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Breakthrough early detection and response capabilities bolster fight against coral-eating starfish

Breakthrough early detection and response capabilities bolster fight against coral-eating starfish

For more than 60 years, crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) have been a major threat to the Great Barrier Reef's survival. The Reef has experienced numerous outbreaks of this coral-eating predator, with the fourth outbreak wave still spreading across the Reef right now. 

But for the first time ever, we have the resources and capacity to respond to the early signs of an outbreak and protect corals, putting us on the front foot in this battle to control COTS numbers.

The COTS Control Program is the largest coral protection program on the Great Barrier Reef. Delivered as a partnership between the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC), the program actively defends our precious corals from the destruction of COTS outbreaks.

In any one year, the program employs more than 100 trained divers to protect over 100 precious reefs across the Great Barrier Reef. These reefs are incredibly valuable to the ecosystems and communities that depend on them, protecting the breeding adult coral populations that enhance reef resilience while supporting the livelihoods of Reef communities, including the Reef tourism industry.  

Crown-of-thorns starfish feeding on coral

Crown-of-thorns starfish can strip a reef of 90% of its living coral tissue. Credit: Mary Bonin
Top image: A specially-trained diver culling COTS. Credit: Rick Abom

Late last year, the COTS Control Program received new intelligence that there were early warning signs of a fifth outbreak developing in the northern Great Barrier Reef. Armed with this information and the resources to act, the COTS Control Program rapidly mobilised an additional two vessels to join the existing fleet. 

These vessels are deployed to carry out targeted surveillance and COTS culling to suppress the outbreak and protect corals in the COTS’ path.

Getting in early is critical in pest management. If you don’t act immediately, you’re already on the back foot. 

This is where the COTS Control Program comes in. Since 2012, the program has culled over 1.1 million coral-eating starfish and protected more than 730,000 hectares across 335 high-value reefs. 

The Program has developed the agility to respond with rapid precision to the early warning signs of outbreaks, and the additional vessels already deployed in the northern and central Great Barrier Reef are testament to this.

The Capricorn Star is one of two additional vessels deployed to carry out targeted surveillance and cull crown-of-thorns starfish. Credit: Reef and Rainforest Research Centre

The Capricorn Star is one of two additional vessels deployed to carry out targeted surveillance and cull crown-of-thorns starfish. Credit: Reef and Rainforest Research Centre

COTS are a robust and persistent predator, able to live for up to nine months without a meal. During an outbreak, they can have a devastating impact, stripping a reef of around 90% of its living coral cover.

The targeted COTS culling delivered by the COTS Control Program protects breeding adult corals and their capacity to help create future coral populations. The Program also helps protect approximately 60,000 Reef tourism jobs and the $6.4bn annual economic contribution that the Reef provides to the Australian economy. 

The COTS Control Program is throwing a lifeline to corals, protecting the health of the Reef and the breeding corals that are critical to supporting Reef resilience in the face of a changing climate. The Program provides a targeted and scalable action that protects the corals that are essential to the future of our Reef by managing a major threat: COTS.  

The COTS Control Program is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and is being delivered in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre.   

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