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An Australian jewel

This 2,300 kilometre long jewel nestled along Australia's eastern coastline is home to a wealth of marine biodiversity unmatched anywhere in the world. It is a national and international icon.

This jewel, however, is being threatened; its complex and delicately balanced ecosystem is being challenged from human activities both locally on the reef, regionally along its coastline, and globally. These impacts are being felt in deteriorating water quality due to land-based pollution, rising water temperatures due to climate change, pests such as crown-of-thorns starfish, fishing, coastal development and increasing ocean acidification. They are being seen in dramatic losses in coral cover and habitat.

Video Opener: CSIRO: Australia's national science Agency

Title: CSIRO providing science solutions to protect and preserve the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is a global icon. It  stretches 2300 km  from the top of Queensland down to Bundaberg.  

It is deeply significant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owners and peoples  with enduring connection to their land and sea country.

The Reef is home to a wealth of marine biodiversity. 

The greatest threat to the Reef is climate change and its impacts. 

Other threats include deteriorating water quality, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, rising water temperatures and increasing ocean acidification.

The Reef provides benefits to communities and economies through fishing and tourism. Sustainable management is essential to reduce pressure on the Reef.

Preserving the Reef’s ecosystems represents a highly complex challenge.

It requires partnership between Australian governments, Traditional Owners, industry, landholders, community  and research institutions.

We have a long history of working with partners in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and adjacent catchments, spanning the full continuum from inland to outer reef.

Our collaborative work includes:

-Understanding and predicting the impacts of climate change.

-Improving water quality by reducing pollutants from agricultural land.

-Supporting marine park management including the management crown-of -thorns starfish.

Partnering with the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program,  harvesting coral spawn and modelling responses to climate and management interventions.

-Understanding the perspectives of Reef residents and the people whose livelihoods depend on The Reef.

-Using emerging digital technologies including artificial intelligence (AI) to help protect and interpret data on coral reefs.

We continue to work with others to monitor and protect the Reef. 

As Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO is solving the greatest challenges through innovative science and technology.

Video closer: CSIRO. Unlocking a better future for everyone.





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The Great Barrier Reef - looking towards 2050 and beyond

The magnitude of challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef cannot be met by any single organisation

In response to the growing pressures on the Reef, the Australian and Queensland governments released the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan) in 2015. Providing a 35-year blueprint for managing the Reef, it represents the policy cornerstone for safeguarding the Reef and guides government investment in protecting the Reef.

Our research covers a wide spectrum and addresses many issues facing the Reef.

Reef 2050: Science and collaboration pathways to ensure a future for the Great Barrier Reef

CSIRO is helping create an enabling environment that fosters a broad based set of partnerships.

These partnerships prioritise and collaborate on critical research pathways that underpin resilience based management of the GBR well into the future.

As part of this process, we have prioritised our research along these pathways including improving water quality, working with Traditional Owners, marine park management, reef restoration and cross cutting science. We have also established dedicated internal governance arrangements to facilitate cross-CSIRO Business Unit collaboration and to maximise the access to relevant CSIRO capability across the various GBR research units.

Enabling partnerships in the GBR region

Very significant amounts of coral died in the northern and central parts of the GBR as a result of two consecutive bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 (due to global warming) which was unprecedented. The Reef as we know it has irrevocably changed, necessitating a shift in how we think about protecting the GBR. It also is a call for urgent action on multiple fronts. The Reef 2050 Plan provides the framework that can guide policy responses, but it needs to be supported by a harnessing of Australia's world-class research capability across multiple organisations, so that we can capitalise on the GBR's resilience and ability to recover.

Preserving the GBR's ecological function by 2050 - not just of its coral reefs, but of all its ecosystems - represents a highly complex challenge that transcends simple solutions and multiple levels of governance. It requires the mobilisation of a broad based partnership between Federal, Queensland and local governments, industry, landholders, community groups, Traditional Owners and research institutions.

Since June 2016, CSIRO has taken a proactive role in facilitating a broad-based coalition of partners and has built on a lot of existing and new research initiatives.

Improving water quality by reducing pollutant losses from agricultural land

Managing nitrogen losses

A key focus of protection and recovery efforts are in the catchments and coastline adjoining the Reef. Both governments have pledged significant investments to improve water quality on the Reef and set targets with the aim of reducing suspended sediment, chemicals and nitrogen runoff by 2050. The Reef Water Quality Report Card 2017 and 2018 assesses the results of Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan actions.

Nitrogen losses from sugarcane cropping are a major threat to the Reef's health. Despite substantial investment in improving agricultural management practices, more improvement in water quality is needed to meet ecological targets for protecting the Reef's ecosystems. We use modelling to assess the economic and environmental impacts of nitrogen management strategies. We've also developed the 1622™ app which combines data from diverse sources to help sugarcane farmers optimise their crop management, reduce nitrogen losses and help protect the Reef. For the first time, farmers will have real-time information on key factors for growing sugarcane.

Managing sediment losses

The GBR catchments cover an area of over 423,000 km2, and cattle grazing is the dominant land use. Monitoring and modelling suggest that rangelands, primarily in the Burdekin and Fitzroy catchments, contribute approximately 75 per cent of the total fine sediment load that flows into the GBR lagoon. There, the fine sediments smother corals and seagrass beds, particularly closer to the coast and at the mouth of the large rivers. In big flood events, sediment plumes can even reach the outer reefs.

