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Great Barrier Reef coral larval restoration to expand with new funding


Jessica Nelson
23 July 2018

Southern Cross University Marine Ecology Research Centre director Professor Peter Harrison has secured new funding to join forces with other reef restoration experts to increase the rate of juvenile coral growth on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Australian and Queensland Governments’ funding announcement, made at Friday’s 44th Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Forum, builds on the ongoing Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan for the conservation and restoration of this natural wonder of the world.

Professor Harrison’s new collaborative research project, designed to increase the rates of successful settlement and recruitment of juvenile corals on the Great Barrier Reef, was selected during the competitive application process conducted through the Advance Queensland Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) initiative, $2 million Great Barrier Reef Coral Abundance Challenge. From an international field of 69 submissions, six innovative ideas – including Professor Harrison’s – were shortlisted for feasibility testing.

Put simply, larval restoration involves harvesting many millions of coral eggs and sperm during mass spawning events, growing the coral larvae in enclosures on the reef and in tanks, and then releasing larvae onto dead coral to rapidly increase the rates of successful recruitment of new corals. Professor Harrison’s vision is not only to help rescue the world's degraded coral reefs, but to develop large-scale restoration partnerships with researchers, managers, conservation organisations and companies to massively increase the scale of successful production and settlement of many millions of coral larvae.

This latest collaborative partnership involves colleagues Katie Chartrand from James Cook University and Associate Professor David Suggett from UTS Sydney to mass produce coral larvae in the northern Great Barrier Reef on peak tourism reefs near Cairns affected by coral bleaching.

“This research team will use innovative methods to culture millions of coral larvae to improve their performance and uptake of microscopic symbiotic algae,” Professor Harrison said.

“Pilot study trials have shown improved settlement and survival of juvenile corals using this approach, and these techniques will be combined with new methods to scale-up mass coral larval restoration on some experimental reef areas that were damaged by the 2016 and 2017 mass coral bleaching events on the northern Great Barrier Reef.”

Professor Harrison and his team from Southern Cross University successfully trialled larval restoration on reefs previously at Heron Island and One Tree Island reefs on the southern Great Barrier Reef in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. The team has also used mass larval restoration to successfully re-establish breeding populations on badly damaged reefs in the Philippines, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, as highlighted in recent broadcasts on the ABC’s Science Show and Landline.

Following Professor Harrison’s presentations at the recent Great Barrier Reef Restoration Symposium in Cairns and the International Asia Pacific Coral Reef Symposium in the Philippines, research teams from across the globe are now planning to use his larval restoration approach.

Southern Cross University Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Professor Susan Nancarrow said Professor Harrison’s research was a prime example of the University’s significant research achievements, collaborations and educational successes in marine science.

“Professor Peter Harrison’s research on restoring coral reefs through the mass production of coral larvae provides new hope for our endangered reefs. His work builds on years of international research in Australia and around the world that followed on from the award-winning discovery nearly 30 years ago by Peter and colleagues of the mass spawning phenomenon of coral on the Great Barrier Reef,” Professor Nancarrow said.

“Southern Cross University is proud to support Professor Harrison’s work and collaborations which demonstrate the value of, and need for, long-term investment in university research to produce outputs that have an important environmental and economic impact for Australia.

“As a University that teaches Marine Science and Management, and with campuses in Gold Coast, Lismore and Coffs Harbour along Australia’s East Coast, we understand first-hand the value of coral reefs not only to overall ocean health, but to the hundreds of millions of people worldwide whose lives are directly supported by coral reef systems.”