Boosting coral abundance on the Great Barrier Reef

Boosting coral abundance on the Great Barrier Reef

What's important

The Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) and the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy (DoEE) are seeking innovative solutions to quickly restore the ecological functions provided by the Great Barrier Reef.

Six innovators are sharing in over $1 million to commence projects in the Feasibility stage of the SBIR program. A further $1 million is available to develop the best solutions through the subsequent Proof of Concept stage.

Full details of successful applicants are shown below.

An information session for this challenge was held 18 April 2018. A recording is available on the additional information page.


Organisations interested in collaborating to address this challenge registered their details on the list of organisations seeking partners. Registration for this list is now closed.

Challenge statement

The challenge is to quickly restore the ecological functions provided by the Great Barrier Reef through cost-effective methods which protect corals exposed to extreme temperatures and encourage the recovery of damaged reefs after heat wave and storm events.

The basis of this challenge is to develop solutions which support the protection, regeneration and recovery of coral populations on the Great Barrier Reef.

Challenge imperative

The Great Barrier Reef is the planet’s greatest living wonder, globally recognised as a World Heritage site. Like many other reefs around the world, it is under severe pressure from climate change. In 2016, coral bleaching led to significant reductions in coral health and abundance in the northern sections of the Great Barrier Reef. In 2017 bleaching occurred in the central section of the Great Barrier Reef, with the full extent of the damage still to be determined. However, there is an opportunity to develop technological solutions which enhance the natural recovery processes of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals. Innovative solutions may help maintain a functioning, coral abundant reef ecosystem for the long term.

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site of extreme ecological, cultural and economic significance. The users and stewards of the Great Barrier Reef include industries, government agencies, science leaders, traditional owners and the public. There is a need for all stakeholders to contribute solutions. Towards this end, the Australian and Queensland governments are jointly investing approximately $200 million annually in the Reef’s health.

Of all surveyed Australians 77% feel that the Reef is part of their identity, and 81% feel it is the responsibility of all Australians to protect it. More than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owner clan groups maintain heritage values for their land and sea country and demonstrate continuing connections with the Great Barrier Reef.

The economic and social significance of the Great Barrier Reef cannot be overstated, with an estimated 69,000 people employed by industries associated with the Great Barrier Reef. Fisheries provide hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue while tourism based on the Reef is estimated to provide around $6 billion each year. Maintaining coral cover on the Reef, indeed any reef, is extremely important.

Current efforts include protecting the integrity and resilience of coral reefs by improving water quality and taking actions to mitigate climate change. Solutions to this challenge will supplement these efforts by providing methods to boost coral abundance on the Great Barrier Reef, helping to preserve this truly unique ecosystem now and into the future.

New, innovative methods are sought to achieve one or more of the following outcomes to improve coral abundance:

  1. Address the impacts of coral bleaching:
    One of the most significant challenges to sustaining functional coral reefs is the fact that ocean temperatures will continue to increase until climate change is adequately addressed. Climate mitigation is a long term goal, and in the meantime innovative methods are required to secure healthy coral ecosystems on the Great Barrier Reef. Innovative methods could include ways to:

    • reduce the exposure of coral to physical stressors that cause coral bleaching
    • build the resilience of corals to allow them to ‘bounce back’ following bleaching events.
  2. Enhance coral recruitment:
    In 2016 an estimated 29% of shallow water corals across the Great Barrier Reef were lost as a result of bleaching. Following a reef disturbance (e.g. bleaching or cyclone damage), fast growing coral species, such as plate and staghorn corals, have shown they can rapidly restore the important three dimensional reef structures needed by other coral reef species. Coral restoration is not enough to preserve full biodiversity but retaining a coral-dominated system and habitat structure will allow thousands of coral-dependent species to avoid displacement or extinction. Methods used to achieve high coral abundance need to be cost-effective and could include:

    • boosting the success of coral larvae (baby corals) and/or transplanted and cultivated corals settling and surviving
    • promoting the settlement of coral larvae
    • stabilising dead coral rubble generated by recent bleaching or cyclone impacts in order to enhance coral settlement and re-growth of reef corals.

The challenge is complex and difficult given the scale of the problem. There is an estimated 26,000km² of coral dominated reefs across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and to address this challenge, solutions will need to be innovative, and deliver a step‐change in ambition and scale of reef recovery.

Solutions to this challenge will ultimately be a step towards developing a healthy reef by reversing the trajectory of coral decline to one of coral abundance, and ensuring all the users of the Reef can enjoy it for generations to come.

