nurture Program Objectives

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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