Distinguished Professorship awarded to reef restoration pioneer Peter Harrison

Published 16 August 2021
A man wearing a SCU logo hat, wetsuit and holding snorkel gear

Southern Cross University has honoured Professor Peter Harrison, an eminent and internationally recognised leader in coral reproductive ecology and restoration, with the title Distinguished Professor.

The Distinguished Professorship – the University’s highest academic honour – acknowledges and rewards sustained, outstanding performance. Professor Harrison is the inaugural recipient.

For more than 40 years Professor Harrison has been leading coral research efforts on Australia’s World Heritage Listed Great Barrier Reef and on many reef regions around the world.

The award-winning and fervent coral reef and marine science advocate is recognised internationally as an eminent researcher, pioneer and expert in the field of coral reproduction and larval restoration.

As a strong advocate for the integration of science and conservation, he is actively mentoring the next generation of marine scientists to safeguard the future of the Great Barrier Reef.

PROFESSOR PETER HARRISON: This coral larval restoration project at Heron island and One Tree Island is a very large and complex undertaking. What we're doing during this program is combining the expertise of my team from Southern Cross University, colleagues from CSIRO and from Queensland University of Technology and together we're exploring ways to make the operations of the Coral IVF program more efficient so that within the next few years we can get to much larger scales.

DR DEXTER DELA CRUZ: Working on the Great Barrier Reef is like a dream for every marine biologist especially those working with corals so I'm so happy about that.

LUKA MEYERS: Every trip that I do where I'm culturing larvae I learn something better about how to culture them differently or how to make this process better, more efficient.

PROFESSOR PETER HARRISON: What we've done during the past week is capture some spawn from the major coral spawning events here at Heron Island and One Tree Island. We've lost so many large breeding corals that the natural production cycle of millions of larvae has started to diminish. The Coral Larval Restoration experiment shows that if you add larvae to those damaged reef areas you can kickstart the recovery of the coral community.

JORDAN IVEY: It helps restore the ecosystems around Australia, around the world, it also helps restore fish populations which a lot of indigenous communities rely on especially around the tropical regions and the South Sea Islander regions as well.

PROFESSOR PETER HARRISON: I hadn't seen the larval restoration sites for a couple of years so there was a great sense of anticipation when we went for the dive and I was thrilled to see so many healthy, new corals growing on the experimental sites where we placed larvae in 2016. That outcome re-energised me personally and professionally because it shows that the Larval Restoration process does work and now we need to take these results and scale it to much larger scales within the next few years so we can actively restore coral communities on damaged areas of the Great Barrier Reef so we can start to reverse the trend of declining corals.

Vice Chancellor Professor Tyrone Carlin said Southern Cross University was privileged to award its first Distinguished Professorship to Peter Harrison.

“The intention of this scheme is to allow us to shine a spotlight on particularly sustained and meritorious academic leadership at the professorial level, to celebrate that contribution and to provide a platform for building upon it to create an enduring legacy,” Professor Carlin said.

“Peter has achieved so much and contributed significantly over a very long period of time. He is a deeply worthy recipient of this honour, and I feel that it is a genuine privilege to be in a position to extend the offer of this appointment.

“I look forward to seeing Peter capture the essence of this appointment to build his enduring legacy to Southern Cross University and the community.”

Nominating Professor Harrison for the Distinguished Professor honour was Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Professor Mary Spongberg.

“The Distinguished Professor Title is not just recognition for Peter as a stellar researcher,” said Professor Spongberg.

“To receive the title, one must be distinguished in all areas of academic pursuit. Peter has been awarded a national citation for outstanding teaching and is one of Australia’s leading science communicators. A fabulous all-rounder and most deserving of the honour!”

Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison thanked the Vice Chancellor.

“I am delighted to accept this great honour. I’d also like to thank Mary for the nomination and the many staff and students at the University and my family who have been so helpful and supportive on this journey over more than 30 years,” said Professor Harrison.

“I look forward to building on the successes so far for the University and the Great Barrier Reef to ensure the legacy is enduring. There are a lot of new and exciting projects and important research by research students and staff in my team, and we are constantly evolving the restoration techniques to be more successful for future larger scale reef trials.”

Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden congratulated Professor Harrison on his invaluable contribution to coral reef conservation.

“We’re proud to support his world-leading research into coral restoration,” she said.

“The success of this research not only applies to the Great Barrier Reef but to all coral reefs around the world, giving us hope for their future.”

A discovery that changed science’s understanding of coral reproduction

In an international scientific first in 1981, Professor Harrison – then a PhD candidate – jointly discovered that many coral species reproduce synchronously, over just a few nights each year, on the Great Barrier Reef.

Inspired by this natural phenomenon (called mass coral spawning), Peter Harrison spent many years developing and refining a novel coral larval restoration technique to harness the trillions of egg and sperm bundles released by many coral species. Now known commonly as Coral IVF, the technique has been used successfully in the Philippines and more recently on the Great Barrier Reef and has restored breeding coral populations on damaged sections of reefs.

PROFESSOR PETER HARRISON: Australians are incredibly lucky because we have spectacular seascapes that are found nowhere else on the planet. The Coral IVF process is designed to use the natural processes of coral spawning to regenerate the reef system so that we have healthy thriving reef communities not only for the Great Barrier Reef but for other reefs around the world.

Talking science

Professor Harrison is one of the world’s leading science communicators, explaining coral ecology and the value of innovative techniques in modern marine science. As a recognised coral expert, he has featured in more than 30 television documentaries include BBC Blue Planet Live and ABC Reef Live, and given hundreds of interviews to leading national and international media organisations over many decades. In doing so he has brought the excitement of discovery science to a broad cross-section of the community and, mostly importantly, to future marine scientists in Australia and around the globe. Peter’s pioneering Coral IVF technique was featured in a Tourism Australia campaign showcasing Australian innovation to global business leaders called Australia Innovates.

Leadership and research grants

He has been appointed to various national scientific and advisory committees over the past two decades in recognition of his leadership. Further, he has been awarded more than $17 million in research grants and Antarctic field support during his tenure at Southern Cross University to support his important work.

PROFESSOR PETER HARRISON: The seaweed is usually so thick that there is very little opportunity for coral larvae to find a suitable place to settle and grow.

Now with the support of the Paul G Allen Family Foundation, the goal is to restore damaged sections of the Great Barrier Reef on a much larger scale. One of the priorities is removing the overgrown seaweed.

PROFESSOR PETER HARRISON: In addition we're exploring new ways to increase the success rate of the juvenile corals including feeding the babies and feeding the larvae and providing symbiotic algae at the right time of their life cycle to increase their survival and growth. I'm incredibly excited about the opportunities this new grant provides and we look forward to increasing the scale and success of coral restoration not only on the Great Barrier Reef but on other reefs around the world.

Teaching excellence and highly sought-after supervisor

As well as being awarded multiple prizes for excellence in scientific research, Professor Harrison has a distinguished record of teaching excellence at Southern Cross and a significant track record of higher degree research supervision. He actively involves and supports research students in all facets of his coral larval restoration and other marine science work. In collaboration with Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Dexter dela Cruz, Professor Harrison first trialled the Coral IVF technique in the Philippines and successfully restored breeding coral populations on highly degraded reefs within two to three years.

Distinguished Professorship Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University

Media contact: Sharlene King, media office at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or scumedia@scu.edu.au