Challenge context

The stakeholders involved

The Challenge Owner is the Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) supported by the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy (DoEE). Additionally, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) have a direct interest in maintaining the complex structure of reefs and coral communities in the park.

The Great Barrier Reef is part of Australia’s national identity, and has iconic natural value globally. The Reef is also a place of great significance to its Traditional Owners, the first nation peoples of the area. Other key stakeholders include international, Australian and Queensland tourism operators; coastal Queensland communities; and recreational and commercial fishers. The global community has a role to play in slowing and reversing coral loss on the Great Barrier Reef.

The current situation

Reef-building corals are fundamental to the biology and ecology of the Great Barrier Reef. In addition to supplying biological diversity to the Reef in themselves, the three-dimensional structure built by coral provides habitat to many thousands of other species. It is this biodiversity which supports the outstanding universal value of the Reef and recreational, fishing and tourism industries along most of the Queensland coastline.

The scale of the coral cover decline in the northern Great Barrier Reef since 2013 is unprecedented, due to mortality caused by two severe cyclones, an ongoing crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak and the severe coral bleaching events of 2016. The outcome of the intense coral bleaching event of 2017 which impacted the central region of the Great Barrier Reef is not yet fully known.

Current methods such as regrowing and replacing corals on damaged reefs are expensive, labour-intensive and currently only feasible at scales of tens of square metres. It is difficult to effectively scale-up this type of solution given that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is 344,000km2, extends 2,300 km along the Queensland Coast and has at least 3,000 distinct reefs.

Solution design parameters

Solutions to this challenge may build on existing technologies and strategies, but a step change in scale is required. Understanding drivers for rapid reef regeneration will be important to enhance abundance of corals on the reef. This process could be aided by coral aquaculture and other innovations. Solutions will also need to allow for input and perspectives from industry, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, science and the community at large.

Consideration also needs to be given to where on the Great Barrier Reef recovery operations might be most successful (e.g. possible climate change refuges). Understanding where, when and how local conditions might support regeneration of reefs after bleaching will be important and may identify specific resilient reefs, or conditions that enhance resilience or lead to lower exposure to heat stress. These regions of reefs may be suitable as priority sites for active recovery efforts.

When designing a solution to this challenge, respondents are expected to keep the needs of multiple potential end users of the Reef in mind, including regulators, tourism operators, recreational and commercial fishers and all local and international visitors.

Technical considerations

Any successful solution to this challenge will need to give appropriate consideration to:

  • how costs would be reduced, as compared to current solutions, or kept low
  • how existing infrastructure could be used, where appropriate
  • lessons from previous experiences and existing programs
  • the longevity of the solution
  • any associated risks to the Reef and its stakeholders
  • the feasibility of prototyping and implementing the solution on the Reef
  • solutions scalability
  • demonstrating an ability to be self-sustainable after establishment (if addressing the impacts of coral bleaching)
  • finding a balance between slower growth, more resilient corals and Acropora sp. Corals which are the first to die as a result of heat stress, but also the first to regenerate.

Solutions which address the issue of failed coral recruitment should consider how high-yielding sites could be selected which provide the optimal conditions for recruitment.

Design benefits

Any successful solution to this challenge will need to support and improve ecological function and diversity on the Reef through increased coral abundance, particularly in areas that will benefit the most from these improvements, such as reefs which are sources of re-seeding for other reefs and tourism hot-spots. Successful solutions will also consider how the innovation will:

  • support the benefits humans derive from the reef (ecosystem services)
  • support social, economic and cultural value of the Reef.

Solutions which address the impacts of coral bleaching should provide direct support for coral, by delivering one or more of the following:

  • enhancing the survival of one or all coral life history stages (larvae, juveniles and adults)
  • facilitating the uptake of heat tolerant symbionts by juvenile and post stressed corals
  • supporting the nutritional needs of corals, for example, by reducing heat stress to symbiotic algae
  • improving environmental conditions for corals
  • identifying refuges, or opportunities to enhance or create climate change refuges for coral ecosystems
  • decreasing the duration of seasonal heat stress on coral
  • supporting improved coral response to changes to the broader ecosystem, which may be a result of extreme weather, changes to the substrate and increased sedimentation levels.

