When coral dies, tiny invertebrates boom. This could dramatically change the food web on the Great Barrier Reef


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Kate Fraser, University of TasmaniaThis week, international ambassadors will take a snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef as part of the Australian government’s efforts to stop the reef getting on the world heritage “in danger” list.

The World Heritage Centre of UNESCO is set to make its final decision on whether to officially brand the reef as “in danger” later this month.

To many coral reef researchers like myself, who have witnessed firsthand the increasing coral bleaching and cyclone-driven destruction of this global icon, an in-danger listing comes as no surprise.

But the implications of mass coral death are complex — just because coral is dying doesn’t mean marine life there will end. Instead, it will change.

In recent research, my colleagues and I discovered dead coral hosted 100 times more microscopic invertebrates than healthy coral. This means up to 100 times more fish food is available on reefs dominated by dead coral compared with live, healthy coral.

This is a near-invisible consequence of coral death, with dramatic implications for reef food webs.

When coral dies

Tiny, mobile invertebrates — between 0.125 and 4 millimetres in size — are ubiquitous inhabitants of the surfaces of all reef structures and are the main food source for approximately 70% of fish species on the Great Barrier Reef.

These invertebrates, most visible only under a microscope, are commonly known as “epifauna” and include species of crustaceans, molluscs, and polychaete worms.




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When corals die, their skeletons are quickly overgrown by fine, thread-like “turfing algae”. Turf-covered coral skeletons then break down into beds of rubble.

We wanted to find out how the tiny epifaunal invertebrates — upon which many fish depend – might respond to the widespread replacement of live healthy coral with dead, turf-covered coral.

A sample of epifauna under the microscope.
Kate Fraser

I took my SCUBA gear and a box of lab equipment, and dived into a series of reefs across eastern Australia, from the Solitary Islands in New South Wales to Lizard Island on the northern Great Barrier Reef.

Underwater, I carefully gathered into sandwich bags the tiny invertebrates living on various species of live coral and those living on dead, turf-covered coral.

But things really got interesting back in the laboratory under the microscope. I sorted each sandwich bag sample of epifauna into sizes, identified them as best I could (many, if not most, species remain unknown to science), and counted them.

I quickly noticed samples taken from live coral took just minutes to count, whereas samples from dead coral could take hours. There were exponentially more animals in the dead coral samples.

The Great Barrier Reef may soon be listed as ‘in danger’
Rick Stuart-Smith

Why do they prefer dead coral?

Counting individual invertebrates is only so useful when considering their contribution to the food web. So we instead used the much more useful metric of “productivity”, which looks at how much weight (biomass) of organisms is produced daily for a given area of reef.

We found epifaunal productivity was far greater on dead, turf-covered coral. The main contributors were the tiniest epifauna — thousands of harpacticoid copepods (a type of crustacean) an eighth of a millimetre in size.

In contrast, coral crabs and glass shrimp contributed the most productivity to epifaunal communities on live coral. At one millimetre and larger, these animals are relative giants in the epifaunal world, with fewer than ten individuals in most live coral samples.

Dead coral rubble overgrown with turfing algae.
Rick Stuart-Smith

These striking differences may be explained by two things.

First: shelter. Live coral may look complex to the naked eye, but if you zoom in you’ll find turfing algae has more structural complexity that tiny epifauna can hide in, protecting them from predators.

A coral head is actually a community of individual coral polyps, each with a tiny mouth and fine tentacles to trap prey. To smaller epifauna, such as harpacticoid copepods, the surface of live coral is a wall of mouths and a very undesirable habitat.




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Almost 60 coral species around Lizard Island are ‘missing’ – and a Great Barrier Reef extinction crisis could be next


Second: food. Many epifauna, regardless of size, are herbivores (plant-eaters) or detritivores (organic waste-eaters). Turfing algae is a brilliant trap for fine detritus and an excellent substrate for growing films of even smaller microscopic algae.

This means dead coral overgrown by turfing algae represents a smorgasbord of food options for the tiniest epifauna through to the largest.

Meanwhile, many larger epifauna like coral crabs have evolved to live exclusively on live coral, eating the mucus that covers the polyps or particles trapped by the polyps themselves.

Harpacticoid copepod are just an eighth of a millimetre in size.
Naukhan/Wikimedia, CC BY

What this means for life on the reef?

As corals reefs continue to decline, we can expect increased productivity at the base level of reef food webs, with a shift from larger crabs and shrimp to small harpacticoid copepods.

This will affect the flow of food and energy throughout reef food webs, markedly changing the structure of fish and other animal communities. The abundance of animals that eat invertebrates will likely boom with increased coral death.

We might expect higher numbers of fish such as wrasses, cardinalfish, triggerfish, and dragonets, with species preferring the smallest epifauna most likely to flourish.

The dragonet species, mandarinfish, feeds on the smallest harpacticoid copepod prey.
Rick Stuart-Smith

Invertebrate-eating animals are food for a diversity of carnivores on a coral reef, and most fish Australians want to eat are carnivores, such as coral trout, snapper, and Spanish mackerel.

While we didn’t investigate exactly which species are likely to increase following widespread coral death, it’s safe to say populations of fish targeted by recreational and commercial fisheries on Australia’s coral reefs are likely to change as live coral is lost, some for better and some for worse.




