It would be an understatement to say that Australia has had a tough year. In 2019, the country saw the hottest temperatures on record, with devastating results for agriculture and quality of life. Then 2020 kicked off with raging bushfires that engulfed 72,000 square miles (186,000 square kilometers) of the continent – fires that were extinguished just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to sweep the globe.
There's a glimmer of hope just off the coast of Cairns, Australia, however, thanks to five tour companies who have teamed up with scientists at the University of Technology Sydney to conduct collaborative coral planting in hopes of saving the Great Barrier Reef. That's thanks in large part to John Edmondson, who owns and operates Wavelength Reef Cruises with his wife Jenny, and who devised a technique called coral clipping he thought might help these delicate marine invertebrates grow faster.
As reported by Tropic Now, coral clipping consists of hammering small anchors into the reef, which are then used to secure pieces of diamond mesh aluminum onto which coral can grow. The flexible clips are designed to withstand natural wave activity, and animals like fish brushing up against the structures. Edmondson's idea attracted the attention of marine biologists and geochemists, who were eventually able to secure funding for a larger study known as the Coral Nurture Program.
In February of 2018, Wavelength Reef Cruises teamed up with Dave Suggett and Dr. Emma Camp of University of Technology Sydney to construct the first multi-species coral nursery at two sites frequented by Wavelength at Opal Reef. Over the next year, the Coral Nurture Program constructed 25 nursery frames and planted nearly 6,000 coral fragments.
Based on that early success, the next phase was to test the feasibility of scaling up that project to even larger sections of the Great Barrier Reef. In May of 2019, four more area tour companies were selected for the Coral Nurture Program. Each was chosen because of its long-term commitment not only to a particular location on the reef, but to sustainability practices and environmental conservation.
For the past 11 months, Wavelength Reef Cruises, Ocean Freedom, Sailaway, Quicksilver Cruises and Passions of Paradise have offered up their vessels and crew to take scientists out to different sections of the reef near Cairns to install coral clips and observe coral growth. Together they've created new coral nurseries under the watchful eye of marine biologists, nurseries that will soon be maintained with the ongoing support of these tour companies.
In theory, it's a win-win for everyone. The coral benefit from the attentions of a number of helpful underwater gardeners. Scientists have access to the expensive boats they need to reach reefs, as well as the expertise of guides and other tourism industry personnel who have intimate knowledge of the area and visit every day. The guide companies have a hand in maintaining and healing a fragile ecosystem that's also their bread and butter. And tourists can hopefully enjoy more beautiful, healthy reefs when they eventually return to Australia's beaches.
If the project succeeds at scale, it could mean this new model for restoration is applied to even more locations across the vast 1,400-mile span of the Great Barrier Reef. That would be yet another piece in the complex puzzle of saving one of the largest swaths of coral on the planet, which has been badly damaged by climate change and other factors like pollution.
Recent surveys by scientists at James Cook University and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority show that this summer's extreme temperatures were especially hard on Australia's corals. This year was the second-worst for mass coral bleaching ever observed – topped only by a 2016 bleaching episode that, according to The Washington Post, "killed half of all shallow-water corals on the northern Great Barrier Reef."
According to the UN Environment authority (UNEP), more than half of the world’s reefs – including not only Australia's Great Barrier Reef but also systems in Belize and the Bahamas – are threatened by mass die-offs. Global warming must be capped at 1.2ºC to protect just 50% of the world's coral. As oceans warm and acidify, the aquatic plants coral rely on can't survive, ending a necessary symbiotic relationship. That sends a ripple effect through the marine ecosystem, impacting a wide variety of flora and fauna that rely on reefs for food and shelter.
While scientists and governments work to slow down human-caused climate change in time to prevent more coral die-offs (and other ill-effects) around the world, the Coral Nurture Program offers a unique opportunity for the private sector to step in and help existing coral survive. Tour operators' boats may be empty for now due to the novel coronavirus, but that has given them extra time and manpower to tackle a different scourge –one coral clip at a time.