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‘Buying time for the Reef’: $300m earmarked for novel coral research

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The report noted the Great Barrier Reef was “now under imminent threat” from warming oceans, but successful interventions “will buy time for Reef survival”.

Combined with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ” a window of opportunity still exists” to save the reef but only “20 to 30 years at most” remain, it said.

The research and development funding includes $100 million set aside by the Turnbull government for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and $50 million that partnering agencies such as the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the CSIRO will tip in.

The Foundation will aim to raise $100 million from philanthropists and other private groups over five years. If achieved, the government will shell out a further $50 million.

As the third mass coral bleaching event in five years unfolds on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Coral Sea, the government is planning to test different approaches to make corals more resilient.

As the third mass coral bleaching event in five years unfolds on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Coral Sea, the government is planning to test different approaches to make corals more resilient.Credit:Edward Roberts

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Foundation chief Anna Marsden said it was “too soon to say” what impact of the Covid-19 pandemic would have on its ability to lure donors.

Paul Hardistry, head of AIMS, said challenges would include how to scale up any of the technologies to make a difference over the Great Barrier Reef, which is bigger than Victoria and Tasmania combined.

Researchers would also have to ensure any intervention, such as genetic ones, did not trigger unwanted side-effects.

Dr Hardisty said it might come down to a combination, such as seeding reefs with larvae that last longer, creating artificial structures to support corals, and spraying seawater into the air to reduce solar radiation reaching the surface.

He said it would be “at least three years” before such interventions could be tested.

Many scientists, though, have reservations about the feasibility of such projects.

Researchers have just returned from the Coral Sea after finding coral bleaching on all 16 remote reefs they visited.

Researchers have just returned from the Coral Sea after finding coral bleaching on all 16 remote reefs they visited.Credit:Edward Roberts

“I struggle to see how it can make a difference,” said Andrew Hoey, a professorial research fellow at James Cook University, who has just returned from a survey that found coral bleaching on all 16 reefs visited in the Coral Sea.

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The researchers, supported by Parks Australia, estimate as much as 70 per cent of shallow reefs were bleached as accumulated heat stress prompted the corals to expel the symbiotic algae that provide their colour and most of their energy.

“These were such incredible reefs – it makes it more devastating to see the change,” Dr Hoey said.

Edward Roberts, a marine biologist on the Coral Reef voyage, said money would be better spent reducing greenhouse gas emissions than on interventions that would be overwhelmed by global heating.

“It’s like giving a diet pill to someone with chronic obesity,” Dr Roberts said.

On the Coral Sea Marine Park research, Minister Ley said the final results of the Parks Australia-commissioned were expected mid year “so there is still significant detail to review”.

“We know there is a high level of bleaching of around 60 per cent in the reefs surveyed to ten metres [deep], however further analysis is still required,” Ms Ley said.

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