The Hub’s longstanding focus on applied science projects supporting Reef resilience has come into even sharper focus with the recent planning and approval of 13 new projects. The project leaders and their teams – from a diverse range of our partner research institutions – are already getting to work on the Reef, in labs and in offices around the state. This brings the total number of research projects funded through the NESP Tropical Water Quality Hub to date to 70.
These new projects demonstrate an increased emphasis on applying science to answer management questions related to maintaining Reef resilience in the face of mounting climate change issues and mass coral bleaching events. There’s also an expansion of some existing successful projects and activities involving Traditional Owner management of reefs, putting water quality data in the hands of cane growers, and applying Integrated Pest Management principles to better control of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks.
We think you’ll agree we’re not shying away from the big issues. Here’s a quick introduction to the 13 new projects starting early 2018.
As our scientific knowledge base increases, so does our ability to manage wicked problems like COTS infestations on the Great Barrier Reef. The Hub has taken a game-changing Integrated Pest Management approach to COTS control, and this new project is the next step in this process. Dr David Westcott from CSIRO will lead a team whose focus will now shift to fieldwork to investigate remaining key knowledge gaps, such as ecological parameters around COTS population processes (such as predation by fish and other species), analyzing incoming data from the ongoing COTS control program to determine the relationship between COTS and coral bleaching, and laying the groundwork for surveillance technology and better techniques for finding and monitoring both primary and secondary outbreaks of the starfish. All of these efforts are aimed at increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of control of COTS outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef.
The potential for recurring mass coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef is of local, regional and global concern. But there’s still a surprising amount we don’t understand about the details of how temperature and ocean and weather dynamics interact, and why some regions seem more or less vulnerable than others. Craig Steinberg from AIMS will lead a team investigating the effect of local, regional and global ocean and weather dynamics on previous Great Barrier Reef bleaching events. The project will compile and analyse all existing sea temperature data on the GBR to examine patterns in the distribution of high temperatures, and will seek to explain why some regions are more vulnerable to higher temperatures. They will also produce tools that will better predict where and when bleaching may occur on the Great Barrier Reef in future.
Given the pressures mounting on coral reefs worldwide, there’s enormous interest in coral restoration activities. However, from a scientific viewpoint, it’s important that such efforts on the Great Barrier Reef are underpinned by science and follow best practice. Dr Ian McLeod at JCU is partnering with Reef Ecologic and the Reef Restoration Foundation to trial and evaluate the effectiveness of coral restoration techniques, including identifying and transplanting corals from species that have demonstrated resilience or rapid recovery from bleaching, removing algae to promote coral growth, and larval enhancement to assist coral recruitment. The project has already established a trial site at Fitzroy Island off Cairns.
Were survivors of the recent back-to-back mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef resistant in some way, or were they just lucky? Dr Line Bay from AIMS continues her research into understanding how corals adapt to changing conditions with this new project, which investigates the genetic traits of corals that survived recent bleaching events to see whether they are inherently more tolerant of higher sea temperatures. This will be tested across three coral species (Acropora millepora, A. hyacinthus and A. tenuis), and will include examination of the genetics of the zooxanthellae (small symbiotic algae) hosted by these corals. Her team will also investigate patterns of environmental variables that could facilitate this observed resistance.
With health pressures on the Great Barrier Reef increasing across the board, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is promoting the concept of resilience-based based management, which begins by identifying reefs with high value and resistance to health pressures. These key reefs can then be prioritized for management, thus optimizing allocation of scare management resources. This project, led by Professor Peter Mumby at the University of Queensland, builds upon previous work conducted under funding from the GBR Foundation, and will draw on information from eReefs, GIS data, the latest science, connectivity modelling and field-tested models, to develop a software-based guide for identifying key reefs. This system will be trialled in the development and implementation of resilience-based management in the Whitsunday and Cairns regions.
As the Great Barrier Reef experiences more damaging events, the importance of identifying and protecting ‘keystone’ species or groups of species that are disproportionately important to maintaining the underlying functioning of the system grows. Professor Peter Mumby from the University of Queensland will lead a project team of over 20 scientists from a range of disciplines and institutions to find these keystone species, which include not just coral but microbes, plankton, algae, sponges, invertebrates and fish. The team will then be able to recommend management actions to protect these critical species.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are identified in the Reef 2050 plan as the Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef, with a long-standing and continuing connection to sea country in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. A/Professor Henrietta Marrie from Central Queensland University, will survey multiple Indigenous groups across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to scope options for increasing economic participation by Traditional Owners in Great Barrier Reef sea country management, such as Indigenous-led coral reef tourism.
Project 25 aims to increase the confidence of cane growers in the validity of water quality science. Project leader Dr Aaron Davis from James Cook University will add more water quality monitoring sites and integrate with CSIRO’s Digiscapes program to add real-time data acquisition via the internet. The expansion of this project will also include a social research component to explore how the partnership with local cane growers has led to changes in their attitudes towards the science, and increased adoption of recommended farming practices designed to protect the GBR.
Dr Andrew Brooks from Griffith University and his team were awarded a 2017 Eureka Prize for their research on massive alluvial gullies in northern Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef catchments under TWQ Hub Project 3.3.2. Building on this work, the team will be compiling a database of gullies from across Queensland to establish a ‘common language’ for describing and categorizing gully formations. This will help ensure that an accurate picture of the state’s gullies is developed and that management actions are directed in a cost-effective way – an important outcome, considering gully erosion is a major point-source driver of sediment and nitrogen runoff onto the Great Barrier Reef.
Dr Nathan Waltham from James Cook University returns to continue Project 3.3.2’s aim of evaluating the cost-effectiveness of wetland conversion projects in several Great Barrier Reef catchments, partnering with natural resource management (NRM) groups along the Queensland coast. This project comes amid rising government and private interest in converting marginal and low-lying agricultural land to wetlands, with the aim of plugging major knowledge gaps on construction and maintenance costs in addition to effectiveness of removing nitrogen and sediment from waterways.
Terrestrial organic carbon is a traditionally overlooked element in the Great Barrier Reef water quality sphere and is poorly studied. This project, led by Professor Michele Burford at Griffith University, will investigate the role of terrestrial carbon in increasing the bioavailability of nutrients in Great Barrier Reef systems, especially to for algae. Data will be drawn from a review of the available literature and Great Barrier Reef water quality monitoring data.
Professor Sharyn Rundle-Thiele from Griffith University leads an experienced and diverse team of scientists who together will be conducting a thorough cost-effectiveness examination of economic and behavioural change efforts that have been directed at the cane-growing industry in the Great Barrier Reef catchment in recent years.
In late 2015, mangrove forests along the southern and western coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria experienced a massive and unprecedented die-off. Mangroves are an integral element in maintaining good water quality and so accurate data on this event needs to be gathered to lay groundwork for future investigations into its cause and possible mitigations.
Dr Norm Duke from James Cook University leads this project, which will include training and support of local Indigenous ranger groups to gather data in this remote region.