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Australia cannot wait for climate decision to save Reef: foundation

Anna Marsden, managing director of Great Barrier Reef Foundation with green turtle hatchlings.

Anna Marsden, managing director of Great Barrier Reef Foundation with green turtle hatchlings.

“We don’t have the luxury of just waiting for the world to get their act together on the climate-change mitigation front alone.”

Seeing green turtle hatchlings recently enter the reef waters from the 64,000 extra turtles that made headlines in July was a start, Ms Marsden said.

“There are not many causes that land on our generation that have to be solved within our generation, so this is really the cause of our time,” she said.

Great Barrier Foundation chief scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg believes broad-scale change on the reef must be under way in 10 years.

Ms Marsden said criticism of the federal government’s process in awarding $443 million to the foundation in 2017, subsequently reviewed by the Australian National Audit Office, encouraged it to tell its own 20-year story better.

Much of the $443 million is helping a cross-expertise program called the Reef Restoration and Adaption Program, blending experience from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University, the CSIRO and Great Barrier Marine Park Authority.

“This is not about coral gardening, it is about rebuilding reefs,” Ms Marsden said.

“It is about cracking the code of rebuilding the reefs that have been lost, protecting the reefs that are still there and doing it at scale.

“If we can crack these techniques, we can protect much of the Great Barrier Reef and arguably share this knowledge with the world.”

The scientific team is trying to identify “super-breeder reefs” that can be used to repopulate the rest of the Great Barrier Reef network after coral bleaching events.

“This is what we have to crack; how do you rebuild a reef after a cyclone, or after a bleaching event,” Ms Marsden said.

Raine Island green turtles arrive to nest. 

Raine Island green turtles arrive to nest. Credit:Gary Cranitch/Queensland Museum

About $50 million is invested in partnerships with 72 traditional reef owner groups that have custodianship over parts of the reef, similar to their Great Barrier Reef Foundation Raine Island Recovery Project.

In July, a series of steps including raising the sand levels, fencing off breeding grounds and using drones to count showed 64,000 additional green turtles arriving to breed on Raine Island off Cairns.

Some of the $443 million funding goes to programs that tackle crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks and water quality.

“But we have carved out a good chunk of the money for game-changing innovations,” Ms Marsden said.

The Great Barrier Marine Foundation’s partnership management committee identified the projects.

“When you think about coral reef protection, the scale of the problem is a problem only Australia has,” Ms Marsden said.

“A lot of people are doing coral restoration, but they are talking about one reef. We have thousands of reefs, so we have to scale it and make it affordable at scale.”

Their five-year Raine Island Recovery Project is a success in a conventional conservation project.

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“It is all part of the circle of life. In July we covered the mums and now we are reporting on the babies.”

Ms Marsden said the foundation agreed the Great Barrier Reef was facing “a perfect storm of threats”.

“But what this conservation project is showing is that the right blend of traditional owner, conservation, engineering and science working together can achieve that natural circle of life and give us that extra resilience boost that is weighing against so many other challenges they are facing,” she said.

Ms Marsden said similar steps were being taken at Lady Elliott Island on southern Great Barrier Reef.

“The model is to get the right amount of modelling data, understand the biodiversity in the ecosystem and understand how the system has worked in peak times,” she said.

“We then ‘work’ the problem.”

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