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The Great Barrier Reef is undoubtedly in danger, and it’s important that we make every effort to protect and conserve the remaining live, healthy coral. However, if corals continue to die, there will remain an abundance of life in their absence, albeit very different life from that to which we are accustomed.

As long as there is hard structure for algae to grow on, there will be epifauna. And where there is epifauna, there is food for fish, although perhaps not for all the fish we want to eat.The Conversation

Kate Fraser, Marine Ecologist, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Almost 60 coral species around Lizard Island are ‘missing’ – and a Great Barrier Reef extinction crisis could be next


Michael Emslie

Zoe Richards, Curtin UniversityThe federal government has opposed a recommendation by a United Nations body that the Great Barrier Reef be listed as “in danger”. But there’s no doubt the natural wonder is in dire trouble. In new research, my colleagues and I provide fresh insight into the plight of many coral species.

Worsening climate change, and subsequent marine heatwaves, have led to mass coral deaths on tropical reefs. However, there are few estimates of how reduced overall coral cover is linked to declines in particular coral species.

Our research examined 44 years of coral distribution records around Lizard Island, at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. We found 16% of coral species have not been seen for many years and are at risk of either local extinction, or disappearing from parts of their local range.

This is alarming, because local extinctions often signal wider regional – and ultimately global – species extinction events.

Healthy coral near Lizard Island in 2011, top, then six years later after two bleaching events, bottom.
Healthy coral near Lizard Island in 2011, top, then six years later after two bleaching events, bottom.
Zoe Richards

Sobering findings

The Lizard Island reef system is 270 kilometres north of Cairns. It has suffered major disturbances over the past four decades: repeated outbreaks of crown-of-thorns seastars, category 4 cyclones in 2014 and 2015, and coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020.

Our research focused on “hermatypic” corals around Lizard Island. These corals deposit calcium carbonate and form the hard framework of the reef.

We undertook hard coral biodiversity surveys four times between 2011 and 2020, across 14 sites. We combined the results with published and photographic species records from 1976 to 2020.

red fleshy coral with blue spots
Micromussa lordhowensis is popular in the aquarium trade.
Zoe Richards

Of 368 hard coral species recorded around Lizard Island, 28 (7.6%) have not been reliably recorded since before 2011 and may be at risk of local extinction. A further 31 species (8.4%) have not been recorded since 2015 and may be at risk of range reduction (disappearance from parts of its local range).

The “missing” coral species include:

  • Acropora abrotanoides, a robust branching shallow water coral that lives on the reef crest and reef flat has not been since since 2009
  • Micromussa lordhowensis, a low-growing coral with colourful fleshy polyps. Popular in the aquarium trade, it often grows on reef slopes but has not been seen since 2005
  • Acropora aspera, a branching coral which prefers very shallow water and has been recorded just once, at a single site, since 2011.

The finding that 59 coral species are at risk of local extinction or range reduction is significant. Local range reductions are often precursors to local species extinctions. And local species extinctions are often precursors to regional, and ultimately global, extinction events.

Each coral species on the reef has numerous vital functions. It might provide habitat or food to other reef species, or biochemicals which may benefit human health. One thing is clear: every coral species matters.




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reddish coral underwater
Acropa abrotanoides, one of the corals ‘missing’ from around Lizard Island.
Zoe Richards

A broader extinction crisis?

As human impacts and climate threats mount, there is growing concern about the resilience of coral biodiversity. Our research suggests such concerns are well-founded at Lizard Island.

Coral reef communities are dynamic, and so detecting species loss can be difficult. Our research found around Lizard Island, the diversity of coral species fluctuated over the past decade. Significant declines were recorded from 2011 to 2017, but diversity recovered somewhat in the three following years.

Local extinctions often happen incrementally and can therefore be “invisible”. To detect them, and to account for natural variability in coral communities, long-term biodiversity monitoring across multiple locations and time frames is needed.

Green coral
Acropora aspera has been recorded just once, at a single location, since 2011.
Anne Hoggett

In most locations however, data on the distribution and abundance of all coral species in a community is lacking. This means it can be hard to assess changes, and to understand the damage that climate change and other human-caused stressors are having on each species.

Only with this extra information can scientists conclusively say if the level of local extinction risk at Lizard Island indicates a risk that coral species may become extinct elsewhere – across the Great Barrier Reef and beyond.




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The Conversation


Zoe Richards, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Beautiful, rare ‘purple cauliflower’ coral off NSW coast may be extinct within 10 years


Author supplied

Meryl Larkin, Southern Cross University; David Harasti, Southern Cross University; Steve Smith, Southern Cross University, and Tom R DavisWhen we think of Australia’s threatened corals, the Great Barrier Reef probably springs to mind. But elsewhere, coral species are also struggling – including a rare type known as “cauliflower soft coral” which is, sadly, on the brink of extinction.

This species, Dendronephthya australis, looks like a purple cauliflower due to its pink-lilac stems and branches, crowned with white polyps.

The coral primarily occurs at only a few sites in Port Stephens, New South Wales, and is a magnet for divers and underwater photographers. But sand movements, boating and fishing have reduced the species’ population dramatically.

