Best practice coral restoration for the Great Barrier Reef

Ian McLeod
Led by: Dr Ian McLeod, JCU


Project Summary

As coral cover in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) continues to degrade, pressure is growing for direct interventions to assist the recovery of corals at important sites. A range of coral restoration and assisted recovery techniques have been trialled overseas and in Australia, however there has not been an evaluation of what will work best in GBR conditions.

This project will:

  • Summarise and evaluate the success of coral restoration and assisted recovery techniques worldwide and identify the techniques most likely to help the GBR.
  • Experimentally test the most promising techniques.
  • Come up with best practices for post-impact coral reattachment and reorientation.

Explore options for training courses, offset models and Indigenous employment.


Project Publications
Final Report
Journal Article
Technical Report
Workshop Flyer
Short Report
Journal Article
Case Study
Technical Report
Baseline Report
Journal Article
NOAA Report
UNEP Report


Coral Restoration Database



Project Videos


Project Description

As the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) continues to degrade through repeated mass bleaching events, crown-of-thorns starfish and major disease outbreaks, and the impacts of intense cyclones, pressure is growing for direct intervention to assist the recovery of reef-building corals. Decreasing coral cover on the GBR and other Australian reefs has been recognised as a serious problem relatively recently in Australia but follows a global trend, with many overseas reefs now highly degraded. Various types of coral restoration, rehabilitation and assisted recovery projects have been trialled overseas for decades and it makes sense to look at what has and hasn’t worked overseas to determine a range of options that may suit GBR conditions. Some direct interventions to assist coral recovery have been trialled in Australia such as transplanting corals, algae removal to promote coral recovery and larval enhancement promoting direct coral recruitment. In addition, after physical damage from cyclones, ship strikes or dragged anchors, local dive operators and dive clubs (permitted or unpermitted) often attempt to assist the recovery of corals by tipping over flipped tabular corals and reattaching broken branching corals or sea fans. These latter assisted recovery techniques are rarely underpinned by scientific data on coral recovery. A lack of best practice guidelines for these actions limits the chance of success and increases the health and safety risks of these activities.


How the research will be undertaken
  • A scoping document that assesses the effectiveness of coral restoration, rehabilitation and assisted recovery techniques globally, and outlines options that may suit GBR condition will be produced in 2018. A key difference between this and other scoping studies is that we will assess grey literature and reach out to restoration practitioners globally to gain critical information (including unpublished information) not available through traditional literature reviews. Restoration practitioner’s experiences will be investigated through an online questionnaire. Cost / benefit analysis of techniques will be included where information is available.
  • Assisting with the organising and hosting of a workshop/symposium (in 2018) that builds on the 2017 Reef Summit and 2017 Coastal Restoration Symposium, and that includes broad participation from business, tourism and engineering disciplines to develop new direct intervention options, and refinements of existing techniques to help improve GBR health.
  • Evaluating the approaches, methods and success of existing coral restoration efforts in the GBR through meetings and discussions with restoration practitioners and in-water assessments where appropriate.
  • Designing an experimental protocol to test different broken coral reattachment and re-orientation techniques, ready for implementation after ship strike or cyclone damage. This will be based on recommendations from 1 and 2 above.
  • Assessing the effectiveness of coral reattachment and re-orientation techniques and coming up with best practice guidelines by conducting surveys of scientifically validated trial sites (2018-2019).
  • Working in partnership with GBRMPA to select sites and techniques for assisted recovery and coral restoration in the GBR (building on goals from the 2017 Reef Summit).
  • Conducting field experiments to scientifically test promising methods relevant to the GBR identified through the scoping study.

In Scope

  • Local-scale larval enhancement trials in combination with algae removal building on Prof. Peter Harrison’s field experiments in the Philippines and Australia (if this comes out as a priority technique through the scoping study).
  • Adding value to existing/planned coral restoration projects in the GBR through assisting with experimental design and monitoring to scientifically evaluate success.

Out of Scope                                                      

  • Crown of thorn control as this is covered by other research projects (funded through NESP and elsewhere).
  • Soft coral, giant clam, shellfish and seagrass restoration.
  • Coral genetic manipulation and assisted evolution.
  • This project is focussed on local-scale restoration and assisted recovery techniques and will not address GBR-wide recovery.

Trial programmes/case studies to improve physical environment

  • The most promising coral restoration techniques identified through the 2018 scoping study will be trialled in 2019-2020.
  • This project will also add scientific evaluation for current and planned coral restoration techniques in the GBR, including algal removal trials and coral transplanting.
  • The post-impact coral reattachment and reorientation assessment and experiments findings will be synthesised into best-practice guidelines to improve the success and safety of these efforts.