In response, CSIRO in collaboration with research organisations, land holders and regional Natural Resource Management bodies and with the help of funding from the Australian and Queensland governments has studied where the sediments come from, and how to manage grazing landscapes to reduce soil erosion and sediment loss. More recently, the focus has been directed at ways of effectively remediating gullies from where most of the sediment originates.

Working with communities and Traditional Owners to rehabilitate wetlands and rivers

Important traditions

Over 70 Traditional Owner groups span the length of the Great Barrier Reef, from the Torres Strait Islands in the north to Bundaberg in the South. They have inherent customary rights to this landscape, with deep spiritual connections, responsibilities and relationships with the Reef and it is the cornerstone to uphold and support traditional beliefs, knowledge and cultural practices. As custodians of the Great Barrier Reef, Traditional Owners are geographically, culturally and politically diverse. They are innovators, managers, artists, musicians, educators, fishermen and women, scientists, seafaring navigators, and leaders. We are dedicated to linking traditional knowledge and values into modern decision making and are committed to protecting cultural rights, customs and practices for the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2017, we joined a consortium of Indigenous and research organisations (commissioned by the Australian Government) to engage with Great Barrier Reef Traditional Owners to better understand and reflect their aspirations for the Great Barrier Reef and deliver on existing commitments.

For close to a decade we have also supported the Nywaigi Aboriginal people in Tropical North Queensland restore one of their most beautiful and vital wetlands. Mungalla wetlands is adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef and is not only a nursery for fish and wildlife, but also important to the Nywaigi people.

Supporting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (the Marine Park Authority) is Australia's lead manager of the Great Barrier Reef. For more than 40 years, it has been managing this great natural icon to ensure it is protected for the future. Extensive monitoring supports the Marine Park Authority in tracking the health of the Reef and making more effective management decisions.

Out on the water, the Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service operate a joint field management program for the marine and island national parks, encompassing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Great Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park. A priority for the Marine Park Authority is a dedicated crown-of-thorns starfish control program to cull the coral-eating starfish and reduce the severity of outbreaks to protect live coral cover.

At CSIRO, we conduct research supporting all of these domains, often in collaboration with other research organisations such as the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences and James Cook University.

Marine park management

Managing crown-of-thorns starfish

We are leading a number of National Environmental Science Program (NESP) projects that are developing technology and management plans to control the threat to the Reef from outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS). We work closely with our research, policy and on-water control team partners. Strategies, plans, and the research produced, underpin the implementation of the COTS Control Program being managed by the Marine Park Authority and funded by the Australian Government

Getting on top of cumulative impacts

Understanding how to approach cumulative impacts in complex socio-ecological systems remains one of the most important challenges for managers of the Reef. We are working in collaboration to fill this gap through many  research projects including a modelling framework to support structured decision making . This work has led directly to the development and adoption of a cumulative impact management policy . We are also developing detailed guidance for undertaking analysis of cumulative impact and risks to the GBR . This guidance document is intended to aid the Marine Park Authority, Queensland Government and proponents of future developments in the assessment of cumulative impacts at the whole-of-reef scale and at smaller site-of-development scale.

Reef restoration

Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program

Hard corals are highly susceptible to coral bleaching caused by higher-than-normal sea temperatures. Coral bleaching is expected to occur more often and with greater severity in the future, making it difficult for corals to recover between bleaching events.

In 2018 we became a partner in the Australian Government's Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) . As part of that we partner with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) to implement a research and development program that will support the Federal and State governments in deciding and implementing policies to address the challenges facing this delicately balanced ecosystem.

The results of the two-year study, released on April 16 2020, identified 43 out of 160 novel interventions for the Reef that were worthy of additional research.

An initial $150 million in government funding will be invested to test and apply these novel interventions from freezing coral larvae to ways to shade and cool large areas of the Reef at risk of bleaching.

Using modelling, scientists have considered how effective the novel interventions would be in current conditions, and moderate and severe climate change scenarios. 

According to a 2018 RRAP survey, social scientists have ascertained that most Australians are supportive of the idea of undertaking large-scale restoration activities to help restore and protect the Reef

An example of our reef restoration work is testing the effectiveness of large scale coral restoration approaches.

Ocean acidification

The term ocean acidification is used to describe the ongoing decrease in ocean pH caused by human carbon dioxide emissions, such as the burning of fossil fuels.

The oceans currently absorb approximately half of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuel. However, there is a cost; when carbon dioxide dissolves in water it (slightly) increases the water's acidity, or lowers its pH.

This affects the ability of marine creatures such crustaceans, corals and coralline algae to build their skeletons, endangering them significantly.

Coral bleaching

Bleaching is a stress response of corals.

As the water warms the symbiotic relationship between the coral and its zooxanthellae, a tiny marine algae that give corals much of their colour, breaks down turning corals pale, resulting in the tiny algae being expelled by the corals. Without these zooxanthellae, most corals struggle to survive, and can ultimately die if the warming is too severe or prolonged.

We continue to monitor the state of the Reef and contribute to weekly updates provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. We use remote sensing, models such as eReefs (see below) and data visualisation to provide a picture of what is currently happening on the Reef and what will likely happen in the future. This further helps to prioritise funding initiatives and support water quality efforts.

Cross-cutting science that enables decision making

Discussion on key issues

Contact us to find out how we can help your business thrive

Contact Dr Bruce Taylor to discuss collaboration opportunities across the Great Barrier Reef and its catchments.

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