Recent flooding in NSW compounded the problem – in fact, it may have reduced the remaining coral population by 90%. Our recent research found cauliflower soft coral may become extinct in the next decade unless we urgently protect and restore it.

An ovulid on a cauliflower coral colony. Such coral may be extinct within a decade.
Author supplied

Lilac underwater gardens

Cauliflower soft corals are predominantly found in estuarine environments on sandy seabeds with high current flow. They rely on tidal currents to transport plankton on which they feed.

The species is most commonly found in the Port Stephens estuary, about 200 kilometres north of Sydney. It’s also found in the Brisbane Water estuary in NSW, and has been found sporadically in other locations south to Jervis Bay.

The coral colonies form aggregations or “gardens”. At Port Stephens, these gardens are the preferred habitat for the endangered White’s seahorse and protected species of pipefish. They also support juvenile Australasian snapper, an important species for commercial and recreational fishers.

In recent months, the cauliflower soft coral has been listed as endangered in NSW and nationally.




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An alarming decline

Scientists first mapped the distribution of the cauliflower soft coral in 2011. They found none of the biggest colonies in the Port Stephens estuary were protected by “no take” zones – areas where fishing and other extractive activities are banned.

In research in 2016, we found a sharp decline in the extent and distribution of cauliflower soft coral.

Our recent study examined the problem in more detail. It involved mapping the southern shoreline of Port Stephens, using an underwater camera towed by a vessel.

We found the cauliflower soft coral in the Port Stephens estuary has declined by almost 70% over just eight years. It now occurs over 9,300 square metres – down from 28,600 square metres in 2011.

Our subsequent modelling sought to identify what was driving the corals’ decline. We found a correlation between coral loss and sand movements over the last decade.

Human changes to shorelines, such as marina developments, have changed the dynamic of currents across the estuary. For example, previous research found a large influx of sand from the western end of Shoal Bay smothered cauliflower soft coral colonies at two nearby locations. As of 2018, those colonies had disappeared completely.

While diving as part of the project, we identified other causes of damage to the coral. Dropped boat anchors and the installation of moorings had damaged some colonies. Others were injured after becoming entangled in fishing line.

It is possible that disease, and pollution or other water quality issues, may also be contributing to the species’ decline.

Fishing line damaging a colony of cauliflower soft coral in Port Stephens.
Author supplied

Then the floods hit

Some 18 months after our most recent mapping, cauliflower soft corals suffered yet another blow. Major flooding in NSW in March this year caused a massive amount of fresh water to discharge from the Karuah River into the Port Stephens estuary, where sea water is dominant. Fresh water can kill cauliflower soft corals.

Following the floods, we conducted exploratory dives at locations where the cauliflower soft corals had been thriving at Port Stephens. We found much of the coral had disintegrated and disappeared. In fact, we estimated as much as 90% of the remaining cauliflower soft coral population was gone.

We plan to remap the estuary in the coming weeks, and feel confident our initial estimates will be close to the mark. If so, this means less than 5% of the species area mapped in 2011 now remains.

The floods also devastated kelp forests and other canopy-forming habitats in the estuary. Further work by scientists at the NSW Department of Primary Industries is underway to quantify these losses and monitor the recovery.




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Monitoring of existing cauliflower coral aggregations is ongoing.
Author supplied

Urgent work required

The cauliflower soft coral urgently needs protecting. This will require ongoing, coordinated research and management.

Clearly, action must be taken to reduce threats such as anchoring, fishing, and development that may magnify sand movement.

Best-practice rehabilitation is also needed. This may involve rearing the coral off-site and transplanting it into suitable habitat. Such trials at Port Stephens have shown promising signs.

Human activities are causing species loss at an alarming rate. We must do everything in our power to prevent the extinction of the cauliflower soft coral, and other threatened species, to preserve the balance of nature and its ecosystems.




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The Conversation


Meryl Larkin, PhD Candidate, Southern Cross University; David Harasti, Adjunct assistant professor, Southern Cross University; Steve Smith, Professor of Marine Science, National Marine Science Centre, Southern Cross University, and Tom R Davis, Research Scientist – Marine Climate Change

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Extreme weather caused by climate change has damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitat



Bleached staghorn coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Many species are dependent on corals for food and shelter.
Damian Thomson, Author provided

Russ Babcock, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, CSIRO

If you think climate change is only gradually affecting our natural systems, think again.

Our research, published yesterday in Frontiers in Marine Science, looked at the large-scale impacts of a series of extreme climate events on coastal marine habitats around Australia.

We found more than 45% of the coastline was already affected by extreme weather events caused by climate change. What’s more, these ecosystems are struggling to recover as extreme events are expected to get worse.




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There is growing scientific evidence that heatwaves, floods, droughts and cyclones are increasing in frequency and intensity, and that this is caused by climate change.

Life on the coastline

Corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp are some of the key habitat-forming species of our coastline, as they all support a host of marine invertebrates, fish, sea turtles and marine mammals.

Our team decided to look at the cumulative impacts of recently reported extreme climate events on marine habitats around Australia. We reviewed the period between 2011 and 2017 and found these events have had devastating impacts on key marine habitats.

