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Program Area 4: Enhancing reef resilience through continuous improvement and new initiatives across all aspects of management

In addition to its strategic planning for the Reef, the Authority has a history of undertaking significant interventions and other activities to enhance Reef resilience, including implementing the Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program, island conservation projects and the Douglas Shoal Environmental Remediation Project. These actions highlight the Authority’s responsiveness in adapting its management approach to address new threats and incidents that affect the resilience of the Reef.

In response to coral bleaching events, coral disease and severe weather events, the Authority revisited and adjusted its strategic plans for managing the Reef, with an increased emphasis on developing, implementing and enabling interventions to build the Reef’s resilience in the face of climate change.

The Authority’s Great Barrier Reef blueprint for resilience signalled a new direction for managing the Marine Park from 2017. It outlines 10 initiatives focused on actions delivering maximum benefits for Reef resilience and builds on existing management arrangements, such as crown-of-thorns starfish control and fishing compliance, to protect the Reef.

Summary of performance results for Program Area 4

Performance criterion

2018–19 Target

2018–19 Actual

Incident responses and interventions by the Authority and partners improve Reef health, and enhance future knowledge and capability.

Incident response is effective and efficient, and mitigates damage to the Reef.

ACHIEVED

Stakeholders and partners are aware of and understand future intervention priorities and locations.

IN PROGRESS

Management activities and priority conservation actions are delivered on budget, provide the intended impact and inform future activities.

IN PROGRESS

Capability is developed to implement effective new approaches to conservation.

ACHIEVED

Criterion source: Performance indicators are recorded in the Authority’s chapter in the Department of the Environment and Energy’s 2018–19 Portfolio Budget Statements p.246 and in the Authority’s corporate plan for 2018–19 p.21.

Results against performance criterion

Reef incident response framework

The Reef Joint Field Management Program — a partnership between the Australian and Queensland governments — responds to maritime and environmental incidents that pose a threat to the World Heritage Area in collaboration with other responsible agencies. Incidents include ship and smaller vessel groundings and sinkings, pollution spills, coral bleaching, marine pest incursions, stranded marine animals and severe weather events, such as cyclones and flooding.

The program assessed 89 maritime events with the potential to cause environmental harm. The events included 36 vessel groundings, 16 sinkings and nine spills of substances, including fuel, oil and liquid waste. A risk assessment was undertaken for all maritime events notified to the program with in‑field response undertaken for 18 incidents, including seven site assessments of damage.

Three official joint Commonwealth–Queensland ‘order to remove notices’ were issued to vessel owners for vessels that had run aground or sunk and posed a significant threat to the World Heritage Area. These notices were issued at no cost to the Authority.

Ten staff undertook training in site assessment of damage to learn streamlined in-field techniques for more consistent site assessment and reporting from vessel groundings. This enhanced the program’s capacity to complete site assessments of damage quickly and efficiently following maritime events.

The Authority conducted its annual pre‑summer workshop to assess climate‑related risks to the Reef in collaboration with leading marine scientists, researchers and technical experts from around Australia and overseas.

Workshop participants reviewed the previous 2017–18 summer conditions, considered climate outlooks for the 2018–19 summer, assessed the risks to the Reef for the 2018–19 summer and discussed monitoring activities needed.

During the high risk months between November and April, the Authority closely tracked environmental and reef health conditions by monitoring weather forecasts and models; keeping stakeholders up-to-date through reef health reports. Weekly updates were prepared and circulated within the Authority and partner agencies, with weekly website content and video updates.

Priority intervention actions

The Authority has supported the increase in reef restoration and adaptation projects taking place in the Great Barrier Reef. During 2018–19, the Authority engaged with reef scientists and research organisations to explore proposed solutions to help preserve and restore the Reef. This included partnering in the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP), a multi-phase program bringing together more than 150 of Australia’s leading experts to inform planning and prioritising of reef restoration measures. The Authority played a key role in ensuring the risks and benefits of intervention projects that may be proposed, such as geo-engineering actions, introduction of artificial structures and stabilisation, and reproduction and recruitment activities, are understood and that any proposed activities fall within legislative and regulatory guidelines.

The Authority has continued its leadership in identifying a network of resilient reefs, an initiative to determine reefs that are most likely to remain resilient as disturbances become more severe and frequent. The new approach looks at areas that have relatively low exposure to impacts, and are likely to recover rapidly after impacts. These reefs are predicted to make relatively higher contributions to the coral larval supply, and drive recovery of the ecosystem as a whole.

The project has developed tools that explore and visualise cumulative exposure modelling of cyclones, coral bleaching, flood plumes, and crown-of-thorns starfish predation to identify priority reefs for the resilience network.

Priority conservation actions

The Reef Joint Field Management Program undertook 1901 in-water Reef Health and Impact Surveys across 187 reefs to assess the health of the Reef, including 1356 associated with crown‑of‑thorns starfish surveillance.

