TWQ Hub is working with reef restoration researchers and educators Reef Ecologic and reef tour provider Quicksilver to evaluate the effectiveness of a number of novel coral restoration methods from Port Douglas to the Whitsundays.
For example, at Agincourt Reef, a major tourism dive site off Cairns, several steel frames have been fitted with coral fragments in the water. An electric current is run through some of the frames and researchers are evaluating its efficacy as a method of boosting coral growth through enhanced mineral accretion via electrolysis.
Dr Ian McLeod at JCU is following this experiment and many others under a wide-ranging TWQ project to evaluate the effectiveness of reef restoration projects around the world, and said interventions in response to acute damage was more important now than ever.
“There’s definitely been a shift from protectionist to interventionist thinking when it comes to GBR management,” he said.
“What we’re doing is starting an initial scoping study to look at what you can do to accelerate recovery after an acute damage event, like a cyclone or a ship strike.”
“If you can accelerate that recovery after an acute event, even the simplest stuff, it’s got a lot of benefits – but we need to be looking at ‘what’s the best practice for doing this?’
“Up until now most of these projects have been focused on coral growth. what we’ll also be doing is looking into what the return on investment is, what kind of scale these techniques are applicable at – is it something that would be useful for example to the tourism industry because it can keep a dive site in good condition, or is it something that could be used on a wider scale?”
Assoc Professor Adam Smith at Reef Ecologic said that projects like these were trials to find ways of active reef restoration of coral in the wake of mass mortality events (such cyclones or the back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017) to increase knowledge, education and stewardship.
“The aim is to research what works and what doesn’t, and how we can scale that up, because obviously the GBR is a very large system,” he said. “If we get scientific data indicating something doesn’t work, we can stop putting effort into that kind of project and instead focus on others that might be more
Many of the projects target not only ecological restoration (the physical rebuilding of reefs) but also have a social component. Building people’s willingness and capacity to act is also essential for the Reef’s future. Reef Ecologic is tracking the attitudes and perceptions of participants in their workshops and projects with before-and-after surveys and found overwhelmingly that they have an increased intentions to reduce their ecological footprint and continue to take part in reef conservation and restoration work in the future.
“If you can get people into the water and participating in reef restoration with their own hands, even if it’s just cleaning algae off coral, it can be life-changing,” Assoc Prof Smith said.
Quicksilver environmental compliance manager Doug Baird said even though restoration interventions mainly operated at local scales at the moment they could still be extremely important, given the concentration of tourism activity at Reef dive sites.
“While the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has contingency plans to allow the movement of a tourism pontoon like the one at Agincourt Reef, the reality is that moving a pontoon to a different site would take over a year and be very difficult,” he said.
“This really puts the onus on us tourism operators to have a very forward-looking stewardship mentality at the site.
“Any project or technique to increase resilience and recovery from acute damage is good news for us and definitely something we are going to be interested in. Obviously the big challenge out there is combating climate change and we’ve all got to be working toward that.”
Dr McLeod agrees.
“Looking at a single site might seem a bit small compared to the entire Great Barrier Reef but if it’s a major tourist site, we’re talking about potentially billions of dollars to the tourism industry,” he said.
“Of course this all happens within the context of a changing global climate, which has big effects on the GBR – the global effort to mitigate climate change has to continue, that’s vitally important.”
A video produced by Reef Ecologic on the coral electrolysis project is now available on Vimeo.
More information on the restoration evaluation project can be found online.