Healthy kelp (left) in Western Australia is an important part of the food chain but it is vulnerable to even small changes in temperature and particularly slow to recover from disturbances such as the marine heatwave of 2011. Even small patches or gaps (right) where kelp has died can take many years to recover.
Russ Babcock, Author provided

These include kelp and mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and coral reefs, some of which have not yet recovered, and may never do so. These findings paint a bleak picture, underscoring the need for urgent action.

During this period, which spanned both El Niño and La Niña conditions, scientists around Australia reported the following events:

2011: The most extreme marine heatwave ever occurred off the west coast of Australia. Temperatures were as much as 2-4℃ above average for extended periods and there was coral bleaching along more than 1,000km of coast and loss of kelp forest along hundreds of kilometres.

Seagrasses in Shark Bay and along the entire east coast of Queensland were also severely affected by extreme flooding and cyclones. The loss of seagrasses in Queensland may have led to a spike in deaths of turtles and dugongs.

2013: Extensive coral bleaching took place along more than 300km of the Pilbara coast of northwestern Australia.

2016: The most extreme coral bleaching ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef affected more than 1,000km of the northern Great Barrier Reef. Mangrove forests across northern Australia were killed by a combination of drought, heat and abnormally low sea levels along the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria across the Northern Territory and into Western Australia.

2017: An unprecedented second consecutive summer of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef affects northern Great Barrier Reef again, as well as parts of the reef further to the south.

Heritage areas affected

Many of the impacted areas are globally significant for their size and biodiversity, and because until now they have been relatively undisturbed by climate change. Some of the areas affected are also World Heritage Areas (Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay, Ningaloo Coast).

Seagrass meadows in Shark Bay are among the world’s most lush and extensive and help lock large amounts of carbon into sediments. The left image shows healthy seagrass but the right image shows damage from extreme climate events in 2011.
Mat Vanderklift, Author provided

The habitats affected are “foundational”: they provide food and shelter to a huge range of species. Many of the animals affected – such as large fish and turtles – support commercial industries such as tourism and fishing, as well as being culturally important to Australians.

Recovery across these impacted habitats has begun, but it’s likely some areas will never return to their previous condition.

We have used ecosystem models to evaluate the likely long-term outcomes from extreme climate events predicted to become more frequent and more intense.

This work suggests that even in places where recovery starts, the average time for full recovery may be around 15 years. Large slow-growing species such as sharks and dugongs could take even longer, up to 60 years.

But extreme climate events are predicted to occur less than 15 years apart. This will result in a step-by-step decline in the condition of these ecosystems, as it leaves too little time between events for full recovery.

This already appears to be happening with the corals of the Great Barrier Reef.

Gradual decline as things get warmer

Damage from extreme climate events occurs on top of more gradual changes driven by increases in average temperature, such as loss of kelp forests on the southeast coasts of Australia due to the spread of sea urchins and tropical grazing fish species.

Ultimately, we need to slow down and stop the heating of our planet due to the release of greenhouse gases. But even with immediate and effective emissions reduction, the planet will remain warmer, and extreme climatic events more prevalent, for decades to come.

Recovery might still be possible, but we need to know more about recovery rates and what factors promote recovery. This information will allow us to give the ecosystems a helping hand through active restoration and rehabilitation efforts.




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We will need new ways to help ecosystems function and to deliver the services that we all depend on. This will likely include decreasing (or ideally, stopping) direct human impacts, and actively assisting recovery and restoring damaged ecosystems.

Several such programs are active around Australia and internationally, attempting to boost the ability of corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp to recover.

But they will need to be massively scaled up to be effective in the context of the large scale disturbances seen in this decade.The Conversation

Mangroves at the Flinders River near Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The healthy mangrove forest (left) is near the river while the dead mangroves (right) are at higher levels where they were much more stressed by conditions in 2016. Some small surviving mangroves are seen beginning to recover by 2017.
Robert Kenyon, Author provided

Russ Babcock, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO Research Group Leader Ecosystem Modelling and Risk Assessment, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, Research Group Leader , CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Bright white skeletons’: some Western Australian reefs have the lowest coral cover on record


Corals at Scott Reef in 2012, and at the same site during the 2016 mass bleaching.
James Gilmour/AIMS

James Paton Gilmour, Australian Institute of Marine Science and Rebecca Green, University of Western Australia

Diving on the remote coral reefs in the north of Western Australia during the world’s worst bleaching event in 2016, the first thing I noticed was the heat. It was like diving into a warm bath, with surface temperatures of 34⁰C.

Then I noticed the expanse of bleached colonies. Their bright white skeletons were visible through the translucent tissue following the loss of the algae with which they share a biological relationship. The coral skeletons had not yet eroded and collapsed, a grim reminder of what it looked like just a few months before.

I spent the past 15 years documenting the recovery of these reefs following the first global coral bleaching event in 1998, only to see them devastated again in the third global bleaching event in 2016.




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The WA coral reefs may not be as well known as the Great Barrier Reef, but they’re just as large and diverse. And they too have been affected by cyclones and coral bleaching. Our recent study found many WA reefs now have the lowest coral cover on record.

When my colleague, Rebecca Green, witnessed that mass bleaching for the first time, she asked me how long it would take the reefs to recover.

