Traditional Owners study ancient marine ecosystem as it spawns the next generation of corals

The Great Barrier Reef stands as one of the world’s oldest natural wonders, with First Nations people living alongside the evolution of this vast coral ecosystem for millennia.

This week, as the Great Barrier Reef births the new generation of corals in the annual mass spawning event, Traditional Owners are studying this ancient marine ecosystem with scientists – observing the spawning process from fertilisation to the transformation of larvae into baby corals.

The seven-day ‘Spawning School’ is led by James Cook University’s TropWATER under the Cairns-Port Douglas Reef Hub in collaboration with Reef Recruits and local Land & Sea Rangers, funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

“We as First Nations people have co-existed with this complex ecosystem for thousands of years, and with that comes a deep connection with the Great Barrier Reef,” said Stirling King, Gunggandji-Mandingalbay Yidinji Land and Sea Ranger.

“We are excited, as Rangers, to connect our Elders and community members with coral spawning and share our passion for this special time of year on the Reef.”

Project Lead JCU TropWATER’S Dr Katie Chartrand said understanding coral spawning processes and building capacity for Traditional Owners was a practical way for communities to engage and explore the science and culture of this annual event.

“This project is driven by the need to integrate Indigenous perspectives with western science to understand, preserve, and navigate the challenges facing the Reef,” she said.

“Over the next week, our focus will be on the intricacies of the spawning process. We’ll be equipping rangers with the essential skills for active involvement in reef recovery techniques.

“The Spawning School project aims to enhance education and facilitate two-way knowledge exchange for future Reef restoration programs.”

Mass coral spawning serves as the reef’s natural recovery time, replenishing reefs in a once-a-year event. However, given that only a fraction of corals naturally survives the larval stage, there is a need to explore ways to harness spawning outputs to help expedite the recovery of damaged reefs.

Dr Chartrand said the corals, collected from healthy reefs on Yirrganydji sea Country, will spawn in the JCU Eduquarium, “here the baby corals will then be raised in the lab and settled on devices with an opportunity for Rangers to participate in research led by Reef Recruits.”

Reef Recruits ecologist Dr Kerry Cameron says incorporating a research experiment into the Spawning School program offers additional learning opportunities for Rangers.

“Coral spawning, a rare event, is the focus of the Spawning School. It’s an opportunity to gain fresh insights into larval behaviour. We explore spawning, conduct experiments on larval readiness to settle, and provide rangers a platform to actively contribute to discussions on research findings.”

Coral spawning and the work to rear the larvae will also be shared back into community through an Indigenous-led production company Reef Cast. Malachi Johnson, host of Reef Cast, will drive communication of this project to communities.

“This collaboration between Traditional Owners and researchers is significant, because working together in all areas of research is key to sustainable custodianship of the Reef. Walking together, not in front or behind but side by side in solidarity,” he said.

The Cairns-Port Douglas Reef Hub is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. The Hub is coordinated by TropWATER at James Cook University and enabled by the partnership’s Community Reef Protection and Traditional Owner Reef Protection components, and the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program with a network of local partners.

Scientists take students beyond the classroom in unique opportunity

This year, TropWATER scientists provided high school students at Newman Catholic College in Cairns with a unique opportunity to advance their scientific knowledge beyond the classroom, inspiring a new generation of environmentally conscious leaders.

Under the scientist’s guidance, the Reef Guardian class has taken an active role in rehabilitating damaged seagrass meadows in the Cairns Inlet, while also conducting seagrass monitoring quadrat studies at Green Island.

TropWATER’s marine biologist Evie Furness said the initiative provided students with valuable insights into conservation and the possibilities of marine biology as a career.

“We were able to teach students about techniques for seagrass restoration while working alongside our scientists and Indigenous Sea rangers in one of our restoration projects,” she said.

“We’ve been able to show students how these underwater habitats are vital for marine life diversity and how they can play a significant role in maintaining the health of the Great Barrier Reef.”

The students actively participated in preparing harvested seagrass samples for planting, helping to the revitalise damaged seagrass meadows and promote a healthier marine environment.

In addition to their restoration efforts, the Reef Guardian class engaged in seagrass monitoring quadrat studies at Green Island, a crucial feeding habitat for green sea turtles.

“On Green Island, we showed the students about the value of monitoring, why ecosystems need to be monitored, and what’s involved in this. They used quadrats, identification guides, and waterproof data sheets to collect valuable data on seagrass health and biodiversity,” she said.

