US philanthropists back coral crusader from Southern Cross

Published 8 June 2021
A man inspects a large water container he is holding. Professor Peter Harrison measures a sample of coral larvae grown in floating nursery pools on the Great Barrier Reef.

Southern Cross University research into scaling-up coral reef restoration around the globe has received significant funding from the Paul G Allen Family Foundation.

Professor Peter Harrison has been awarded AUD$1.3 million to expand the impact of his pioneering Coral IVF technique.

The philanthropic organisation, named after the late Microsoft co-founder and innovator Paul G Allen who was at the forefront of last century’s boom in personal computers, has long supported the work of those preserving and protecting coral reefs from the impacts of climate change.

Paul G Allen Family Foundation grants totalling AUD$9.3 million (US$7.2 million) is shared between Professor Harrison and three other international projects to support action helping coral reefs survive the impacts of climate change.

“The rapid decline of coral reefs in the face of climate change makes finding adaptation techniques essential if corals are to survive,” said Jody Allen, co-founder and chair of the Paul G Allen Family Foundation (PGAFF).

“These grants build on the Foundation’s longstanding commitment to coral reefs and support of applicable, scalable solutions to protect them. We are at a critical juncture with coral reefs facing extinction and the world must continue to invest in actionable research that ensures their preservation and long-term survival.”

Seaweed chokes a once healthy coral reef ecosystem. In the wake of coral bleaching events, pollution, sediment run-off and other human activities, dead coral skeletons can be rapidly colonised and dominated by seaweed.

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.

With the clock ticking, this new suite of research grants is designed with a three-year timeline and focuses on applied solutions that can be deployed in the field by 2024.

The grants develop each researcher’s initial success and enables them to enter into phase two: turning innovative ideas into scalable, sustainable solutions for coral reefs.

It’s an opportunity for Professor Peter Harrison to refine his pioneering Coral IVF technique with a focus on enhancing the survival rate of juvenile corals to restore reefs. The PGAFF grant will be used to scale-up restoration of degraded coral reefs by clearing degraded reefs of seaweed, feeding coral larvae, and settling them in new designs. This process builds on previous projects led by Professor Harrison with colleagues in the Philippines supported by ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research), and on the Great Barrier Reef with colleagues and students from Southern Cross University that were funded by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and GBRMPA (Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority); and more recent collaborations with colleagues from James Cook University and AIMS (Australian Institute of Marine Science) supported by phase 1 funding from the PGAFF.

“I’m excited to receive this essential funding from the PGAFF as they are a very important international organisation investing in innovation for scaling-up coral restoration practices globally, and the funds will allow me to further evolve the techniques to repair larger areas of damaged reefs,” said Professor Harrison.

“Most reefs around the world including the Great Barrier Reef have suffered immense damage from recent coral bleaching events, increased sediment and pollution and other human activities.

“As a result, many of the living corals have died and the dead coral skeletons haven been rapidly colonised by seaweed. When they become choked by seaweed, it is usually so thick there’s very little opportunity for coral larvae to a find suitable place to settle and grow.

“This new project will us to explore ways to remove some of the seaweed and replace them with juvenile corals with that will grow into vibrant healthy coral communities and re-establish the coral ecosystem.

“What we plan to do is grow hundreds of millions of larvae directly on reefs in the Great Barrier Reef then transfer those larvae to damaged areas and release them there to kickstart the recovery of coral communities.”

A reef at Geoffrey Bay, Magnetic Island, overgrown with seaweed and algae (credit Peter Harrison).

Professor Peter Harrison’s Scaling Restoration project is co-funded by the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation).

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Media contact: Sharlene King, media officer at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or