“Probably not in my lifetime” was my reply – an abrupt but accurate reply considering the previous rate of recovery, future increases in ocean temperatures … and my age.

The worst mass bleaching on record

A similar scene is playing out around the world as researchers document the decline of ecosystems they have spent a lifetime studying.

Our study, published in the journal Coral Reefs, is the first to establish a long-term history of changes in coral cover across eight reef systems, and to document the effects of the 2016 mass bleaching event at 401 sites across WA.




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Given the vast expanse of WA coral reefs, our assessment included data from several monitoring programs and researchers from 19 institutions.

These reefs exist in some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the
world, so our study also relied on important observations of coral bleaching from regional managers, tourist operators and Bardi Jawi Indigenous Rangers in the Kimberley.

Our aim was to establish the effects of climate change on coral reefs along Western Australia’s vast coastline and their current condition.

The heat stress in 2016 was the worst on record, causing mass bleaching and large reductions in coral cover at Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and Scott Reef. This was also the first time mass bleaching was recorded in the southern parts of the inshore Kimberley region, including in the long oral history of Indigenous Australians who have managed this sea-country for thousands of years.

The mass bleaching events we documented were triggered by a global increase in temperature of 1⁰C above pre-industrial levels, whereas temperatures are predicted to rise by 1.5⁰C between 2030 and 2052.

In that scenario, the reefs that have bleached badly will unlikely have the capacity to fully recover, and mass bleaching will occur at the reefs that have so far escaped the worst impacts.




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The future of WA’s coral reefs is uncertain, but until carbon emissions can be reduced, coral bleaching will continue to increase.

Surviving coral reef refuges must be protected

The extreme El Niño conditions in 2016 severely affected the northern reefs, and a similar pattern was seen in the long-term records.

The more southern reefs were affected by extreme La Niña conditions – most significantly by a heatwave in 2011 that caused coral bleaching, impacted fisheries and devastated other marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Since 2010, all of WA’s reefs systems have bleached at least once.

Frequent bleaching and cyclone damage have stalled the recovery of reefs at Shark Bay, Ningaloo and at the Montebello and Barrow Islands. And coral cover at Scott Reef, Ashmore Reef and at Christmas Island is low following the 2016 mass bleaching.

In fact, average coral cover at most (75%) reef systems is at or near the lowest on record. But not all WA reefs have been affected equally.

In 2016 there was little (around 10%) bleaching recorded at the northern inshore Kimberley Reefs, at the Cocos Keeling Islands, and at the Rowley Shoals. Coral cover and diversity at these reefs remain high.

And during mass bleaching there were patches of reef that were less affected by heat stress.

These patches of reef will hopefully escape the worst impacts and retain moderate coral cover and diversity as the world warms, acting as refuges. There are also corals that have adapted to survive in parts of the reef where temperatures are naturally hotter.

Some reefs across WA will persist, thanks to these refuges from heat stress, their ability to adapt and to expand their range. These refuges must be protected from any additional stress, such as poor water quality and overfishing.




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In any case, the longer it takes to curb carbon emissions and other pressures to coral reefs, the greater the loss will be.

Coral reefs support critical food stocks for fisheries around the world and provide a significant contribution to Australia’s Blue Economy, worth an estimated A$68.1 billion.

We are handing environmental uncertainty to the next generation of scientists, and we must better articulate to everyone that their dependence on nature is the most fundamental of all the scientific concepts we explore.The Conversation

James Paton Gilmour, Research Scientist: Coral Ecology, Australian Institute of Marine Science and Rebecca Green, Postdoctoral research associate, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coral reproduction on the Great Barrier Reef falls 89% after repeated bleaching


Morgan Pratchett, James Cook University

The severe and repeated bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has not only damaged corals, it has reduced the reef’s ability to recover.

Our research, published today in Nature, found far fewer baby corals are being produced than are needed to replace the large number of adult corals that have died. The rate at which baby corals are settling on the Great Barrier Reef has fallen by nearly 90% since 2016.

While coral does not always die after bleaching, repeated bleaching has killed large numbers of coral. This new research has negative implications for the Reef’s capacity to recover from high ocean temperatures.

How coral recovers

Most corals reproduce by “spawning”: releasing thousands of tight, buoyant bundles with remarkable synchronisation. The bundles burst when they hit the ocean surface, releasing eggs and/or sperm. Fertilised eggs develop into larvae as they are moved about by ocean currents. The larvae settle in new places, forming entirely new coral colonies. This coral “recruitment” is essential to reef recovery.




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The research team, led by my colleague Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, measured rates of coral recruitment by attaching small clay tiles to the reef just before the predicted mass spawning each year. These settlement panels represent a standardised habitat that allows for improved detection of the coral recruits, which are just 1-2mm in size.

Almost 1,000 tiles were deployed across 17 widely separated reefs after the recent mass bleaching, in late 2016 and 2017. After eight weeks they were collected and carefully inspected under a microscope to count the number of newly settled coral recruits. Resulting estimates of coral recruitment were compared to recruitment rates recorded over two decades prior to the recent bleaching.

Australian Academy of Science.

Rates of coral recruitment recorded in the aftermath of the recent coral bleaching were just 11% of levels recorded during the preceding decades. Whereas there were more than 40 coral recruits per tile before the bleaching, there was an average of just five coral recruits per tile in the past couple of years.




