Great Barrier Reef ‘rebirth’ underway as scientists implant new baby coral (PHOTOS, VIDEOS)

Great Barrier Reef ‘rebirth’ underway as scientists implant new baby coral (PHOTOS, VIDEOS)
Marine biologists in southeast Asia and Australia are harvesting hundreds of thousands of coral spawn with a view to regenerating the world’s coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Professor Peter Harrison from Southern Cross University in New South Wales, Australia collects coral spawn off the coast of Heron Island on the GBR, matures it in tanks and then transplants it later.

“It's really exciting, this essentially is the rebirth of the reef,” Professor Harrison said, as cited by ABC News. “We can grow these corals from microscopic larvae to dinner-plate size, breeding corals in just three years.”

“It's a new way of looking at the problem and it’s probably the only hope for the future in terms of larger-scale restoration using hundreds of millions of coral larvae. I don’t know of any reef system on the planet that is now healthier than it was 35 years ago, and that’s really sad.

"In South-East Asia, which is the center of marine biodiversity on the planet, it’s estimated that 95 per cent of those reefs are highly degraded and are facing serious threats in the coming decades.”

This technique showed great promise when trialled in the Philippines on coral reefs that had been devastated by blast fishing. Researchers create micro sanctuaries along the reefs using mesh curtains, and use a special kind of tile to monitor the growth. Out of the million-plus larvae collected in November 2016, a total of 100 coral polyps survived.  

At present, the curtains cover 100 square meters but plans to greatly expand the project are already being developed. As it stands, the project is not designed to restore the GBR’s network of over 3,000 reefs covering 344,000 square kilometers (132,000 square miles).

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“It’s not just about having any coral. It's about getting coral big enough to reproduce,” said Chief scientist at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Dr David Wachenfeld. “Then we've really cracked this problem, because we’ve kickstarted the natural recovery process of the reef.”

“I think that this could be something that changes management of reefs worldwide. All of the reefs, everywhere in the world, are suffering at the moment,” Wachenfeld said. “In the past, the Marine Park Authority has had a philosophy of basically getting out of nature’s way. But climate change is really changing that. The reef is battered and bruised. It’s more impacted than it's ever been before.”

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“This is a moment for a reality check about the condition of the reef. But it’s also a call to action. This is a time for us to do more and act now to save the Great Barrier Reef,” Wachenfeld added.

Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg announced AUD $400,000 (USD $304,000) for Professor Harrison's research with the potential for more in future while an additional $200,000 is being spent by the GBRMPA to identify the best places to roll out the technology. However, Harrison said another $1 to $2 million a year is needed over the next five to 10 years to expand the project meaningfully.

“The success of this new research not only applies to the Great Barrier Reef, but has potential global significance," Harrison said, as cited by the Sydney Morning Herald. “It [may] be one of the answers to some of the problems in the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a glimmer of hope."

“There is much more to be done, but this is definitely a great leap forward for the reef, and for the restoration and repair of reefs world-wide,” said Great Barrier Reef Foundation managing director Anna Marsden. “It’s time to be bold and take some calculated risks because that's the way we'll make a change in how we can help restore our coral reefs.”

Efforts are also underway to sequence coral DNA with a view to better understanding how it grows and how we can help corals survive in the warmer oceans created by climate change.