For the last three years Reef Ecologic have been actively working with the local community in the Whitsundays region assisting the recovery of the reef following devastating impacts from Cyclone Debbie in 2017. Over this time, we have implemented an active reef restoration process called coral gardening to help re-establish healthy populations of foundational species at the target sites in Blue Pearl and Manta Ray Bay. Ecological restoration is defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) as ‘the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed’.
Funding has been hard to come by after some initial support from federal and state governments and other not-for-profit foundations. The challenge with many of these ecosystem restoration projects is they require a long-term commitment to recover. With coral, which grows anywhere between one and twenty centimetres per year, depending on the species, it is challenging to expect rapid recovery across short funding time frames, but we do what we can.
Healthy reefs support a health tourism industry, and similarly a healthy tourism industry needs healthy reefs. Throughout March we partnered with local tourism operators Red Cat Adventures and Aqua 5, local Whitsunday businesses keen to do their bit to make a difference to support the natural environment. More importantly they realise that looking after their reefs is important as that is what the tourists come to see.
Over 30 people including tourism staff, local community members and international visitors joined the multiple days of activities, hoping to assist in this community based restoration project. Calm weather belied the 20 knot northerlies that had been blowing consistently over the region for the much of the early half of March. The trip out on our trusty sailboat, Tongarra, was slow, but that gave expedition leader and marine scientist Nathan Cook time to provide extensive background on the project, an overview of what coral gardening entails and what would be expected of today’s volunteers.
Both snorkellers and scuba divers made up the excited volunteers who would all have a role to play in the monitoring and maintenance work. Having not visited the site for a couple of months Nathan was keen to see how the corals on the nursery were doing, clean off any overgoing algae and check on the outplanted corals. Divers would clean up the nursery corals and help collect some coral fragments to propagate on small fragment plugs that could be added to the nursery.
Unusually (well, not so unusually in this era of a changing climate) warm weather through January had started the process of coral bleaching across the Reef. Thankfully some rains and cooling weather throughout February had cooled ocean waters and sever coral bleaching is not expected in this summer of 2022. We were pleased to see many of the corals were still healthy and coral bleaching was kept to a minimum this time. But each year as the water warms, successive bleaching events are eroding the resilience of the corals on the Reef making them just that little bit more susceptible to future disturbances and threats.
At both locations, Blue Pearl and Manta Ray Bay, we managed to collect some coral fragments from healthy colonies growing on the nursery at each site. By using the corals already growing on the nursery we no longer need to source corals from donor locations, hopefully reducing the impact of any coral collection at these sites.
After the dive all volunteers participated in propagating some 50-60 new coral colonies at both locations which were added to the nursery. Trialling new methods that made it easier to transfer them to the nursery, we used small fragment plugs to propagate smaller coral colonies that can be more easily transferred to and planted onto the nurseries. These colonies will stay on the nurseries for 6-9 months before being outplanted onto the natural reef. It is an interesting and at times challenging process but one that enthrals participants. They feel empowered by having hands-on opportunities to make a difference for the health of the Reef.
“I’m a diver, and I love to see the corals healthy, and full of fish.” Said Joel Mook of Ballistic Beer Company, a sponsor of local marine debris initiatives. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and so this is a good way to do something to try and give back.”
Red Cat Skipper and volunteer Shaun Brown noted “In all honesty you know my favourite part about today was actually making a difference. There’s not many people doing (these kinds of activities) and being a part of it, having the opportunity to do it is awesome” Shaun said.
These reef restoration field trips that enable volunteers to be involved also provide opportunities for conversations surrounding reef health and what other things people can do to help nature. It is not so much planting coral that is super important but it is the opportunity to discuss with people that it is what they do when they go home that is going to make the real difference in the future – changing societal behaviour to mitigate the effects of climate change are going to be crucial if we want reefs as we see them today. The more likely scenario is that they will change, and possibly change dramatically due to humanities inability to minimise consumption and vote for governments who will make a real difference when it comes to implementing policies that mitigate the effects of climate change.