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Reef resilience

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the world’s largest reef system. The large overall size and high number of distinct reefs provides a buffer against most major disturbances. Even if large tracts of the GBR are disturbed, there is a good chance at least some areas will have healthy stocks of adult corals, representing a source of new larvae to enable replenishment and recovery.

Larvae produced by spawning corals on one reef may settle on other nearby reefs to effectively replace corals lost to localised disturbances.

It is reassuring there is at least some new coral recruitment in the aftermath of severe bleaching and mass mortality of adult corals on the GBR. However, the substantial and widespread reduction of regrowth indicates the magnitude of the disturbance caused by recent heatwaves.

Declines in rates of coral recruitment were greatest in the northern parts of the GBR. This is where bleaching was most pronounced in 2016 and 2017, and there was the greatest loss of adult corals. There were much more moderate declines in coral recruitment in the southern GBR, reflecting generally higher abundance of adults corals in these areas. However, prevailing southerly currents (and the large distances involved) make it very unlikely coral larvae from southern parts of the Reef will drift naturally to the hardest-hit northern areas.

It is hard to say how long it will take for coral assemblages to recover from the recent mass bleaching. What is certain is low levels of coral recruitment will constrain coral recovery and greatly increase the recovery time. Any further large-scale developments with also greatly reduce coral cover and impede recovery.




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Reducing carbon emissions

This study further highlights the vulnerability of coral reefs to sustained and ongoing global warming. Not only do adult corals bleach and die when exposed to elevated temperatures, this prevents new coral recruitment and undermines ecosystem resilience.

The only way to effectively redress global warming is to immediately and substantially reduce global carbon emissions. This requires that all countries, including Australia, renew and strengthen their commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

While further management is required to minimise more direct human pressure on coral reefs – such as sediment run-off and pollution – all these efforts will be futile if we do not address global climate change.The Conversation

Morgan Pratchett, Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bleaching has struck the southernmost coral reef in the world


Tess Moriarty, University of Newcastle; Bill Leggat, University of Newcastle; C. Mark Eakin, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Rosie Steinberg, UNSW; Scott Heron, James Cook University, and Tracy Ainsworth, UNSW

This month corals in Lord Howe Island Marine Park began showing signs of bleaching. The 145,000 hectare marine park contains the most southerly coral reef in the world, in one of the most isolated ecosystems on the planet.

Following early reports of bleaching in the area, researchers from three Australian universities and two government agencies have worked together throughout March to investigate and document the bleaching.

Sustained heat stress has seen 90% of some reefs bleached, although other parts of the marine park have escaped largely unscathed.

Bleaching is uneven

Lord Howe Island was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. It is the coral reef closest to a pole, and contains many species found nowhere else in the world.

Coral bleaching observed at Lord Howe in March 2019.
Author provided

Two of us (Tess Moriarty and Rosie Steinberg) have surveyed reefs across Lord Howe Island Marine Park to determine the extent of bleaching in the populations of hard coral, soft coral, and anemones. This research found severe bleaching on the inshore lagoon reefs, where up to 95% of corals are showing signs of extensive bleaching.

However, bleaching is highly variable across Lord Howe Island. Some areas within the Lord Howe Island lagoon coral reef are not showing signs of bleaching and have remained healthy and vibrant throughout the summer. There are also corals on the outer reef and at deeper reef sites that have remained healthy, with minimal or no bleaching.

One surveyed reef location in Lord Howe Island Marine Park is severely impacted, with more than 90% of corals bleached; at the next most affected reef site roughly 50% of corals are bleached, and the remaining sites are less than 30% bleached. At least three sites have less than 5% bleached corals.

Healthy coral photographed at Lord Howe marine park in March 2019.
Author provided

Over the past week heat stress has continued in this area, and return visits to these sites revealed that the coral condition has worsened. There is evidence that some corals are now dying on the most severely affected reefs.

Forecasts for the coming week indicate that water temperatures are likely to cool below the bleaching threshold, which will hopefully provide timely relief for corals in this valuable reef ecosystem. In the coming days, weeks and months we will continue to monitor the affected reefs and determine the impact of this event to the reef system, and investigate coral recovery.

What’s causing the bleaching?

The bleaching was caused by high seawater temperature from a persistent summer marine heatwave off southeastern Australia. Temperature in January was a full degree Celsius warmer than usual, and from the end of January to mid-February temperatures remained above the local bleaching threshold.

Sustained heat stressed the Lord Howe Island reefs, and put them at risk. They had a temporary reprieve with cooler temperatures in late February, but by March another increase put the ocean temperature well above safe levels. This is now the third recorded bleaching event to have occurred on this remote reef system.

Satellite monitoring of sea-surface temperature (SST) revealed three periods in excess of the Bleaching Threshold during which heat stress accumulated (measured as Degree Heating Weeks, DHW). Since January 2019, SST (purple) exceeded expected monthly average values (blue +) by as much as 2°C. The grey line and envelope indicate the predicted range of SST in the near future.
Source: NOAA Coral Reef Watch

However, this heatwave has not equally affected the whole reef system. In parts of the lagoon areas the water can be cooler, due to factors like ocean currents and fresh groundwater intrusion, protecting some areas from bleaching. Some coral varieties are also more heat-resistant, and a particular reef that has been exposed to high temperatures in the past may better cope with the current conditions. For a complex variety of reasons, the bleaching is unevenly affecting the whole marine park.

