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Byron Shire
February 23, 2024

Whitsundays booming with new marine life

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Coral embryos. Photo Peter Harrison, SCU.

In some rare good news for the Great Barrier Reef, Southern Cross University has joined forces with tourism operators and US philanthropists to make the most of the Whitsundays’ recent bumper coral spawning.

More than 80 million corals embryos are currently being nurtured in 10 specially-designed floating nursery pools near one of the Whitsundays’ inshore reefs.

The University’s Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison said the annual mass coral spawning events on many reefs across the weekend (Nov 10 to 13) are essential for reef resilience and recovery after mass bleaching and cyclone impacts, and indicate that surviving corals are healthy and able to reproduce.

‘This year my team combined resources with two partner projects, the Paul G Allen Family Foundation’s Opticorals project, as well as the Boats4Corals project partnering with Dr Mark Gibbs from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), to maximise spawn slick collections,’ said Professor Harrison.

‘The fertilisation levels were high too, above 85 per cent, so we have very efficiently collected many tens of millions of egg and sperm bundles released during the mass coral spawning, and have a very high survival of embryos and larvae, so I’m excited about the outcomes of our coral larval restoration efforts this year.’

Working with Ocean Rafting tour operators. Photo Ian Banks.

Ready to repair the reef

Professor Harrison said the larvae are already starting to mature and search for settlement sites after three to four days, and will be released onto degraded sections of reef around the Whitsunday Islands in the next few days.

This year’s Boats4Corals project, funded by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Reef Islands Initiative, saw Red Cat Adventures, Ocean Rafting and Zig Zag Whitsundays come on board to support coral slick collection and restoration efforts.

Professor Harrison says research and development plays an important role in developing ways that the coral spawning and larval restoration process can become more efficient and accelerate reef recovery.

Vital scientific know-how about the innovative coral larval restoration technique known as Coral IVF, successfully pioneered on the reef by Professor Harrison, working with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, is being passed on to the tourism industry to put into practice in the Whitsundays.

Coral larval rearing pool. Photo Peter Harrison, SCU.

Scientists estimate the coral survival rate is up to 100 times better through Coral IVF; improving survival from one-in-a-million coral babies in nature to about one-in-10,000 coral babies using the science-assisted Coral IVF technique.

Praise for ‘hands on deck’ attitude

‘We know that we can all achieve much more working together with traditional owners and tourism operators leading spawn slick collections and transfer into Boats4Corals pools under guidance from Southern Cross Uni researchers, so it was a great example of combining resources from two projects to achieve larger outcomes,’ said Professor Harrison.

A  grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, named after the late Microsoft co-founder, is supporting Professor Harrison to develop scalable solutions for his innovative coral larval restoration technique to protect coral reefs.

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