How a Lismore researcher could save the Great Barrier Reef

Coral larval curtain enclosure on Heron Island reef.
Coral larval curtain enclosure on Heron Island reef. Peter Harrison

A LISMORE-BASED researcher is leading ground-breaking work that could save the Great Barrier Reef and have global significance.

Professor Peter Harrison from Southern Cross University is the lead researcher on the project, which aims to "kick-start” the recovery of the reef.

It speeds up the formation of new coral colonies using baby corals conceived and settled directly on the reef by protecting the tiny corals in mesh enclosures.

Acropora settled polyps crop.
Acropora settled polyps crop. Peter Harrison

"We've been capturing coral spawn - and they only spawn once a year for just a few nights - so it's a rare opportunity,” Prof Harrison said.

"Then we reared the larvae at the lab for a week, and at the end of the process we had four million larvae.

"It sounds like a lot, but in nature, very few actually survive. They're very tiny, less than 1mm in size.

"The initial indication is that some of the larvae have actually settled on the reef.

"We are looking forward, in a year's time, to seeing these juvenile coral at about 1-2cm.”

Prof Harrison said the early results were promising.

But to make a real difference to the Great Barrier Reef, the project would need to be done on a much larger scale.

Branching coral Acropora valida spawning.
Branching coral Acropora valida spawning. Peter Harrison.

"At the moment we are working in 10m by 10m enclosures, but for it to be meaningful in restoring the reef, we would need to be operating in hectares,” Prof Harrison said.

"I am currently working on how we could scale this up ... I am in the process of redesigning systems.”

He said he was positive about the future, explaining he had the "best team on board” who worked hard to overcome challenges.

The pilot project was funded with a $400,000 grant from the Great Barrier Reef Authority.

Prof Harrison said an extension of the project would need millions of dollars over a number of years.

"This is the first active management process that has been done on the reef,” he said.

"It's important because the Great Barrier Reef is worth $56 billion to our economy.

"We have achieved something that could make a real difference to the reef. It's a new tool in our toolbox.”

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