COTS Control Innovation Program

A targeted research program aimed at boosting capacity to predict, detect and respond to COTS outbreaks at scale across the Great Barrier Reef.

Delivering innovation for real-world impact.

#Delivering innovation for real-world impact.

CCIP is a collaborative research partnership between the Foundation and leading institutions with COTS expertise – AIMS, CSIRO, James Cook University and the University of Queensland. Our research directly improves the on-ground approach to coral protection by the COTS Control Program. Every coral we save from COTS can reproduce and help repopulate damaged areas.

#About the Innovation Program

The innovation program brings together Australia's leading experts to collaborate on solutions to the COTS threat. It is the first of its kind, with over 75 multi-disciplinary experts working together under one program with a clear focus on delivering innovation that will drive progress in our ability to predict, detect and respond to these damaging outbreaks.

The CCIP research portfolio includes 24 projects addressing key gaps in knowledge and capability across COTS biology and ecology, genetics, data science, engineering, modelling, decision science, and social science research. CCIP researchers work closely with reef managers and the COTS Control Program to ensure that innovations are fit-for-purpose for real-world application. Effective COTS control is a critical part of the toolbox of interventions the Reef needs to cope with climate change, and it complements other interventions developed under RRAP. The program is funded with with $9.8m from the partnership between the Foundation and the Australian Government’s Reef Trust. Research partners are co-contributing an additional $7.5m to the program. In 2020-21, the program underwent an initial design phase to prioritise the research investment. The design process engaged over 40 scientific experts and stakeholders who assessed the feasibility and benefit of a broad range of possible research investments. These experts recommended investment in a portfolio focused on research and innovation that will help us supress and prevent future outbreaks.

#CCIP Research Projects

Research projects in the CCIP portfolio are organised into subprogram themes. Researchers work with their colleagues within and across subprograms to maximise impact and ensure cross-disciplinary knowledge is widely shared.

$190k - 3 projects

$2.47m - 4 projects

$3.37m - 11 projects

Early Investment Projects

#Early Investment Projects

Three projects were selected for early investment totalling $190k while the full portfolio was being designed. These were strategically important as they filled critical knowledge gaps, were time critical and built momentum for research to be undertaken in the R&D Phase.

Semiochemical deployment

Project team: AIMS (lead), UQ, CSIRO, USC

This project will develop hydrodynamic models to understand the spatial and temporal footprint of semiochemical delivery around reefs, and, based on these, review delivery strategies and systems for semiochemical biocontrol of COTS, building on applications developed for other aquatic organisms.

Initiation zone COTS surveys

Project team: JCU (lead), AIMS

The purpose of this study is to immediately embark on proposed research that will explicitly test for spatial variation in density, distribution and demography of COTS populations in different regions of the northern and far northern GBR. The immediate priority is to undertake detailed surveys in areas to the north of the perceived "initiation box”, testing whether there is already evidence of elevated COTS densities.

Initiation zone water quality modelling

Project team: AIMS (lead), CSIRO

This early investment project will leverage existing eReefs model outputs and water quality guidelines to conduct a small desktop study that will assess whether improvements in land management are likely to deliver water quality improvements sufficient to reduce the frequency of outbreaks of Pacific Crown-of-Thorns Starfish.

#Prediction subprogram

Through an investment of $1.62m, the six projects in the Prediction subprogram will deliver new empirical knowledge of when, where and how outbreaks develop to inform early detection and response. Projects focus on COTS ecology and biology, understanding the role of predators in mitigating outbreaks, feeding rates and population dynamics.

In-situ feeding rates

Project team: JCU (lead), USYD, UTAS

This project quantifies feeding rates of COTS in the field relative to the size and abundance of COTS, as well as changes in prey availability (coral cover and composition) and seasonal variation in seawater temperature. This empirical data is critical to modelling and decision support for effective outbreak response.

Population collapse

Project team: JCU (lead), AIMS

This project uses field and laboratory experiments to determine the causes of abrupt population decline at the end of outbreaks, testing whether local depletion of prey resources results in subsequent starvation and reduced immunity against opportunistic pathogens.

Juvenile ecology and resilience

Project team: USYD (lead), SCU

This project uses laboratory experiments to understand juvenile COTS ecology, a major black box. It tests the juvenile resilience hypothesis, whereby reserves of juveniles build up in the reef infrastructure as a proximate contributor to outbreaks, potentially years after settlement.

A Researcher conducting COTS field work.
Photo credit: Morane Le Nohaic

Benthic predation in rubble

Project team: UQ (lead), AIMS, SCU

This project will use field surveys and laboratory experiments, including eDNA and metabarcoding analyses, to identify cryptic COTS predators and measure the mortality rates they inflict on early juvenile COTS in rubble habitats.

The decorator crab could be an important predator of juvenile COTS.
Photo credit: Dr. Kenny Wolfe

Fish predation rates and zoning

Project team: JCU (lead), SCU, UTAS

This project uses field studies to quantify predation rates on COTS by mobile fish species across marine park management zones, to provide mechanistic insight and inform fisheries management measures in mitigating outbreaks.

Surveys reveal COTS population dynamics.
Photo credit: Dr. Ceimon Caballes

Pre-outbreak monitoring

Project team: JCU (lead), AIMS

This project will conduct annual field surveys (diver-based and eDNA) across reefs in the primary outbreak initiation region to reveal how the density, distribution and size-structure of COTS populations changes, providing field data to inform early warning and response in the lead up to the 2025 outbreak.

Detection Subprogram

#Detection Subprogram

Through an investment of $2.47m, the four projects in the Detection subprogram will develop a new suite of tools and technologies to dramatically improve the safety and efficiency of COTS monitoring and surveillance methods and provide enhanced data outputs to inform on-water response.

