Professor Peter Harrison from Southern Cross University's Marine Ecology Research Centre.
Professor Peter Harrison from Southern Cross University's Marine Ecology Research Centre. Gary Cranitch, GBR Foundation

Researcher's ground-breaking work is saving coral reefs

GROUND-BREAKING work by a Lismore researcher will soon be replicated across the world as efforts ramp up to save dying coral reefs.

Professor Peter Harrison is the director of Southern Cross University's Marine Ecology Research Centre.

He is leading a team of researchers who have developed an impressive way to increase the rate of baby coral growth on the Great Barrier Reef.

The work has now had eight successes in a row and it was one of six projects recently selected for funding from 69 international submissions in the Great Barrier Reef Coral Abundance Challenge, an initiative of Advance Queensland.

It will allow the team to start a new project on a section of the reef near Cairns which has been heavily decimated by coral bleaching.

 

Four-year-old breeding Acropora colonies grown from larvae in the Philippines restoration site.
Four-year-old breeding Acropora colonies grown from larvae in the Philippines restoration site. Peter Harrison

Prof Harrison's work is not easy.

He and his team harvest millions of coral eggs during spawning and grow the coral larvae in enclosures on the reef and in tanks.

The larvae are then released onto coral to rapidly increase the rate of new coral growth.

It is time-consuming work, with long days, late nights and difficult conditions, often hampered by bad weather.

But the results are so promising that the project has quickly gone from strength to strength.

Just eight months ago Prof Harrison was working in 10m by 10m enclosures.

For his next project, he will be working in 100sqm patches and before too long he hopes to work up to half a hectare and then a full hectare.

"My ultimate goal is to have enclosures of a kilometre squared," he said.

"That's within the next five years. Obviously we would need more funding for that kind of scale."

 

Juvenile coral grown from larval settlement on the Great Barrier Reef.
Juvenile coral grown from larval settlement on the Great Barrier Reef. Peter Harrison

His latest collaborative partnership on the Great Barrier Reef involves colleagues Katie Chartrand from James Cook University and Associate Professor David Suggett from UTS Sydney.

"The coral left behind in this area (near Cairns) is genetically strong," Prof Harrison said.

"These are the ones that we want to use as a basis for the next coral populations."

Prof Harrison said the team would use innovative methods to culture millions of coral larvae to improve their performance and uptake of an important microscopic symbiotic algae.

"Pilot study trials have shown improved settlement and survival of juvenile corals using this approach, and these techniques will be combined with new methods to scale-up mass coral larval restoration on some experimental reef areas," he said.

The work will start in November and Prof Harrison hopes to see real results about nine months later.

"Every project, we wait with anticipation," he said.

"We are always learning, we are always refining our techniques.

"But we have had so many successful outcomes now, that the results getting predictable. Of course there is always the chance that Mother Nature will intervene, but we have Plan B and Plan C.

"There's a lot of momentum at the moment... we have a good team and more and more people are getting involved."



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