Solutions which are focused on stimulating coral recruitment should deliver one or more of the following:

  • enhanced settlement and survival of larval and juvenile corals
  • enhanced condition of coral to improve reproductive efforts
  • reduced predation and mortality of gametes post spawning
  • facilitate successful spawning or brooding in coral stock
  • facilitate coral ability to compete with algae for space
  • improved connectivity (gene flow) of isolated coral populations
  • alternative distribution methods for recruits, including potential automation of the solution or aspects of the solution.

Commercial opportunities

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program aims to provide commercial opportunities for applicants, while at the same time, solving Queensland Government challenges via an innovative procurement process.

Successful applicants will receive funding to research, develop and test their idea. At the end of the process, applicants have the potential to secure a contract with the Queensland Government. Additionally, intellectual property developed within the SBIR program is retained by the party who developed it, allowing applicants the potential to access broader commercial opportunities.

In addition to immediate opportunities for selected applicants, a successful solution may be adapted for use in other reef systems around the world. Additionally, solutions may be adaptable to a range of sectors including scientific tourism, commercial coral collecting and sales, and other innovative collaborative arrangements.

How were applications assessed?

Applications to this challenge will be assessed by an evaluation panel assembled by the DES in accordance with relevant Queensland Government Procurement policies relevant to their department.

Applications will be assessed against the following criteria:

  1. Addresses the challenge
    1. How well does the proposed solution address the design parameters (technical considerations and design benefits) identified in the challenge statement?
    2. How innovative is the proposed solution – new to market, or novel application of existing technology?
    3. How feasible is the proposed solution when scaled to address the challenge statement?
  2. Capability to deliver
    1. Does the applicant have the experience, skills and capacity to deliver the solution?
    2. Does the applicant have access to any necessary intellectual property?
    3. How viable is the development and supply of the proposed solution within the timeframes of the SBIR?
  3. Commercial potential
    1. How viable is the identified route to commercialise the proposed solution?
    2. Does the solution appear financially and commercially viable?
  4. Fair market value
    1. To what extent do the proposed development costs represent fair market value?
  5. Broader benefits for Queensland
    1. To what extent does the proposed solution offer broader benefits for Queensland?


Six innovators are sharing in over $1 million to test their solutions through the feasibility stage.

RECRUIT - RECovery of Reefs Using Industrial Techniques will test harvesting large-scale coral spawn slicks. The project focuses on developing alternative methods of collecting and distributing coral larvae to increase coral settlement on reefs targeted for restoration and assist gene flow between isolated populations.

Southern Cross University
This study aims to significantly increase the supply of high quality foundation coral larvae for settlement on damaged reef areas and will establish mass production of larvae containing Symbiodinium microalgae. The initiative will include the use of 3D printed settlement surfaces to increase recruitment efficiency and pioneering front-line diagnostics to improve thermal tolerance in coral recruits.

University of Technology Sydney and Wavelength Reef Cruises
In a collaboration between UTS and small Queensland business Wavelength Reef Cruises, this study aims to boost coral abundance through developing an innovative mini-tile and reef-attachment clip, alongside a novel pneumatic punch tool, to miniaturise and semi-mechanise coral out-planting. The project will be implemented using a coral nursery already established on the northern Great Barrier Reef and will target high value tour operator sites as well as sites of high biological and/or cultural significance through support from the Indigenous Sea Ranger Program.

University of Melbourne
This study looks at using a floating sun-shield, an ultra-thin film containing light-reflecting particles, to minimise stress on corals by reducing light intensity. The sun shield is biodegradable and composed of materials already present in the marine environment. It may be rapidly applied at critical times to reduce the severity of bleaching due warm water events. The project will be carried out in conjunction with the Australian Institute for Marine Science and Deakin University.

Sydney Institute of Marine Science
Marine cloud brightening involves increasing the reflectivity of low lying marine clouds so they reflect a greater proportion of the sun's energy back into space. This cools the ocean and reduces light stress on corals. This study will test mechanisms for supplying salt-based aerosols (formed by spraying micron sized seawater droplets) to the air to increase marine cloud reflectivity.

BMT Pty Ltd and The University of Queensland
This study will test an innovative approach to stabilise coral rubble over large areas of degraded reefs. Rubble will be recycled in-situ into biodegradable coral gabions (mesh cages or nets) to form new coral "bommies" (stand-alone coral structures) that are more stable under strong currents, heavy seas and cyclonic conditions. The gabions wil provide shelter to promote coral recruitment and settlement.

Australian Government, Reef Trust and Queensland Government logos

Last updated 17 Aug, 2018
Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia (CC BY-ND 3.0) ( )

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