Matt Radburnd, Newman College Science teacher, said the collected data not only enhances students’ understanding of marine ecosystems but also provides them with a head start for their studies in senior Biology and Marine Science QCAA courses.

“These experiential learning opportunities play an important role in shaping the future environmental leaders of our community,” he said.

“We extend our heartfelt gratitude to the scientists. Through this unique partnership, our students have not only gained invaluable scientific knowledge and skills, but have also developed a deep sense of appreciation for the natural world.”

Seagrass recovery in Great Sandy Marine Park

Widespread regrowth of seagrass has been reported within the Great Sandy Marine Park, following multiple flood events in early 2022 that led to a devastating loss of seagrass meadows.

Researchers from James Cook University (JCU) TropWATER, in collaboration with Queensland Department of Environment & Science and marine park rangers from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS), have been conducting surveys to monitor the loss and regrowth of seagrass meadows since the floods.

JCU TropWATER’s Associate Professor Michael Rasheed said the most recent results show widespread recovery of seagrass, in many sections of the marine park.

“We have seen big increases in the deepwater seagrasses in the middle of Hervey Bay as well as substantial expansion of in intertidal seagrasses in the Great Sandy Strait that were devastated following the floods of 2022,” he said.

“This is a reassuring outcome, but there is still uncertainty of seagrass meadows’ resilience, and if it can sustain this recovery in the long-term.”

Senior Ranger Daniel Clifton said the Great Sandy Marine Park was a major hotspot for dugongs in Queensland, meaning the overall health of the marine ecosystem played a crucial role in sustaining populations of these threatened animals.

“The Great Sandy Marine Park’s seagrass meadows are a critical part of the marine ecosystem to support local sea turtle and dugong populations,” Ranger Clifton said.

“By monitoring the abundance of seagrass across the park, we get a better picture of the health of the wider marine ecosystem in the area.”

Impact on dugongs and resilience of seagrass meadows

While the recovery is promising, recent JCU TropWATER dugong surveys reveal that the initial loss of seagrass meadows took a significant toll on dugong populations in the region.

JCU TropWATER dugong researcher Dr Chris Cleguer, who conducted dugong population aerial surveys following the floods, said there was a reduction in dugong numbers in Hervey Bay in November 2022.

“Seagrass habitats were greatly reduced quickly following the floods, and the dugongs in the area would have had little food in these months,” he said.

“It’s highly likely that some dugongs would have died from starvation, while others would have moved to reach deeper seagrasses in the middle of Hervey Bay or simply leave the area to  other importance seagrass habitats such as Gladstone in search of food.

“The case of Hervey Bay serves as a warning of what may continue to occur under future climate conditions, it underscores the urgency in preserving and understanding seagrass habitats, particularly the deeper water ones, as herbivores like dugongs may increasingly rely on them.”

To understand the seagrass meadows’ resilience, JCU TropWATER and QPWS will continue to monitor the health of seagrass in the area including examining light availability within the Great Sandy Strait, a herbivory exclusion study looking at how marine life feeding on seagrass impacts recovery, and seagrass seed bank availability.

“We are really interested in the health of seagrass meadow’s seed bank, which is the repository of seeds in the sediment that influences the ability of the meadows to recover and remain healthy in the event of further impacts,” said Associate Professor Michael Rasheed.

“Understanding the health of the seed bank is key to figuring out how resilient these meadows are against future pressures, such as intense feeding from dugongs and the possibility of more flooding in the years ahead.

“The reality of climate change means we need to continue to regularly monitor these seagrass meadows and to develop potential restoration methods. This will allow us to quickly respond to damaged or lost meadows to ensure we have these important ecosystems into the future.”

Research and collaboration for future resilience

With a team of leading scientists specialising in the expansive realm of tropical aquatic ecosystems, spanning both marine and freshwater domains, TropWATER takes a pivotal role in ensuring that its research not only informs but also contributes practically to resilient and sustainable solutions for aquatic ecosystems.

TropWATER has leveraged its expertise in dugongs, seagrass, and water quality, as well as strong collaboration with DES/QPWS, to provide a holistic pathway in ensuring the long-term preservation of these crucial ecosystems.

Recognising the uncertainty surrounding the resilience of seagrass meadows to future impacts, scientists emphasise the need to continue monitoring, research, and investigate potential restoration methods.

TropWATER is renowned for addressing environmental challenges for a diverse range of stakeholders, including industry, First Nations peoples, governments, communities, and policymakers.

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