A major global reef rescue effort combining rigorous research and a comprehensive education program is underway.
Oceans occupy more than 70 percent of the globe and over half the world’s population live within 100km of a coastline, but what do we know about our ocean ecosystems?
To help find out, UQ is leading the way as managers of a new global research program: Coral Reef Targeted Research and Capacity Building for Management (CRTR) Project.
The CRTR Project is a global program involving more than 70 scientists and four Centres of Excellence (COE)) in Australasia (Heron Island, Australia); South-east Asia (Bolinao, Philippines); Western Caribbean (Puerto Morelos, Mexico); and Eastern Africa (Zanzibar, Tanzania). It has funding of more than $20 million in cash and $70 million in-kind support, including from the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank and UQ. The four regions reflect the distribution of coral reefs throughout the world.
The locations and institutions were selected on the basis of significant ongoing investments in coral reef management and where considerable data already existed. In addition, they offer a critical mass of coral reef scientists and infrastructure, essential for conducting coordinated research.
Professor David Siddle (UQ Deputy Vice-Chancellor [Research]), who helped establish the program at UQ, said that the reputation of UQ’s Centre for Marine Studies under Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg was among the reasons UQ was chosen to host the COE for Australasia, as well as manage the global program.
Professor Siddle said there had been an increasing awareness of the importance of coral reefs over the past 10 years.
“Events such as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami make us even more aware of the importance of coral reefs, for example increased tsunami protection, especially in the light of their rapid decline in many regions,” Professor Siddle said, “However, what remains fundamentally unknown about these ecosystems is alarming, especially when management intervention is becoming increasingly important.”
The CRTR program is being developed in phases over 15 years, and through systematic research, is working to effectively support management and policy and to better integrate resulting information with other disciplines, such as economics and law.
The program is organised around six key themes, which are being investigated by interdisciplinary teams of scientists in developing and developed countries.
The key themes are the focus of investigations by distinct working groups:
- The Bleaching Working Group was initially focused on the development of indicators specifically for coral bleaching and has since expanded its mandate to examine specific physiological mechanisms for coral bleaching; local ecological factors that cause bleaching and its after-effects; and differences between direct human stresses and those related to climate change.
- The Connectivity Working Group examines the effective transfer of individuals (usually waterborne larvae) between local populations. Not only is this the most important form of connectivity for coral reefs, but it is the most difficult to measure. The main aim is to fill the gap in quantitative data on demographic connectivity, essential to improving the ability to design and implement networks of Marine Protected Areas.
- The Disease Working Group is investigating what prompts the emergence of disease, to understand disease occurrence as a potential harbinger for increasing outbreaks and impacts associated with increased climate warming, and to develop tools and responses for management.
- The Remediation and Restoration Working Group is focusing on restoring degraded coral reefs, rather than on artificial reefs where “reefs”, or “fish-aggregating devices” are created on non-coral reef platforms, mainly to enhance fisheries production.
- The Remote Sensing Working Group is developing and testing a wide range of remote-sensing tools, including satellite, airborne, acoustic and in-field methods.
- The Modelling and Decision Support Working Group is creating an integrated scientific understanding of the ways in which people interact with coral reefs and is working to help decision-makers and reef-users better understand and use reefs in a sustainable way.
“It is exciting to realise that UQ is at the forefront of this ground-breaking initiative,” he said.
Global Environment Fund
The University of Queensland
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (Australasia)
Acid Put on Reef Survival
Britain’s peak scientific body, the Royal Society, has warned that the protection of tropical coastlines by coral reefs may disappear as early as 2050 due to acidification of the world’s oceans by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who was involved in the Royal Society study and is Director of the Australasian Centre of Excellence for the Coral Reef Targeted Research (CRTR) Project, says the finding could have major ramifications for coastal societies, where many of the world’s most disadvantaged people live.
“Coral reefs reduce the energy of waves breaking on tropical coastlines and hence protect homes and lives. In the case of tsunamis, this can mean the difference between surviving and perishing,” he said
“An example of this was the tsunami that hit southern Asia on Boxing Day 2004.
“The CRTR Project is an excellent vehicle to fill gaps in the science and identify solutions so management and policy decisions can be strengthened.”
The report shows that rising levels of carbon dioxide are rapidly acidifying the world’s oceans. This in turn is threatening to stop corals from growing and could potentially dissolve existing reef structures.
Coral reefs face two problems from rising carbon dioxide: the warming caused by the greenhouse effect; and the acidification of seawater by carbon dioxide, which will eventually stop them forming their limestone skeletons.
“With no action on carbon dioxide, coral reefs will be relics of the past, which has implications for a wide range of issues including coastal protection against tsunamis,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.