These surveys produce a Reef‑wide picture of the condition of the Reef and informed the situational awareness of environmental and reef health conditions reporting. The program also undertook subtidal seagrass monitoring at four sites — at Newry, Hinchinbrook and Flinders islands, and Tongue bay, with Bathurst and Lloyd bay sites unable to be sampled due to bad weather. This provided a broad geographical assessment of seagrass condition across the World Heritage Area to contribute to the Authority’s Marine Monitoring Program.

There were 8070 individual broadscale manta tows — where a snorkeller is towed behind a vessel to make direct observations of the reef — undertaken across 106 reefs, surveying around 1577 kilometres of the Reef to help guide crown‑of‑thorns starfish control activities.

The program conducted 224 bird surveys at 154 different locations across the World Heritage Area. There were 100 bird species observed, of which 19 species were breeding.

As at 30 June 2019, 100 per cent of public moorings and 98 per cent of reef protection markers have been inspected to ensure they are safe for use. The installation of 50 new public moorings and 56 new reef protection markers expanded the World Heritage Area’s reef protection program to 272 public moorings and 270 reef protection markers to protect coral and seagrass habitats. The mooring and Reef protection expansion was funded through the Queensland Government and Commonwealth Reef Trust.

Capability development

The Authority partnered or enabled a number of restoration projects that trialled new technologies and mobilised community efforts to help reefs better withstand and recover from disturbances. These included:

  • Scaled-up field trials at Moore and Vlassoff reefs in November–December 2018, involving collected coral larvae being reared in floating pools and then released to enhance coral growth. The trials, aimed at increasing the survivorship of settled corals, included the use of an underwater autonomous vehicle known as a ‘LarvalBot’ to disperse coral larvae. This project is a partnership between Southern Cross University, the Queensland University of Technology, the Authority and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
  • Trials of coral spawn slick harvesting on reefs around Heron Island in November–December 2018. Spotter aircraft located slicks and directed research vessels, with these vessels then deploying floating booms to hold the slicks while larvae were pumped into vessel holding tanks. The health of the coral larvae being held in the tanks was measured to determine the potential for transporting healthy larvae to target reefs.
  • Continued research into the effect of temperature and water movement on coral through the Reef Havens project. The trial initially proposed localised pumping of deeper, cooler water onto corals to reduce bleaching stress. The project now seeks to develop a highly detailed profile of water temperature and currents within a specific reef complex to determine whether creating artificial water movement can reduce the risk of bleaching.
  • Testing the viability of using ‘reef bags’ to consolidate coral rubble and provide habitat in areas impacted by tropical cyclones. Six bags of unconsolidated coral rubble were successfully deposited at Hook Island fringing reef and Bait Reef to test deployment across different habitats. While there were challenges associated with filling the bags, monitoring indicates they are now covered with benthic growth and fish are using them for habitat and cover.
  • Continued work on the Reef Joint Field Management Program’s macroalgae removal project to test the benefits of removing macroalgae from fringing reef at Magnetic Island. Previous trials were upscaled resulting in the removal of more than 850 kilograms of macroalgae from three sites in Florence Bay, Magnetic Island. James Cook University partnered with the Reef Joint Field Management Program and will monitor the ecological outcomes of the macroalgal removal.

Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program

The Authority manages the Australian Government funded Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program to protect a network of high ecological and economic value coral reefs from outbreaks of the coral-eating starfish. The program aims to deliver world-leading science-based adaptive management of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks within the Marine Park.

With additional Australian Government funding of $13.2 million, in November 2018 the Authority significantly increased the capacity of its Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program from two to six vessels. The overarching management goals of these vessels are to cull starfish aggregations to below scientifically established thresholds, ensuring coral growth outpaces the mortality of coral caused by crown-of-thorns starfish, and achieving or maintaining a ‘no outbreak’ status across the high value reefs.

The Authority worked closely with NESP Integrated Pest Management scientists to implement an innovative approach to controlling outbreaks of the starfish, and provided training in control methodology and data management to 75 vessel crew members across the expanded fleet. Vessel crews delivered crown-of-thorns starfish surveillance and culling, undertook surveys of coral health and contributed to scientific research to improve crown-of-thorns starfish management. The program’s expansion enabled crown-of-thorns starfish control vessels to be deployed in the far north and far south of the Marine Park for the first time (Figure 18).

Locations of the 779 high-value reefs across the Marine Park that were managed by the Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program in 2018-19Map showing the locations of the 113 high-value reefs across the Marine Park that were managed by the Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program in 2018–19

The expanded control program delivered 1091 days on water across the six-vessel fleet during 2018–19. The program managed 113 reefs of high value across the Marine Park, surveying 3002 kilometres of reef for signs of the coral-eating starfish. In locations where starfish were detected, dive crews were deployed to cull starfish numbers below ecologically sustainable thresholds using a single-shot injection of bile salts or vinegar. Overall, crews spent 8835 hours culling and removed 118,329 starfish across more than 46 square kilometres of reef habitat. A total of 1558 Reef Health and Impact Surveys were also conducted to assess the impacts to coral cover on reefs where starfish were managed.

