Northern Rivers researcher leads global reef restoration

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Southern Cross University Professor Peter Harrison, a recognised world-leader in coral reproduction, is working with leading marine organisations around the globe aiming to restore coral reefs, which he dubs ‘the rainforests of the ocean’.

His decorated career spans more than 35 years of teaching and researching a vast array of marine sciences including coral ecology, whale migration and conservation, dolphin populations, estuarine wetlands, and a treasure trove of others including pollution impacts on Antarctic marine invertebrates.

He arrived at Southern Cross University Lismore campus in the early nineties after falling in love with the Northern Rivers. He established the Coral Reef research group and then led the Whale Research Centre before becoming the founding Director of the University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre. He has achieved more than $11 million in research grants and 200 scientific publications cited more than 8000 times.

Photo: Craig Sillitoe

Professor Peter Harrison is best known as the ‘coral sexpert’ for discovering how to cost-effectively capture millions of coral eggs and sperm.

These days Professor Harrison is best known as the ‘coral sexpert’ for discovering how to cost-effectively capture millions of coral eggs and sperm, growing the coral larvae in enclosures on the reef and in tanks, before releasing larvae onto dead and damaged coral to rapidly increase the rates of successful recruitment of new corals.

It is a blueprint aimed at saving coral reefs around the world.

Prior to living in the Northern Rivers with his family, Professor Harrison was a leading member of the research team that discovered the mass coral spawning phenomenon on the Great Barrier Reef in 1981, receiving the joint prestigious Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.

“We discovered that most corals spawn eggs and sperm into the sea during mass spawning events which are like a huge underwater snow storm, and these occur at night after full moons in late spring or early summer,” he said of the discovery, which led to a global revival of coral reproduction studies.

“I remember after seeing large coral spawn slicks I had the thought that we could capture the spawn that would otherwise drift away and end up as fish food or disintegrate without fertilizing, and instead use it to revitalise dying reefs.”

It was the devastating mass coral bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 that launched a new phase of Professor Harrison’s revolutionary project.

Getting below the surface

Professor Harrison’s intimate knowledge of the mass coral spawning event and global patterns of coral reproduction and stressors launched him into leading the world’s first large-scale restoration of damaged coral reef with colleagues in the Philippines starting in 2012.

His research into reef recovery and implications for global networks of marine protected areas has taken him to Japan, Micronesia, French Polynesia, Florida, Bahamas, Maldives, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Antarctica and even the Arabian Gulf, where he worked on behalf of the United Nations following the first Gulf War. A new coral species he discovered in the Gulf is now named after him - Porites harrisoni.

While he also focused on the east Australian subtropics, it was the devastating mass coral bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 - when half of the northern Great Barrier Reef corals died - that launched a new phase of Professor Harrison’s revolutionary project.

“Following our successful small scale trials in the Philippines and pilot projects on the southern Great Barrier Reef, we knew this technique had enormous potential for restoring larger areas of reef and multiple sites in a way that hadn’t previously been possible. We are seeing the results of that now with new corals beginning to grow,” Professor Harrison said.

“The science is telling us what is happening to the reef and it is really important we act now on climate change. We stand to lose not only the corals but probably one million species associated with corals on reef systems.”

Widespread reseeding of coral larval projects

Following Professor Harrison’s busy international conference schedule, research teams from across the globe are now planning to trial this larval restoration approach. In March 2019, Peter and colleagues were awarded another $400,000 competitive grant to continue working on northern Great Barrier Reef larval restoration.

“Not only are we aiming to restore larger areas of the world's degraded coral reefs, we want to establish large-scale restoration partnerships with researchers, managers, conservation organisations and companies to massively increase the scale of successful production and settlement of hundreds of millions of coral larvae,” Professor Harrison said.

Professor Harrison and his team from Southern Cross University have featured in hundreds of newscasts across the globe to promote conservation and management, most recently in three new BBC Blue Planet Live episodes, with reporter Liz Bonnin describing his work on the UNESCO-listed Great Barrier Reef as ‘nothing short of heroic’.

Professor Harrison has supervised more than 60 postgraduate and Honours students – many of whom have also gone on to become world-leading marine researchers across areas of reef recovery, coral stress and viruses, dolphin research, sea anemones and turtles, and whale migration, reproduction and identification.

He has extended his wealth of knowledge to undergraduate students studying the Bachelor of Marine Science and Management, a course offered at Southern Cross University Lismore and now Coffs Harbour, through leading field trips to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef on full moons during the magical coral spawning season – the same time sea turtles arrive on the beach to nest.

“It’s a natural learning laboratory that makes it a fantastic opportunity for teaching and engaging directly with students and they’re just so enthusiastic about being out on the reef system,” he said.

It’s a natural learning laboratory that makes it a fantastic opportunity for teaching and engaging directly with students and they’re just so enthusiastic about being out on the reef.

  Professor Peter Harrison

A whale song for conservation

Professor Harrison’s career in marine science has been fascinating and varied, with his international marine research interests extending beyond coral and reefs, to supporting postgraduate students studying whales and dolphins, and the impacts of whaling and other human activities on their conservation status.

In 2005 Southern Cross University publically opposed Japan’s plans to resume a scientific whaling program, and Professor Harrison noted that the University’s and other whale researchers around the world would closely monitor any moves to change scientific permits to hunt humpbacks and fin whales. Peter also helped develop innovative projects with colleagues to create the world’s first effective computer-based humpback whale fluke identification system called ‘Fluke Matcher’, and an ARC-funded project to examine non-invasive and non-lethal methods of determining the age of humpback whales in 2005.

“Research from our Whale Research Centre and other research groups showed that humpback whale populations and populations of most other large whale species had not recovered from the impacts of whaling in the previous century,” said Professor Harrison, “but the good news is that our Humpback whales have now recovered.”

 Photo:Gary Cranitch

 Photo:Ross Miller

Professor Harrison has supervised many postgraduate student projects using photo identification and fluke matching, shed skin collection, whale song recordings, humpback DNA analysis and surveys of humpback migration and populations in Hervey Bay to uncover more secrets of the deep. It was one of his PhD students Dan Burns who first determined the famous white whale Migaloo was a male after collecting a skin sample from the water where Migaloo had breached.

“It was the first time genetic samples from an albino humpback whale had been collected anywhere in the world,” said Professor Harrison, who supported Australian legal protection and an exclusion zone for the famous white whale.

From oil spills to works of art

Professor Harrison has conducted long-term monitoring of subtropical and tropical marine reef communities, and studied the impacts of pollution and stress on coral reefs and marine ecosystems, including the effects of massive oil spills on coral reef systems.

 Photo:Gary Cranitch

When he’s not physically on the reefs, applying for research grants, or winning teaching awards, Professor Harrison presents talks at conferences, takes parts in community education forums such as Science in the Grass at Splendour, and other creative endeavours to raise awareness for the protection and conservation of the world’s valuable reef systems.

And he’s right here, at Southern Cross University.

Professor Harrison has won prizes for his photos which have been published internationally in textbooks, news and magazine articles, science journals, poster series and featured in art exhibitions.

Southern Cross University Gold Coast campus featured an exhibition of Professor Harrison’s coral spawning and whale photos, with other exhibitions in multiple Northern Rivers galleries, celebrating the works of visual arts students and staff linked to Professor Harrison’s research, in a bold and inspiring ‘cross-fertilization’ between the art and science disciplines.

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