Coral bleaching is the greatest threat to the sustainability of coral reefs worldwide and is now clearly one of the greatest challenges we face in responding to the impact of global climate change. UNESCO World Heritage regions, such as the Lord Howe Island Group, require urgent action to address the cause and impact of a changing climate, coupled with continued management to ensure these systems remain intact for future generations.


The authors thank ProDive Lord Howe Island and Lord Howe Island Environmental Tours for assistance during fieldwork.The Conversation

Tess Moriarty, Phd candidate, University of Newcastle; Bill Leggat, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; C. Mark Eakin, Coordinator, Coral Reef Watch, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Rosie Steinberg, PhD Student, UNSW; Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University, and Tracy Ainsworth, Associate professor, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New coral bleaching outbreak in NT a worrying sign of our warming oceans



File 20180316 104642 1fga4az.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
The increasingly bleached coral at Black Point on the Cobourg Peninsula is a worrying sign of what’s to come for other coral reefs in Australia.
Alan Withers, Author provided

Selina Ward, The University of Queensland

An outbreak of coral bleaching has been reported over the summer in Gang Gurak Barlu National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula, 60km northeast of Darwin, homeland of several clans of the Iwaidja-speaking Aboriginal people of Western Arnhem Land.

As no formal monitoring or assessment program is in place for these reefs, it’s impossible to gauge the full severity and extent of the bleaching. However, this video from Black Point on the Cobourg Peninsula contrasts the healthy reef in 2015 and the bleached reef in 2018.

Footage courtesy Alan Withers, music from Kai Engel – Anxiety.

The Northern Territory has unique marine ecosystems which are largely untouched and sit in waters receiving flow from untamed rivers. There are extensive coral reefs with abundant breeding turtle populations, saltwater crocodiles and sharks.

In January this year, the water temperature between the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea reached what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls Alert Level 2 – its highest alert for the risk of bleaching and subsequent coral death.

This is an indication of the duration and intensity of a warming event, measured in “degree heating weeks” – the number of degrees above the average summer maximum temperature, multiplied by the number of weeks. Alert Level 2 indicates at least eight degree heating weeks.

This is not the first time coral bleaching has been seen in the NT. Severe bleaching was recorded in seas off Arnhem Land during the global bleaching event in 2015-16.

Increases in sea surface temperature cause mass bleaching events. The bleached corals have lost most of the single-celled algae, called zooxanthellae, that live and photosynthesise inside the coral cells and provide the corals with most of their energy.

The Great Barrier Reef also suffered severe bleaching in 2016. This resulted in 67% mortality in its northern sections, dwarfing the effects of previous bleaching events in 1998 and 2002.




Read more:
How much coral has died in the Great Barrier Reef’s worst bleaching event?


Bleaching patterns tell a story

The bleaching patterns of these three events were tightly correlated with degree heating weeks within geographic areas, with the 1998 and 2002 events having prominent effects in the southern areas.

In 2016 the highest degree heating weeks were recorded on the northern stretches of the Great Barrier Reef, where the most severe bleaching occurred. Southern areas experienced temperatures close to average, partly due to cooler water from Cyclone Winston.

In 2017 the Great Barrier Reef experienced another bleaching event that affected northern and central areas. This event was particularly disturbing, as it followed 2016 and, unlike 1998, 2002 and 2016, it was not an El Niño year.

It is vital that reefs have time to recover between bleaching events if they are to avoid becoming degraded. For corals that survive being bleached, full recovery takes time. Reproductive output can be reduced for extended periods, resulting in less successful recruitment.

This, often combined with the increased competition from algae and soft corals, means that replacement of corals that do not survive bleaching events can be slow. Even fast-growing corals require 10-15 years to return to their prebleaching size.




Read more:
Will the Great Barrier Reef recover from its worst-ever bleaching?


Recent analysis has shown that the intervals between bleaching events across the globe have decreased substantially since the 1980s. The median period between bleaching events is now six years. One reason for this is that temperatures in La Niña conditions (when we expect lower temperatures) are now higher than those of El Niño conditions in the 1980s.

This is further evidence that if we continue on our current path of rapidly increasing emissions, it is increasingly likely that bleaching events will occur annually later this century, as predicted by coral scientists last century.

Resilience of reefs

The 2016 bleaching event demonstrated that areas with good water quality and controlled fishing were not protected from bleaching during this temperature anomaly. However, local conditions can be vitally important for recovery in previously bleached areas and to maintain healthy populations prior to bleaching events.

Unfortunately, climate change is not only causing higher temperatures but also increased intensity of storm and cyclone damage, sea level rise and ocean acidification. So we need resilient reefs to cope with these additional challenges.

We can increase the resilience of reefs by improving water quality. We can do this by reducing sediment and nitrogen and phosphorus input and other toxins such as coal dust, herbicides and pesticides, alongside regulating fishing pressure and protecting as many areas as possible.

