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Assisted Reef Recovery

How Our Program Works

Our Reef Recovery Program aims to mimic the natural recovery process after disturbance and accelerate it. The outcomes that we wish to achieve are:

Habitat Creation
We work at degraded sections of the reef, so rebuilding habitat is a high priority and is critical for resilience. We are creating the structural complexity that houses and supports creatures across the food web. Every species performs a function, so the greater the range of species, the greater the functionality of the reef. Functional reefs are typically healthy, resilient reefs. We aim to create a healthy neighbourhood for juvenile corals that have spawned and fertilised elsewhere and seek to settle at our reef sites.

Spawning Corals
Coral reefs are critical to the conveyor belt of life in the sea. The annual coral spawning event after the full moon in October and November distributes countless egg-and-sperm bundles to the mercy of the currents. A tiny percentage survive to settle elsewhere. However, the more spawning corals there are, the more new corals are added to the Great Barrier Reef. We seek to care for our corals through reproductive maturity so they can naturally regenerate the reef.

Inspired Communities
We are striving to normalise reef recovery work and to grow the movement in our community and beyond. To learn more about how we hope to scale and positively impact the Great Barrier Reef, see our Community Outreach Program.

All global reef restoration activity faces a moving target as the sea water warms. From research into accelerated evolution to site-based stewardship efforts building resilience to the conservation of biodiversity, reef restoration remains in a research and development stage.

Our approach has adopted and continues to adapt a method developed in the Florida Keys using Coral Trees.

These trees are 2m high with 20 x 0.75m alternate cross members holding five coral fragments crimped to a monofilament line.

Each tree can hold 100 coral fragments.

Both the trees and corals are free to move with the current.
1

We carefully select colonies of ‘Corals of Opportunity’ from the nearby reef. These corals have broken away or become loose from wave action, will not regrow, and will eventually die.
2

We select the healthiest colonies of age, determined by size, indicating they have weathered the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017. These colonies exhibit a natural resistance to the environmental conditions they have experienced, whereas others have not.
3

We cut these colonies into uniform size fragments and configurations. Next, we attach them to our coral trees. The trees are suspended in the water column, where the corals are free from parasites, predators and competitors and have greater access to sunlight for photosynthesis. Here, their health and vitality recover as they become ready to return to the reef.
4

We return about three-quarters of the corals on each tree to the reef. Trimming the remainder provides fragments for restocking the trees.
5

When we replant the corals to the reef, we do so in a way that maximises their chances to prosper. We plant in genotype clusters and ensure that we mimic the choice of neighbouring coral species that we see in nature.
6

Success is measured by breathing new life into a ‘nil return’ coral colony and growing it into many healthy colonies that fast-track the creation of critical habitat. These then join the annual spawning to regenerate corals naturally.

Our Reef Recovery Program is informed, first and foremost, by science. We employ marine biologists and hold a science partnership with the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER) at James Cook University in Cairns.

Coral reefs are complex ecosystems, and each site may contain different species assemblages shaped by reef topography, currents, and connectivity to other reefs.

Applying our combination of academic knowledge and extensive lived experience to our work is critical for all aspects of assisted reef recovery.

From the initial site selection, specimen selection, placement of the nurseries, out-planting and monitoring, science guides every aspect.

Our science program is critical to our philosophy of continual improvement. We rigorously monitor our out-planted corals and use data to inform our strategic development.

Our strategic development includes breaking down every aspect of our Reef Recovery Program and applying the testing of alternative approaches at every stage to be the best we can be.

We also have an emerging program of PhD studies that will inform our program in rich detail and inform our continual improvement and the development of our Training Program.

We work at high-value tourism sites in partnership with tourism operators wishing to demonstrate site stewardship.

The partnership model enables us to access reef sites and operate at a lower cost. Due to the enduring nature of the partnerships, we can monitor our impact on an ongoing basis with a view to continuous improvement and taking what we learn to new entrants to the reef recovery movement.

Our tourism partners are custodians of the sites that they have frequented under permit for many years.

While our Reef Recovery Program adds to its existing culture of site stewardship.

Fitzroy Island

The island is our Research & Development hub and our Operational Headquarters. We have an enduring partnership arrangement with the Fitzroy Island Resort. It is a relationship that was critical in our establishment, and it is a relationship that will continue to develop over time.

The island is our Research & Development hub and our Operational Headquarters. We have an enduring partnership arrangement with the Fitzroy Island Resort. It is a relationship that was critical in our establishment, and it is a relationship that will continue to develop over time.

Located about 30km east of Cairns in Gunggandji Sea Country, Fitzroy Island is where reef restoration started on the Great Barrier Reef with our first ocean-based coral nursery on 7 December 2017.

Fitzroy Island is a large tropical island with rainforest covering and its own fringing coral reef system. The island has a total area of 339 hectares (838 acres). The island’s highest point is 269 metres (883′) above sea level. It’s a beautiful place, and we love working there.

It’s the perfect site for us to experiment and learn. It is the incubator site and is the home of our community engagement and our programs for transfer of capacity to individuals and groups wishing to become involved in assisted reef recovery anywhere. Here, we ‘Build a Legion of Reef Recovery Champions’.

The island and resort are the focal points for the Community Outreach Program opportunities that we offer, including our:

  • Reef Recovery Diving
  • Reef Recovery Insights
  • Reef Recovery Retreats

Hastings Reef

Installing a nursery at Hastings Reef was an important milestone, signifying the program's expansion after one year of operation. And importantly, the development was a well-known outer reef and high-value tourism destination.

Installing a nursery at Hastings Reef was an important milestone, signifying the program’s expansion after one year of operation. And importantly, the development was a well-known outer reef and high-value tourism destination.

Hastings Reef is situated within a Marine National Park Zone (Green Zone), which means only non-extractive activities are permitted. It is located about 50km northeast of Cairns in Yirrganydji (Irukandji) Sea Country and is a popular site for marine tourism with several permits allocated.

Our nursery was installed on 12 December 2018 with the generous assistance of our partner, Seastar Cruises, another enduring relationship. The site had been affected by coral bleaching in the events of 2016 and 2017 and was a good candidate for assisted reef recovery. The reef has varied topography, and our nursery has been making a welcomed difference at this site.

During the later stages of 2021, we added a new partnership with Reef Experience to our operation at Hastings Reef. This additional and very welcome relationship gives us greater confidence to expand the scope of activity at this site and to apply the learnings from our R&D at Fitzroy Island.

Moore Reef

Moore Reef is probably the most visited reef in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Situated about 50km due east of Cairns in Gunggandji Sea Country, Moore Reef is a biologically important source for nearby reefs.

Moore Reef is probably the most visited reef in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Situated about 50km due east of Cairns in Gunggandji Sea Country, Moore Reef is a biologically important source for nearby reefs.

A non-extractive Marine National Park Zone, Moore Reef is more than 2,500 hectares and has just three pontoon sites.

Our first nursery at Moore Reef completes the combination of outer reef sites with different characteristics, enabling us to continue to explore every angle for improvement to our methods for the best results for the reef.

The operation at Moore Reef would not be possible without the unwavering support of Sunlover Cruises. Their large vessel, frequent trips, and big pontoon to work from makes this partnership critical to the success that we are building in our Reef Recovery Program on the Great Barrier Reef.