Coral Nurture Program
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef (GBR) has experienced catastrophic loss of coral (>30%) from mass bleaching via back-to-back marine heatwaves (2016-17), with a third event underway in 2020. These unprecedented impacts solidified concerns that conventional GBR management – largely marine area protection and mitigating deteriorating water quality – was no longer sufficient to secure the GBR’s future. This prompted government investment into national intervention – and dynamic adaptive-management options. The tour operator industry largely sustains the GBR’s $6.5B per year asset value and has an overwhelming desire to maintain and restore the quality of their “high value” reef sites (Suggett et al. 2019). While the desire was in place to specifically adopt established coral propagation practices for site-tailored reef rehabilitation (e.g., from the Caribbean, and rapidly developing elsewhere), capacity was limited by fundamental legislative, governance, and operational barriers designed for reef protection. The objective was to develop low cost approaches that could dovetail into existing operations and thus be cost effective, but also easily adopted into existing tour operator business models.
Initial activities, “Phase one” (February 2018-February 2019), were designed in partnership with the government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) to design the workflow for, and in turn implement, coral propagation practices. Detailed site ecological surveys, alongside assessments of historical site knowledge, were conducted to help guide the first nursery and propagation and outplanting permits. A novel physical attachment device consisting of a nail and a strap, the Coralclip® (photo below), was invented, which sped-up planting by one or two orders of magnitude faster (and hence more cost-effectively) than was previously possible via conventional chemical fixatives used to date (Suggett et al. 2020). From this first phase, over 2,500 corals were maintained in the new nurseries and nearly 5,000 corals outplanted to Opal Reef in the space of a few weeks (Suggett et al. 2020), largely during routine vessel operations and using operator staff to outplant.
Example of Coralclip® deployment. Photo © John Edmondson/Wavelength Reef Cruises
New Coralclip® attachment, securing branching Acropora. Photo © John Edmondson/Wavelength Reef Cruises
Subsequent “Phase two” CNP activities (April 2019-April 2020) examined how the approach developed for the test site and tourism operator via phase one, applied to multiple reefs with different environments and coral condition, and among multiple tourism operators with different business models. Efforts focused on ensuring standardized workflows for establishing nurseries and outplanting across operators and sites – including training, site evaluations, and data reporting (in part for ecological trajectory assessments as well as permit compliance; photo below).
Operators tending to nurseries and outplanting using Coralclip®. Photo © David Suggett
Surveying outplant success as part of the “Phase two” kick-off workshop among multiple GBR tourism operators, staff, researchers and GBRMPA. Photo © John Edmondson/Wavelength Reef Cruises
How successful has it been?
As of May 2020, over 50 nursery platforms have been established and over 17,000 corals planted across six major high-value tourism sites, as a result of the Coral Nurture Program tourism-research partnership. Operators were equipped with the knowledge and tools to “pivot” and redeploy efforts and resources from tourism to site rehabilitation during the COVID19-induced tourism downturns. Planning has begun towards “Phase three”, which includes broader (regional) adoption amongst the tourism industry – as well as other key GBR stakeholders, notably Traditional Owners – and fully tracking ecological responses of the outplanting sites, to ensure these initial efforts inform ‘what works best, where and when’ in deciding future scaling of activities.
Application of the floating coral propagation nursery platforms, Opal Reef, GBR. Image shows growth of coral after 12-18 months propagation from fragments. Photo © David Suggett
“On-deck” seeding tray initially trialled to sow frames with fragments during the early phases of deployment. Photo © David Suggett
Shade deployed over the platforms during the 2020 GBR heat wave. Photo © John Edmondson/Wavelength Reef Cruises
Lessons learned and recommendations
Adapting nursery and outplanting design to fit location-specific requirements. Tools were conceived specific for the conditions that had driven the need for restoration. For example, numerous coral species (across all growth morphologies) had been impacted at GBR sites, and therefore floating platforms were designed in favor of existing “coral tree” structures to consistently accommodate any taxa, but also within often physically dynamic outer reef sites (Suggett et al. 2019).
Monitoring and implementation. Based on the extent of outplanting achieved in phase one for the test site, it was clear that attempting to ‘fate track’ 1,000s of outplants was impossible, and instead the outplant ‘success’ evaluations were established around ecological approaches using marked replicate plots of reef (and un-amended controls). Initial installation of nursery platforms at all sites provided very visible demonstrations relatively quickly to the operators and their tourist customer base of active site rehabilitation practices. Active outplanting was slower to adopt, and ultimately was best executed in targeted ‘campaigns’ when staff were available without impacting on regular operations.
Empowerment and capacity building is key. Empowerment and capacity building are at the core of the approach and philosophy of CNP. Stakeholders want to save the reef, and researchers want to help support robust methods to do this. Therefore, the partnership we built between researchers and tourism operators (or any other stakeholder) capitalized on the passion and drive of all involved to make positive change. The desire to optimize effective practice(s) tailored to the GBR has been critical in ensuring key lessons are learned prior to initiating projects purely for commercial gain, in particular where the ecological impacts are yet to be fully resolved. Importantly, scientific rigor has been central in driving increased social licensing, learning through implementation, but under well controlled environmental and social conditions. This has been central in building trust amongst researchers, stakeholders and the wider public to better define when restoration is (and isn’t) appropriate for the GBR.
Australian & QLD Government (“Boosting Coral Abundance” Challenge. AMP Foundation)
University of Technology Sydney
Wavelength Reef Charters
This case study was developed in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) as part of the report