Professor Harrison’s “Coral IVF” program is supported by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation as part of $ 100 million set aside for $ 443 million coral reef restoration projects funded by the federal government over six years.
Speaking from the Townsville office of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Professor Harrison explained how busy visitors to the reef – in the near future – could help harvest coral larvae from a coral ‘egg patch’ on the surface of the reef. ‘Ocean.
The larvae are placed in coral nursery enclosures, and six to nine months later, the small two-centimeter corals are transplanted onto trays on the reef to grow.
It was a method of transplanting heat-resistant corals into heat-affected areas of the Great Barrier Reef now being explored as a pilot project.
“It’s like when people go on a reforestation project or plant their garden, they feel a sense of pride,” said Professor Harrison.
“It is exactly the same emotion that we think is really important to the people who connect with the reef.”
The concept is not unique.
Visitors to the Queensland Government’s Mon Repos Turtle Research Center in Bargara, near Bundaberg, would understand. During the nesting season, 70 tourists a night help count turtle eggs and help rangers track down loggerhead turtles.
The Great Barrier Reef is marked by repeated coral bleaching events, the impact of warming waters and an increasing frequency of storms.
“The reason the Great Barrier Reef and other reef systems worked flawlessly and recovered from major events is that during these mass spawning events, literally trillions of larvae are produced,” said Professor Harrison.
“What has happened now, with all the coral bleaching events and all the other reef events that we are seeing, is that we are losing adult corals faster than they are naturally replaced.”
Professor Terry Hughes of the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies reported in October that small, medium and large corals – mainly branched and table corals – on the reef had decreased by more than 50% since the 1990s. .
But Professor Harrison is confident that the results of three years of in vitro fertilization research on corals in the Philippines and Heron Island off the central Queensland coast show that they can repair the reef.
His team worked to “improve the natural selection process,” with branched corals – the best species to provide homes for several reef fish species – becoming sexually active at three years old.
“We know that many corals have died during these recent bleaching events,” he said.
“The corals left there have a higher tolerance to heat, and experiments currently underway indicate that their parents have a higher tolerance to heat, so their offspring are increasingly likely to have greater heat tolerance.
“By putting down many larvae, natural selection will occur. And the hardest ones that are best suited to this new changed environment are those that continue to grow and hopefully continue to reproduce.
“So, to get to the reproduction of coral populations – which is the focus of this exercise – it’s not just to put more corals back on the reef, it’s to bring them to the reproductive dimension so that they can actually start producing larvae that will move away. to other parts of the reef and repair it in a better way in the future. “
Economically, the Great Barrier Reef is still one of Australia’s biggest attractions, attracting nearly 3 million visitors a year, contributing $ 5.7 billion to the Australian economy and supporting 59,000 full-time jobs, according to Tourism and Events Queensland.
Sharon Smallwood, executive secretary of the Whitsundays Charter Boat Industry Association, said the idea of having tourists an active role in the process deserves much merit, especially as local operators have been hit hard by the lack of international visitors.
“They are really on their knees financially, but they are still putting their hands up to get involved in projects like this that have strong environmental results,” he said.
“… I think there is definitely a way forward and a market for environmental tourism and volunteering.
“The Great Barrier Reef is very significant globally and people around the world are very concerned about the environmental aspects of what we are trying to do to protect it.”
The latest state of the climate report from the Bureau of Meteorology, released Friday, warned that warmer ocean temperatures meant coral bleaching would become more frequent.
Tony Moore is a senior reporter for the Brisbane Times