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Reef Conservation / Wavelength’s Coral Nurture Program

Natalie has a socially distanced email chat with John about his and Jenny’s remarkable Coral Nurture Program on the Great Barrier Reef.
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NATALIE JOHNSON AND STEVE EDMONDSON


Born in the UK, Wavelength Reef Cruises operators, John and Jenny Edmondson studied marine biology and worked in fisheries, aquaculture, and environmental consultancy before moving to marine tourism, first in Zanzibar, then Port Douglas.

Learning to dive as teenagers, both became dive instructors in 1992 before settling in Port Douglas in 2001. Avid sailors, they, together with their children, now 16 and 13, fobbed off the occasional bout of seasickness and traversed the Great Barrier Reef between Lady Elliot Island and Port Douglas several times, and visited Lizard Island each year since the children were babies. Impressively, John, Jenny, and the kids (who were under five at the time) have also embarked on a sail from Greece to the UK and an extended four-month, return sail to Thursday Island!

Natalie has a socially distanced email chat with John about his and Jenny’s remarkable Coral Nurture Program on the Great Barrier Reef.

What inspired you to initiate the coral nurseries on Opal Reef?

The coral bleaching in 2016 was quite bad. The slower-growing corals, like boulder corals, bleached but recovered. With the faster-growing corals, we could see a lot of bushy, plate, and staghorn corals would die, but not all, and variations in the level of impact varied a lot of over small distances. Having worked in aquaculture before, we are interested in learning how to grow things in the sea. We started researching and contacting other groups with coral nurseries in areas like the Maldives to pick their brains. These guys suffered bad bleaching in 1998 and have been growing corals since, but with setbacks. Then in July 2017 we did a week-long trip on one of our boats with some researchers from the University of Technology in Sydney. During that trip, we realised we could start nurseries and use them as research tools to help UTS study heat tolerance in corals. Then we started planning which coincided with the 2017 Reef Summit where reef managers decided interventions to help the GBR were necessary, thus creating the “Reef Blueprint for Resilience”.


How long has the project been operating?

It took about eight months from beginning the planning to obtaining research permits and installing the first nurseries in February 2018. When we started our application process, no coral nurseries existed on the GBR, however, we took our time developing new ways to adapt culture methods to our local conditions. In December 2017, the Reef Restoration Foundation started a small nursery on Fitzroy Island using a Caribbean nursery method, so they can claim the first one! Ours are the first outer-reef nurseries, the first multi-species nurseries, the largest network of nurseries, and the largest number of out-plants on the GBR. They are also the only coral nurseries so far on the GBR where corals being propagated have spawned, with their larvae contributing to the reef.


How is it funded?

We started by funding the nurseries ourselves. The biggest problem with coral nurseries is they are slow to out-plant, as each coral must be glued onto the reef with epoxy or cement. We invented a new method using very small stainless-steel clips that attach coral fragments to reef rock. This is much more convenient and faster, but it also means much smaller fragments can be used – making the whole process much more efficient and more up-scalable.

Then in March 2018, together with the UTS research partners, we applied to an Australian/Queensland Small Business Innovation Research Challenge “Boosting Live Coral Cover on the GBR”. The grant was a competitive process with the six best ideas chosen for funding. Our application was to trial the clips which we named “Coralclips”. After a six month” Proof of Feasibility” stage, the three best ideas were selected for funding for an additional 12 months of research in a “Proof of Concept”. We were one of the three selected. We wanted to expand the propagation and planting system to other operators and reefs, so we started the “Coral Nurture Program” (CNP).


How do the nurseries work?

The nurseries are very simple and use locally available materials – 2m x 1m aluminium mesh panels that are suspended a couple of metres above sandy seabed (we have 46 at Opal Reef and some at Hastings, Mackay, Low Isles, Upolu, and Moore Reefs). Small coral fragments are put on the frames and grow quickly due to lots of water movement and no coral predators. We grow a mix of bushy, plate, and staghorn corals. The staghorn corals are the lowest priority because they reproduce and grow fast naturally anyway. The nurseries are very close to the dive sites so dive crew can pick up naturally broken pieces of coral from where they will likely die and put them on the nursery (from fish feeding activity or where large corals have overgrown and fallen, breaking neighbours). When the nursery corals are large enough, they are re-fragmented, and those fragments planted out with Coralclips on bare spaces around the dive site. Within a couple of months, the Coralclip is invisible and the coral looks like any other young coral on the reef (eventually the Coralclip will corrode away) and no chemicals or plastic is used. As the nursery is nearby the mooring, and no special equipment is needed, (just a hammer) it’s easy to fit in the planting with the routine tourism operations (e.g.: allocate dive crew for one site).


What is the difference between the Coral Nurture Project techniques and other coral regeneration projects?

The CNP technique is designed so reef tourism operators or other stakeholders with reef access can run the project themselves and be efficient enough to not rely on volunteers. The idea is the propagation and planting become an ongoing aspect of site protection and adaptation. The practices are simple, but they need scientific guidance and coordination to learn what works best and improve techniques – like the relationship between science and agriculture. So, an important part of what has been developed with the CNP is the pathway and a way to integrate many people, in many help the reef.


What happens next?

We have just finished the Proof of Concept for the Federal and Queensland Government grant and produced the final report. We are now waiting to see what happens next, but there is already a call from other operators to get out on the water to use site maintenance activities to help look after sites now. This is especially important after recent reports of the most widespread bleaching event on the GBR where operators want to show that this region has had little impact.


How can people get involved ?

There is potential for experienced divers to help the crew with things like out-planting blitzes or for passengers to get the chance to plant a coral. It’s good for tourists to support High Standard Operators that are doing this level of active management as site stewardship (there is a growing number). If enough operators participate, then the large interconnected network of tourism sites on each reef (Agincourt – 39 moorings, Opal – 18, Hastings – 22, Norman – 29, Moore – 40, Low Isles – 16) acts as a coral larvae source to the broader reef in that area.

Personally, I don’t agree with the sponsor-a-coral model. This tends to lead to big exaggerations of the potential impact of coral planting on saving the reef as practitioners try to get sponsors. We see this as a future cost of site stewardship – like many businesses have an R&D fund. The most important thing is that tourism sites can be helped with localised increases in coral cover and try to help adapt to climate change by planting more heat-tolerant species and researching why some individuals of heat-sensitive species are tougher than others. Another important thing is to develop methods so that tourism operators can speed up the recovery of their sites after impacts such as cyclones. It is vital to keep reef tourism going as (i) it’s the main economic case to protect the reef – 89% of revenue and 92% of jobs (ii) its vital sustainable economic activity in regional areas (iii) reef tourism plays a vital role in communicating the importance of protecting the reef.

Images supplied by John & Jenny Edmondson

📷 Replanted coral
📷 Coral nursery

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