Details of related prior research

  • Co-investigator Professor Peter Harrison has successfully trailed larval enhancement of corals (Acropora) in the Philippines and Australia over the past 5 years and has successfully led coral reproduction research that underpins this work on many reef areas around the world for more than 30 years, including work for the UN. This project will investigate opportunities to build on this promising research.
  • Co-investigator Dr Boze Hancock is The Nature Conservancy’s lead Marine Restoration Scientist in their Global Marine Team. Previously, he was the Coordinator for the TNC-NOAA Community-based Restoration Partnership and has had led or been involved in numerous coral restoration projects around the world.
  • Co-investigator Dr David Bourne has assessed the recovery of reefs around Orpheus Island that were decimated by Cyclone Yasi for the last 5 years. This project will build upon the knowledge gained through this investigation. Earthwatch were involved in this project as citizen scientists. This project will look for opportunities to include citizen scientists (including Earthwatch) in coral restoration trials and monitoring.
  • Co-leader Dr Adam Smith runs the Reef Recovery project that is investigating the effect of algae removal from degraded Magnetic Island reefs. There is currently no formal scientific assessment of the efficacy of these efforts for coral or fish population recovery. This project will add these assessments.
  • Co-investigator Ms Margaux Hein has reviewed the published scientific literature on the effectiveness of coral restoration activities globally and suggested 10 indicators that comprehensively evaluate the success of coral reef restoration (published in the journal Restoration Ecology in August 2017). These indicators (which include socio-economic indicators) will be used as a basis for evaluation of coral restoration projects that have not been described in the published literature (the vast majority of projects), which will be completed during this project.
  • There are many reports and guidelines about coral restoration and rehabilitation around the world. These will be built upon and techniques will be scientifically assessed for potential effectiveness for the GBR during the current project.

How the project links to other research and/or the work of other Hubs

  • Dr McLeod is also the project leader (FTE 0.4) of Project E5 ‘The role of restoration in conserving matters of national environmental significance (MNES)’ proposed to be funded through the NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub in their RPv4. Project E5 is focussed on four habitat types (seagrass, kelp, saltmarsh and shellfish).
  • This project will link well with project 4.5 (Guidance system for resilience-based management of the GBR) that will identify the most important reefs in the GBR and project 4.6 (recommendations to maintain functioning of the GBR) that will prioritise key species and ecological processes. This project would also link well with projects investigating which are the most robust corals in a changing climate (as potential seed/ fragment sources for restoration activities).
  • This project will link with AIMS and other research providers in Australia and overseas that are focussing on coral restoration to share knowledge and investigate opportunities for collaboration. Co-Investigator Dr Boze Hancock will be a key person here as he has led or been involved in scores of marine habitat restoration projects internationally, through TNC and the TNC-NOAA partnership.

How will the research be applied to inform decision-making and on-ground action

  • This project will be run in partnership with GBRMPA to provide critical information as they move towards a more interventionist management strategy for the GBR. Dr McLeod is assisting with the development of a policy document ‘Guidelines for developing reef restoration projects’ for the GBR Foundation with Reef Ecologic and GBRMPA.
  • This project will be run in partnership with tourism operators and other groups who are currently involved in or are applying for permits to trial coral restoration techniques in the GBR. We see our roles as providing the scientific rigor and monitoring often not budgeted for or lacking because of capacity limitation to these projects.

We will produce an applied ‘Best Practice Guidelines’ document to support managers and citizen scientists based on all activities through this project.


NESP 2017 Research Priority Alignment

NESP Priority Theme 3: Natural resource management improvements based on sound understanding of the status and long-term trends of priority species and systems.

Restoration is increasingly seen as an important management tool for coral reefs but there is limited information to support effective management. This project directly addresses this information gap and will inform the following Research Priorities:

  • Identify and trial practical methods to improve reef resilience, such as the transplantation of coral and coral genetics.
  • Identify locally or regionally specific management interventions to achieve or maintain realistic desired states for tropical environmental, social, cultural and economic values.
  • Develop and implement better tools, including spatial information, to support the prioritisation of on-ground investments and interventions and assess their success.

Explore the opportunities for citizen science and Indigenous participation to improve coral restoration awareness and outcomes.


Project Keywords

Great Barrier Reef; Coral restoration; Assisted recovery; Adaptation; Engagement.


Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through JCU, Reef Ecologic, The Nature Conservancy, Southern Cross University, CSIRO and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.