Coral research breakthrough could save Great Barrier Reef

Coral research breakthrough could save Great Barrier Reef

Coral research breakthrough could save Great Barrier Reef

Updated 12 September 2017, 14:25 AEST

Southern Cross University researchers say they have made a breakthrough that could help save the Great Barrier Reef.

Project leader Peter Harrison has been working with a team to repair degraded reefs in the Philippines by encouraging the reproduction of coral larvae.

The researchers grow millions of coral larvae in tanks and place them onto reefs in large underwater mesh tents.

"We're using the spawning of corals, collecting the eggs and sperm from the corals, growing the larvae and then putting millions of larvae back onto the reef to try to start the restoration process," Professor Harrison said.

"In a healthy coral reef system, nature produces enough larvae to enable new corals to grow on a reef system, but what happens when humans damage these systems over time is that fewer and fewer corals exist on the reef and it gets to the point where there are too few corals to produce enough larvae to restore the reef naturally and that's where we need to step in."

World-first method

Professor Harrison said the Southern Cross University project was the first in the world to successfully re-establish a breeding coral population from larvae directly on a reef.

"Other research around the world has been looking at ways in which settling coral larvae onto small tiles and other artificial surfaces in the laboratory might work, and then having to manually transfer those back out to the reef, so it's expensive and fairly inefficient," he said.

"Our process enables us to mimic nature and produce millions of larvae that can go directly onto the reef system."

He said the results proved that reefs across the world could be restored.

"What we have proven is that microscopic coral larvae can settle and grow as colonies to the size of dinner plates within three years, and be able to sexually reproduce at this early age," Professor Harrison said.

"The Great Barrier Reef is in severe trouble, we've lost significant amounts of the coral communities that occur there.

"If we're able to take the information from the Philippines studies and apply it at much larger scales, we might be able to start reversing the decline of corals in these important reefs in the Great Barrier Reef system."

More resources needed

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research contributed $1.2 million to the project in 2015, but Professor Harrison said further resources were needed to continue and broaden the research.

"We have a series of further plans to build on the research, and we need to scale this up to much larger reef areas in the future," he said.

"This process enables us to start thinking about how we might apply it on large areas on the reef, but we haven't got the technology or engineering skills to do it yet.

"What we've got to do is work immediately and quickly to start scaling up this process so we can get to much larger reef scales and much quicker coral restoration on reefs damaged all around the world."

He said if the project could be replicated on other degraded reefs, it would eventually not be needed at all.

"What we hope in future is that if we can be successful at large enough scales to start the reef restoration, the reef system itself will then produce enough larvae that will disperse onto other reefs and therefore start the process of natural restoration from the regenerated coral communities," Professor Harrison said.

"My hope in the future is that we don't have to keep doing this forevermore and we can get some reef systems back to recovery so they can't start producing these millions of larvae that allow these reef systems to recover."