COTS monitoring design

Project team: CSIRO (lead), AIMS, JCU, GBRMPA

This project will develop a monitoring strategy for COTS and coral that integrates information from a range of survey tools to guide decision-making in the COTS Control Program, with particular focus on early warning detection and response. It will develop decision rules for trading-off investment in monitoring versus control depending on outbreak phase.

Tool comparison

Project team: CSIRO (lead), AIMS, JCU

This project uses a combination of desktop and fieldwork to characterise and measure the detection errors associated with various COTS survey tools (e.g. manta tow, towed platform, eDNA, scooter, cull dives) and will calibrate density estimates across these tools to enable integration of data from multiple sources and programs into COTS Control Program decision-making.

Operationalising eDNA monitoring

Project team: AIMS (lead)

This project will develop the methodology and sampling strategy to use eDNA for early detection of post-settlement COTS. It will further train COTS Control Program crew in sampling methodology so that it can be implemented as part of the program and will test the feasibility of using ships of opportunity to collect additional data.

The COTS Surveillance System

Project team: AIMS (lead), CSIRO

This project will develop an end-to-end system for COTS and coral surveillance across the GBR, including a towed survey platform, machine learning models, data workflows, and user interfaces. This system intends to deliver a major step-change in the accuracy, safety, and spatial scale of COTS outbreak surveillance.

#Response Subprogram

Through an investment of $3.37m, the 11 projects in the Response subprogram will deliver innovation in outbreak response models, strategies and decision support tools to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the COTS Control Program to suppress future outbreaks. The research also seeks to understand the cultural and socio-economic benefits of COTS control and the regulatory implications of novel control methods.

Information Infrastructure

Project team: CSIRO (lead), JCU, QUT, UQ, GBRMPA

This project will create an Information Infrastructure to underpin the sharing and distribution of field, derived, and modelled data between CCIP researchers and the COTS Control Program. It will create a digital delivery mechanism to enable efficient, reliable sharing of data including metadata to guarantee provenance. This system will be designed to integrate with broader infrastructures being developed through RRAP and RIMREP.

Decision support tools inform pest management activities.
Photo credit: Rick Abom

Empirical Decision Support

Project team: CSIRO (lead), JCU, GBRMPA

This project will deliver immediate and ongoing decision support for the COTS Control Program, including analysis of program data to enhance the efficiency of on-water operations and the development of a new Early Warning System that leverages field and modelled data from multiple sources to inform early response.

Reef-scale modelling

Project team: CSIRO (lead), UQ

This project will model COTS and coral dynamics at the reef scale to develop ecological thresholds that are responsive to variation in coral cover and community composition across reefs targeted by the COTS Control Program. It will leverage new empirical data collected through the Prediction subprogram and evaluate the efficacy of management interventions under different ecological conditions at the reef scale.

Regional modelling

Project team: UQ (co-lead), CSIRO (co-lead), GBRMPA

This project leverages and builds on the capabilities of two COTS-coral community models, CoCoNet and ReefMod, to identify control strategies that maximise the resilience of coral populations across the GBR. It will inform the optimal deployment of COTS Control Program vessels and evaluate the benefits of integrating other management interventions into control program strategy.

COTS dispersal ensemble modelling

Project team: JCU (co-lead), QUT (co-lead), UQ, UCL

This project will use an ensemble model approach to improve the COTS larval dispersal predictions that are critical to underpin regional-scale modelling of outbreak dynamics and the prioritisation of reefs for control. It will characterise uncertainty to enable robust predictions.

Cost effectiveness of control

Project team: CSIRO (lead), UQ, GBRMPA

This project will evaluate the cost-effectiveness and economic efficiency of different control strategies, in order to inform strategic allocation of COTS Control Program resources for enhanced cost-effectiveness and assess the social net benefit generated by control in monetary terms.

Multi-criteria decision-making for reef prioritisation

Project team: QUT (lead), CSIRO, GBRMPA

This project will provide a formal and transparent methodology for considering multiple criteria to identify priority reefs for COTS control. Building on the current approach, it will provide a flexible framework and decision analysis tools for evaluating trade-offs amongst ecological and economic values that can be extended to incorporate additional values such as cultural importance.

Stakeholder perceptions and co-benefits

Project team: JCU (lead), UQ

This project will provide the first empirical examination of GBR stakeholder perspectives related to COTS and their management. It will leverage sociocultural research planned as part of RRAP, extending those stakeholder engagements and interviews to measure perceptions of acceptability, risks and benefits related to COTS control. It will also assess the regulatory and policy implications of selected novel control methods.

Reef Traditional Owner co-design and values assessment

Project team: JCU (lead), CSIRO

This project will use a Community of Practice model to build knowledge of Reef Traditional Owner (TO) perceptions and aspirations related to COTS research and management. It will develop guidelines for data sharing and integration of TO knowledge in COTS decision frameworks, and facilitate Reef TO involvement in CCIP research and implementation.

Fish predator conservation for biocontrol

Project team: AIMS (lead), CSIRO, GBRMPA

This project will use regional-scale modelling to develop and assess the efficacy of scenarios for fish predator conservation (e.g. zoning, fisheries management) to control COTS outbreaks. It will identify and rank the scenarios that have strongest potential to prevent COTS outbreaks within the 20-30 years and engage with management agencies to communicate findings for consideration in planning/policy.

Semiochemical biocontrol

Project team: AIMS (lead), CSIRO, UQ, USC

This project will use genomics and proteomics to identify COTS pheromone attractants that modify conspecific behaviour and could be used as a future biocontrol method. It will assess the efficacy of identified attractants in laboratory trials and consider their suitability for deployment as part of an Integrated Pest Management strategy, with potential for field trials if strong candidate attractants are identified.

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