Innovative way to restore coral reefs wins Great Barrier Reef award

Published 6 November 2012

Steve Whalan
Restoring damaged reefs by encouraging corals and sponges to grow on artificial surfaces has secured the 2012 Bommies Award for a Southern Cross University marine scientist.

The Bommies Award is a prestigious annual prize provided by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) to recognise innovative solutions to the challenge of climate change threatening Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Steve Whalan, a research fellow with the University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre, received the award from Claire Hanratty, GBRF Managing Director, in Brisbane on Friday, November 2.

Dr Whalan will use the $10,000 prize to advance his research idea, ‘The use of surface micro-topography to enhance larval settlement for large scale reef restoration’.

“Reef restoration is a process similar to the reforestation of land following logging,” he said.

“The artificial surface technology has the potential for multiple applications that will contribute to conservation and management of degraded coral reefs in Australia and around the world.”

Traditional restoration methods have largely focused on using fragments of branching adult corals, commonly known as staghorn corals, to re-seed damaged reef areas.

“This approach is extremely labour intensive and best suited to re-seeding small areas. The use of branching corals to re-seed reefs also limits the effort to restore the high diversity that gives coral reefs their striking visual appeal,” Dr Whalan said.

Dr Whalan’s research will see him recruit coral and sponge larvae to do the work.

“While adult corals and sponges spend their lives fixed to the bottom of the ocean, each produces thousands of babies (larvae) which can swim.

“Larvae are critical because they actually seek out suitable places to live, and once happy with the home site, undergo irreversible metamorphoses into a young coral or sponge.

”If we can work out the real estate choices of larvae, then reef restoration will be more effective.”

Dr Whalan will test a series of artificial settlement surfaces to establish if larvae show a preference for where they make their home. If successful the surfaces can be then be deployed directly to degraded reefs.

Dr Whalan will also test whether the use of micro-crevices, engineered within artificial surfaces, optimise larval settlement and survival.

“These surfaces may provide increased points of attachment whereby the larvae can lodge and secure themselves to provide refuge from strong currents or grazing starfish until they grow to a refuge size where these pressures are lessened.”

The research project will be conducted in conjunction with researchers from the CSIRO and James Cook University (JCU), with testing at Orpheus Island, off Townsville in Queensland, where JCU has a research station.

Dr Whalan has more than 10 years’ experience researching coral reef communities in the Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Strait.

He said reefs were remarkably resilient but human influences were taking their toll.

“Coral reefs are vulnerable to numerous disturbances but usually at small scales following storms and pollution which can result in reduced reef diversity.

“Climate change, though, is forecast to place coral reef diversity at risk on a much larger scale.”
Photo: Claire Hanratty, Managing Director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, presenting Dr Steve Whalan with his $10,000 prize and an original Vera Moller print of an imaginary marine life form.

Media contact: Sharlene King media officer, Southern Cross University Lismore, 02 6620 3508 or 0429 661 349.