New management approaches urgently needed

The beautiful reefs of the Northern Territory and the Great Barrier Reef need to be protected. If we wish to enjoy Australia’s reefs in future decades, it is vital that we change our management priorities.

State and federal governments need to give these areas the priority they deserve through marine parks and ranger programs, and regulation of potentially harmful activities. Water quality needs to be funded in a serious manner. Industrial developments, such as port expansions, need to be evaluated with protection of reefs as a primary concern.

The ConversationReducing emissions dramatically is crucial to slowing all the climate change effects on reefs. Australia can lead by example by rapidly moving away from fossil fuels and opening no new coal mines.

Selina Ward, Lecturer, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: mass coral spawning, a wonder of the natural world


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During mass spawning events coral young rise from their parents to ocean surface.
Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

Line K Bay, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Andrew Heyward, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Andrew Negri, Australian Institute of Marine Science

During the late spring, corals on the Great Barrier Reef release little balls that float to the ocean surface in a slow motion upside-down snowstorm.

These beautiful events are studied avidly by scientists: the tiny bundles will become young corals, and unlocking their secrets is vital to the continuing life of our coral reefs.


Read more: Newly discovered hermit crab species lives in ‘walking corals’


The first major mass spawning of 2017 unfolded last week following the early November full moon, with another spawning event predicted for December.

https://giphy.com/embed/l2QEeZl0oICDd4eqI

Mass spawning after the full moon

Coral species have a varied sex life. The majority of species are simultaneously male and female (hermaphrodites) and typically pack both eggs and sperm (gametes) into tight, buoyant bundles that are released after dark with remarkable synchronisation. The bundles float to the surface and open, allowing the eggs meet compatible sperm.

Less commonly, some coral species have separate sexes, and a few species even release asexually produced clones of themselves. For all species with sexual reproduction fertilised eggs develop into mobile larvae that settle on the sea floor and become polyps: the beginning of a new coral colony on the reef.

Mass spawnings are spectacular events, in which dozens of coral species release their gametes at specific times. Sometimes more than 100 species spawn on a single night, or over a few successive nights.


Read more: Feeling helpless about the Great Barrier Reef? Here’s one way you can help


This iconic celebration of sex on the reef was first described in the central Great Barrier Reef in 1984 by a group of early-career scientists. The discovery earned them a prestigious Australian Museum Eureka Award for Environmental Research in 1992.

The precise timing of this seasonal phenomenon is linked to seawater temperature, lunar phases, and other factors such as the daily cycle of light and dark. Mass coral spawning is the dominant reproductive mode for corals on the Great Barrier Reef, and has also been recorded on reefs around the world.

https://giphy.com/embed/3o6fJd19E49uAPpkw8

The release of egg and sperm bundles is the culmination of many months of development. In years when the full moon falls early in October and November, many colonies are not quite ready and delay spawning for another lunar cycle. That’s why this year will see some action in November and another mass spawning event after the December full moon.

An important date in the scientific calendar

Spawning can be replicated in aquarium settings, which provide unique opportunities to researchers. All three of us work in the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s (AIMS) unique Sea Simulator, where large numbers of coral larvae are produced for scientific experiments.

Scientists from the Institute and around the world work through the spawning nights to collect gamete bundles, separate sperm and fertilise the eggs, then rear millimeter-long larvae and juveniles. Many experiments continue for days, weeks and even years to address critical knowledge gaps in how corals respond to and recover from stress.

New tools for coral reef management

The extensive coral death in the northern Great Barrier Reef following back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 highlights the impacts of rapidly changing ocean conditions. AIMS scientists focus on developing ways to help coral adapt and restore damaged reefs.

Corals reefs are at a crossroads, but there is still hope. Experiments during this year’s spawning season will test whether surviving corals from recent bleaching events are naturally adapted to warmer reef temperatures, and if they produce more heat-tolerant young.


Read more: The Great Barrier Reef can repair itself, with a little help from science


This knowledge underpins the development of active reef management tools such as assisted gene flow.

The huge Sea Simulator lets researchers carefully test how corals respond to stress.
Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

Assisted gene flow involves moving heat-tolerant corals (or their young) to reefs that are warming. This technique proposes to improve the overall heat tolerance of local coral populations, to help the buffer the reef against future bleaching events caused by warmer than normal water temperatures.

More local threats to corals include poor water quality and pollution from coastal development. The early stages of a coral’s life are very sensitive to exposure to pesticides, oil spills and sediments from dredging.

Carefully controlled experiments with aquarium-reared coral larvae provide insights into the role of these local pressures on the rate of recovery and replenishment following large-scale disturbances.

The present reality for coral reefs is one of increasing strain from climate change, cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish predation, and declining water quality. The ability of coral reef ecosystems to recover from these challenges relies on the success of mass coral spawning both on the reef and advances in the laboratory to generate new options to enhance reef resilience.

The ConversationExploring reef restoration and adaptation needs to go hand-in-hand with ongoing (and increasing) efforts in conventional management, such as climate change mitigation, regional management of water quality and control of crown-of-thorns starfish.

Line K Bay, Senior Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Andrew Heyward, Principal Research Scientist, Exploring Marine Biodiversity, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Andrew Negri, Principal Research Scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.