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Australian researchers and SECORE join forces to advance coral restoration

- Milestone
The Great Barrier Reef has suffered severe loss of corals, especially after the devastating third global coral bleaching event. Scientists from around the world are working together to assist recovery of this unique ecosystem. A partnership between the Australian Institute of Marine Science and SECORE is an important part of this effort.

Photos: left) The Great Barrier Reef from above, middle) ...and half submerged, both Unsplash, Romello Williams and Ishan respectively; right) bleached corals at Lizard Island 2016, The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

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Australia's Great Barrier Reef (GBR), like the vast majority of coral reefs around the world, is experiencing increasingly frequent and severe coral bleaching. While this World Heritage area is one of the best managed reef ecosystems in the world, climate change is accelerating the impact of bleaching, and many of the other threats the Reef faces, faster than it can naturally adapt. "Even with strong action to reduce climate change, water temperatures were predicted to continue to rise and stabilize at levels very stressful for corals", says David Mead, Australia's Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) leader and Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) Executive Director of Strategy and Development.

Australian researchers may now be able to mobilize unprecedented resources to fulfil the challenge of sustainably restoring coral reefs on a meaningful scale. This offers the chance to advance and refine available technologies, as well as develop new ones. “The Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program aims to create a suite of innovative and targeted measures that can be applied at the scale needed to help the Great Barrier Reef withstand the escalating threats it faces”, Mead said. “We are working with experts from around the world in a ‘no-stone-unturned’ approach to investigate new and innovative techniques that could make a difference to billions of corals spread over thousands of square kilometres.”

SECORE has revolutionized coral restoration with the Coral Seeding Concept, whereby sexually produced coral offspring is settled on specifically designed substrates that can be seeded en masse on the reef without the need of manual attachment. Dirk Petersen, SECORE's founder and Executive Director, explains SECORE's role within the frame of this cooperation: "We currently provide field data and expertise on the Coral Seeding Concept and upscaling technology that feeds in the concept feasibility study which is currently carried out by AIMS and partners to provide direction to the RRAP."

Photo & title photo: Carly Randall, postdoc researcher, during spawning at SeaSim, AIMS/Marie Roman.

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The recent coral spawning at the GBR provided the go for a series of experimental setups to test and refine current coral restoration methods, including experiments on coral settlement performance and growth on various substrate designs. Spawning, collection of spawn, coral settlement, and initial grow out of the coral babies will be carried out ex situ at the National Sea Simulator, a unique aquarium research system and the heart of the AIMS facilities on Cape Cleveland.

"Within this system, researchers have the ability to simulate specific reef regimes; turbidity, light levels, and several water quality parameters are able to be manipulated to recreate the environments that the corals would potentially be subjected to", explains Aric Bickl, SECORE's Operations Manager. "Thus, the SeaSim provides the unique opportunity to raise corals in an easily controlled and observable environment, while recreating many of the actual conditions they would encounter in the wild."

"It had been a successful spawning season at AIMS's National Sea Simulator this year, with more than half a million larvae getting ready to settle on differently shaped substrates early next week", says Carly Randall, Coral Ecologist at AIMS. "These shapes that have been 3D printed in ceramic and other materials, address questions about substrate design and material type. We will be testing the coral larval preference for each shape, and then settle larvae onto the shapes to deploy out onto the Great Barrier Reef. We will monitor their performance over the next year and evaluate which designs and materials work best to promote coral survival and growth."

Photos: left) SECORE settlement substrates and Carly Randall at SeaSim, AIMS; middle) outplanting Seeding Units (settlement substrate with baby corals), right) Seeding Unit within the reef; both Bahamas 2018, SECORE/John Parkinson.

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So far, the corals have been playing their part well by spawning timely as predicted: the North Queensland corals spawned just days after the November 23rd full moon. Settling the coral larvae within the different experimental setups is happening right now, while the populated substrates―the so-called Seeding Units―are planned to be put out on the reef by March 2019. A team of SECORE scientists will join their colleagues at AIMS to give the coral babies a safe conduct to the wild.

Carin Jantzen

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SECORE's lead partners are:

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
California Academy of Science
The Nature Conservancy

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