1st-ever coral rearing project aims to help the Great Barrier Reef recover until climate action ensures survival

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
December 12, 2018, 2:13:32 PM EST


The annual coral spawning, one of nature’s most miraculous events, takes place every year around the October or November full moons and world-renowned scientists are using the event to help save the Great Barrier Reef.

A new project is in the midst of repairing the reproductive life cycle of corals to re-establish breeding populations on damaged reefs.

The Larval Restoration Project is led by Professor Peter Harrison, from Southern Cross University in Australia, and his research in coral reproduction and larvae has rapidly advanced the potential for large-scale reef recovery.

According to Harrison, this is the most ambitious effort to regenerate a reef to date.

“This is the first time that the entire process of large-scale larval rearing and settlement will be undertaken directly on reefs on the Great Barrier Reef,” Harrison said.

(Photo/Gary Cranitch)

Coral spawn collection.

(Photo/Gary Cranitch)

Coral spawn collector.

(Photo/Gary Cranitch)

Richard Fitzpatrick from Biopixel filming coral spawn and coral spawn surface collector.

(Photo/Sheppard L.)

Captured with an Olympus digital camera.

(Photo/Katie Chartrand)

Captured with an Olympus digital camera.

(Photo/Gary Cranitch)

Coral spawning.

(Photo/Gary Cranitch)

Coral spawning.

(Photo/Biopixel)

(Photo/Katie Chartrand)

Captured with an Olympus digital camera.

(Photo/Biopixel)

(Photo/Biopixel)

Professor Peter Harrison working on the project.


Bringing together some of the world’s leading coral scientists, as well as tourism and other key industry partners, the team will harvest millions of coral eggs and sperm during the upcoming spawning event to grow new coral larvae, which will be released back onto heavily degraded parts of the northern Great Barrier Reef.

“Our team will be restoring hundreds of square meters with the goal of getting to square kilometers in the future, a scale not attempted previously,” Harrison said.

Harrison said that the project will not 'save' the Great Barrier Reef though.

“Our approach to reef restoration aims to buy time for coral populations to survive and evolve until emissions are capped and our climate stabilizes,” Harrison said.

According to Harrison, climate action is the only way to ensure coral reefs can survive into the future.


Katie Chartrand, a senior researcher for the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University, said the coral larvae restoration project aims to buy time while policymakers and the global community work on cutting emissions in order to slow the rate of warming in our atmosphere and oceans.

"By providing a source of coral that have survived past warming events—including the 2016 and 2017 mass bleaching events—we are supplying a new generation of offspring that is likely more stress tolerant to grow a new generation that may be able to handle future warming events," Chartrand said

The research they are doing is still experimental in terms of scaling the approach of growing millions of coral larvae, but they are on track to reach scales never done before with their huge capture of spawn recently. However, they think they have the resources and team to make it successful.

"Professor Peter Harrison’s successful track record for growing corals with this technique in the Philippines and on the southern Great Barrier Reef over the last eight years shows that this approach can be successful and that forms the basis for this larger collaborative project," Chartrand said

The team isn't sure on the exact amount of time this project is going to give the coral reef to survive, but they know time is running out. Chartrand said the extreme heat waves becoming more frequent along with catastrophic weather events affects marine and terrestrial ecosystems.


"With our project, the new generation of corals we will settle onto the reef this year will reach maturity in two to three years’ time. Once an adult, each colony will have the capacity to generate their own egg and sperm bundles to release during the annual spawning event," Chartrand said

This process ensures the corals they place on the reef will provide exponential benefit through the spillover of larvae to surrounding reef systems.

"In this way, our approach at scale can focus on boosting coral abundance on key source reefs that can provide larvae for degraded reefs downstream. These corals that survived the latest major warming events are passing on those important stress tolerant traits to their offspring, providing a way for us to harness the natural evolutionary processes of evolution; only the fittest survive," Chartrand said.

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The team said they hope this process of helping Mother Nature can get the coral reef through this period when climate stabilization is critical to our future as a global community.

One of the breakthroughs being tried during this project is mass co-culturing of coral larvae with their algal partners.

“These microalgae and their symbiosis with corals [are] essential to healthy coral communities that build reefs,” University of Technology Sydney Professor and researcher David Suggett said.

“So we are aiming to fast-track this process to see if the survival and early growth of juvenile corals can be boosted by rapid uptake of the algae," Suggett said.

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