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Coral Nurture Program

Nature + Environment + Sustainability

Caring for coral at high value reef sites

A unique program that sees broken pieces of coral salvaged from the bottom of the sea floor and reattached using a special clip is achieving remarkable results.

The Coral Nurture Program is a unique partnership between researchers from the University of Technology Sydney and tour operators to optimise assisted coral recovery methods as part of  “stewardship” based management of economically high value Great Barrier Reef locations, with the goal to transform both ecological and social resilience to environmental change. At its core, this program is about collecting, propagating, growing and planting coral, to replenish reef sites and enhance the reef’s resilience. The program is built on 3 main pillars.

Protecting Existing Coral. The first thing anyone discovers when trying to plant corals, is that it takes money and lots of hard work! This is a reminder of how important existing coral cover is. Protecting existing coral stock, and its ability to continue producing larvae, are the first and most basic steps. This protection is achieved through local management practices, responsible tourism and Marine Park regulations. All regulatory activities – including those for coral propagation and planting – are aligned to the core effective management policies and practices of the Great Barrier Reef.

Planting Coral. Success of the Coral Nurture Program has been via research into ways to speed up coral planting, which led to the development by John Edmondson (Wavelength Reef Cruises) of a novel physical attachment device, Coralclip®. Coral planting can be from nursery reared corals or fragments of opportunity. On a healthy reef with reasonable coral cover, it is normal to have some broken coral. In the same way that old trees can fall in a forest and break surrounding vegetation, large colonies of fragile coral are vulnerable to damage in rough weather. Fish such as Bumphead Parrotfish can also be quite destructive when they are feeding.

Loose coral fragments (called “fragments (or corals) of opportunity”) sometimes re-attach, but this is often prevented by wave action and they may fall onto another coral colony, or fall onto sand and ultimately be smothered and die. The easiest source of coral fragments that can be planted is from regularly collecting these broken fragments and planting them securely in places where they have room to grow well. There are strict permit conditions about collecting and planting “opportunity” fragments or corals.

Propagating coral. If a location has insufficient opportunity fragments or corals, for example due to very low live coral cover, the next step is to propagate corals in a nursery that can then be out-planted. There are a number of important considerations in coral nursery practices that need careful scientific guidance. As with planting, a permit from GBRMPA is strictly required.

Nurseries are a significant responsibility and should be carefully considered before being undertaken. It is necessary to understand the genetic flow of populations within and between neighbouring reefs when designing the location for your nurseries, and decide how they are stocked. The nursery site should be easily accessed for maintenance. Regular monitoring is essential so that outbreaks of coral disease (and growth of fouling organisms such as algae) are minimised, and success (growth and survival) is measured.

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Vibrant coral reef with dive boat above on surface.
Growing corals in a lab.
Coral regeneration program on the sea bed.
Scuba diver caring for corals on the sea bed.