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Assisted Breeding Program Helps Australia's Ailing Great Barrier Reef

January 2, 2017

There’s new hope for ailing parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef - assisted reproductive technology.
Researchers have been capturing coral spawn and rearing millions of larvae in large tanks.

The reef is arguably Australia's greatest natural treasure. It stretches more than 2,300 kilometers down north-eastern Australia, and faces many threats, including climate change and pollution.

Professor Peter Harrison from Southern Cross University has been collecting the coral spawn off Heron Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is then placed into tanks, where it matures.

Millions of coral larvae are then placed back onto damaged areas of the reef that may not otherwise regenerate naturally. The larvae are put into large enclosures where their growth can be monitored. Early results are encouraging. It is estimated that 100 juvenile coral have survived, and are settling into their new home.

The mesh enclosures cover a hundred square meters of damaged coral, and the next challenge will be covering several kilometers of reef.

It is the first time the assisted breeding method has been used in Australia, and it follows a successful trial in the Philippines that rejuvenated reefs damaged by fishing.

Harrison says the trial on the Great Barrier Reef is going well.

“What we are doing is capturing some of that coral spawn, growing millions of larvae, and then putting those larvae back into areas of the reef that do not have many living corals on them at the moment to rapidly increase the rate at which coral recovery can occur. These are the first experiments using this larval restoration technique on the Great Barrier Reef. The work is still experimental at the moment but the results from these last experiments will help us understand how we can scale up to hectare-scale reef patches in future,” Harrison said.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is about the size of Japan and is so big it can be seen from outer space. It is home to more than 3,000 types of mollusks and 1,600 species of fish.

It is not only an environmental treasure, but an economic one as well, generating billions of dollars in revenue and sustaining tens of thousands of jobs, mostly in the Australian tourism industry.

In the past two years, two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef has been devastated by severe coral bleaching caused by warmer ocean temperatures, according to Australian scientists.

The Australian government is contributing more than $310,000 to help advance Harrison's reproductive research.

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