Great Barrier Reef: spectacular ‘bioengineering’ foments biodiversity change

The Great Barrier Reef is once again bursting with life, and scientists have captured an event described as “magical” on film.

A long-term project by government agency Queensland Scientific and Natural Resource Management captured footage from a network of high-definition cameras attached to the corals of the pristine reef surrounding Great Keppel Island and Harris Reef.

Water is pumped at a regular 6ft-per-second rate into the saltwater from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park’s Hardy Reef, a nearby active reef.

The experiment is designed to see what can be done to boost the health of water quality and support coral growth, particularly by breeding large fish.

It then monitors growth of many of the fish species, capturing remarkable footage that appears to show an island’s central reef turning into a fast-flowing river of coral.

Scientists had always been worried about this potential “bioengineering” of the reef, and the footage was crucial for the study.

“This “circular” spawning event is the second like it ever observed in the western Great Barrier Reef, and is much more beautiful and more magical, with bigger fish and more nutrients moving through,” said Dr Melinda Jankowski, from QSNRM.

“We initially tried to use this event to fill permanent breeding pools for the existing fish species but sadly these plants haven’t yet produced an adult fish as expected, which is a worry.

“However the spawning event is a huge success in terms of showing us what is possible and provides us with exciting insights as to how the local reef can be restored.”

The main researcher, Dr Peter Lay, had always been worried about potentially harmful chemical and fossil-fuel runoff coming from afar, and creating the illusion of thousands of oysters popping up from the ground like strange creatures.

Now the initial cause of the widespread death of corals in 2011 has been confirmed as high-frequency aeration, but it was not related to the existing fish feed.

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