On 58 per cent of the high-value reefs managed for crown-of-thorns starfish, initial surveillance revealed crown-of-thorns starfish impacts were minimal and control teams proactively culled any starfish to suppress the development of an outbreak. On a further 29 per cent of the high-value reefs, initial surveillance revealed crown-of-thorns starfish were impacting the reef and control teams culled starfish down to sustainable levels. On the remaining 12 per cent of high-value reefs, crown-of-thorns starfish impacts were significant and intensive culling was undertaken to achieve sustainable levels (Figure 19).

Outcomes of pest management across 113 high-value reefs managed by the expanded Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program in 2018-19A pie chart depicts outcomes of pest management across 113 high-value reefs managed by the Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program.

The network of high-value reefs that are being managed by the Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program makes an important contribution to the overall resilience of the Reef and Reef-dependent industries (Figure 20).

Of these reefs, 58 were prioritised for pest management because of their high ecological value, including their capacity to consistently spread coral larvae to other reefs and aiding their recovery from impacts. An additional 19 reefs were prioritised owing to their economic value, as they support significant reef tourism operations. A further 36 reefs were directly managed for crown-of-thorns starfish because of their combined ecological and economic contributions to enhance the resilience of the Reef and the industries it supports.

Overlapping spheres show the number of high ecological value (58) and high economic value (19) reefs managed by the Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program. The spheres overlap to show the number of reefs (36) that are considered both high ecological and high economic value.The Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program focuses its pest management on reefs of high ecological and economic value in the Marine Park to enhance the resilience of the ecosystem and reef-dependent industries

Douglas Shoal Environmental Remediation Project

Two major contracts were awarded following open tender processes as part of the Douglas Shoal Environmental Remediation Project. One for remediation planning ($5.5 million) and one for environmental monitoring ($3.6 million). Targeted site surveys were conducted from March to June 2019 to fill critical knowledge gaps regarding the nature and extent of damage from the grounding of the cargo ship, Sheng Neng 1, in 2010.

Traditional Owners were employed and participated in these field surveys. Preliminary results indicate physical damage and chemical contamination remain significant barriers to natural recovery, even nine years after the grounding incident. The data collected in the field will be used to refine priorities, identify remediation objectives, evaluate remediation options and approach the market to procure remediation contractors.

Analysis of performance against purpose

Reef incident response framework

The Reef Joint Field Management Program is continually improving its incident response capability and procedures. Having access to timely and regular reports of environmental and reef health conditions is a significant improvement that enables planning for any response activity needed in the field.

Having more staff trained in site assessments enables a faster response following maritime incidents and improved consistency in assessment and reporting. These site assessments will be increasingly important for informing damage mitigation and rehabilitation of sites.

Priority intervention actions

The Authority is a key partner in the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program’s scoping of intervention options to increase the Reef’s resilience. This engagement will continue into the next stages of the program with the Authority playing a key role in ensuring the risks and benefits of proposed interventions are understood and that any proposed activities fall within legislative and regulatory guidelines.

Development of the Reef knowledge system prototype and operational tools was made possible by a long-term commitment to build on the resilience benefits of the existing Marine Park Zoning Plan by the Authority, and collaboration with researchers at the University of Queensland who were contracted to provide significant technical contribution, along with experts from a range of other organisations, including AIMS and CSIRO.

In 2019–20 this work will continue to be developed, automated and incorporated into the prototype operational tool allowing managers to compare the disturbance and recovery potential for individual reefs understand and map resilience dynamics on the Reef to guide decision making.

Outputs will be combined with the outputs of the NESP resilience-based management decision support project to further enhance its capacity to guide management investments, primarily by helping managers to determine where and when to act.

Priority conservation actions

The marine and island conservation activities undertaken by the Reef Joint Field Management Program contribute to enhancing reef, island and species resilience.

The increased in-field delivery reflects additional funding received from the Authority for Reef Health and Impact Surveys and crown‑of‑thorns starfish surveillance, prioritising delivery that is consistent with the Reef 2050 Plan and the Great Barrier Reef blueprint for resilience, as well as continuous improvements to vessel and staff scheduling.

The Crown-of-thorns Starfish Control Program was delivered within budget during 2018–19. Expansion of the program contributed to achieving the vision of the Great Barrier Reef blueprint for resilience, by ‘ramping up’ crown-of-thorns starfish control through an innovative in-water control program. The expanded program uses a scientifically-informed and data-driven approach to measure progress in achieving its intended impacts. The data collected through the program is also being used to inform the adaptive management strategy for crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks in the Marine Park, in partnership with NESP scientists.