How citizen science and tech have helped the Great Barrier Reef recover

By Ming En LiewRachel TengYogesh Hirdaramani

From extensive government funding to highly engaging citizen science communities and advanced biomonitoring technologies, the recovery of the Great Barrier Reef cannot be credited to a single stakeholder.

Citizen scientists tagging a hammerhead shark from a dinghy raft. Image: Erica Heller/Biopexel Oceans Foundation.

In August this year, the Australian government announced the highest amount of coral cover in nearly four decades in the Great Barrier Reef. Over the last seven years, there have been four major heat waves, and consequently, bleaching events – an unprecedented phenomenon. In 2016, about half the corals in the world’s most extensive reef system – sized about the same as Germany or Japan – were bleached. But it seems that with the help of dedicated conservation and governance, nature has proven resilient.

“The recent coral cover recovery shows that the Reef is still resilient, and it gives us hope,” a spokesperson from the Australian Institute of Marine Science told GovInsider. Coral cover recovery has occurred in the northern and central parts of the UNESCO world heritage site. But much more work needs to be done to ensure the long-term survivability of the Reef as a whole.

GovInsider dives in with various conservation stakeholders to examine the success of what the Australian Institute of Marine Science believes to be one of the best-managed marine protected areas in the world.

Citizen science and tech: The game-changers

“For many people around the world, the Reef is this incredibly iconic and special place that in some ways has become a bit of a poster child for [the effects of] climate change,” said Andy Ridley, CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, a citizen science community, at a recent media briefing hosted by Dell Technologies on 22 August.

The story of the Reef is more nuanced than whether it is dead or alive – there may still be hope for bleached corals, according to Ridley. If sea temperatures return to normal, the corals can recover, he explained – though severe heat waves can mean irreparable damage.

Protecting and sustaining the Reef is something that the Government cannot achieve alone – industry, land managers, scientists, traditional owners, and the community all have an important role to play,  a spokesperson from the Australian Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) told GovInsider.

Citizen science plays an increasingly crucial role in maintaining an up-to-date information base for management, Ridley told GovInsider in an email interview. “As the traditional resources of science and Marine Park management become increasingly stretched, citizen science approaches, such as the Great Reef Census, are growing in importance,” he said.

The Great Reef Census brings together a “Reef community” to fill in critical data gaps and better understand how the Reef is changing year-on-year due to the effects of climate change. Through a makeshift fleet of dive boats, tourism vessels, yachts, and tug boats, photos are captured on-site and then uploaded to a publicly available portal. They are then analysed by thousands of everyday people across the world.

To date, the portal has captured more than 13,000 images across 140 reefs in the Great Barrier Reef. This makes the project one of the largest citizen science marine projects in the world today. On-water observations can help refine ecological predictions and identify reefs that are critical to supporting recovery, said Professor Peter Mumby, School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland.

User-friendly data portal

While citizen science is an ideal strategy on paper, there exist “interesting challenges in terms of mobilising the community,” shared Ridley during the media briefing. These include standardising data collection and conversion methods, and making sure the data is properly uploaded after citizens go out into the Reef.

There is a big distinction between citizen science projects and full-fledged research projects conducted with technical knowledge, according to Mumby. Citizen science projects, the priority is less on gaining technical knowledge, and more on gathering information on sample reefs to help other reefs recover.

This is where Dell Technologies entered, with the goal of taking information collected from the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef to build a user-friendly process for citizens to use from start to end. This ensures that data is collected in a standardised manner, and uploaded promptly after collection.

“When you send people out into the Reef, they might get the images, but when they get home, they might go off to the pub or see their family – and then we lose the data,” said Ridley.

In response, Dell has developed an extensive wireless network that allows citizens to load images that are captured from the Reef immediately, regardless of where they are on the Reef, said Danny Elmarji, Vice President of Presales at Dell Technologies, Asia Pacific and Japan.

Elmarji’s team designed the portal to be simple and user-friendly. “It allows us to not only capture the images, but also obtain the GPS coordinates of the Reef…and save the photos in a local system,” he said.

Active government stewardship

Citizen science approaches, of course, have to be backed by government support to be truly scalable. “Because we’ve left things so late, we also need to massively scale up conservation efforts,” said Ridley.

The Australian government has taken a holistic, community-based approach to the Reef’s conservation. Investments delivered by the government’s Reef Trust are helping to engage local Reef communities, and support local action and stewardship of the Reef.

“The programmes funded by the Australian and Queensland governments are designed to respond to the threats identified in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan,” said the spokesperson.

The Plan provides an overarching working government action strategy for the Australian and Queensland governments to protect and manage the Great Barrier Reef alongside its partners. Under this initiative, the Queensland government has already managed to implement net-free fishing zones, a sustainable fisheries strategy, and a water quality management plan.

The water quality management plan is improving fishery and agriculture management in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, which has helped clean up waters in the Reef drastically.

“Our work with farmers is delivering water quality improvements, helping them change the way they use fertiliser and irrigation, and looking for opportunities to do land restoration projects to reduce agricultural runoff impacts,” said the DCCEEW spokesperson, on managing agricultural activities in areas surrounding the Reef.

The department is halfway along its target to reduce fine sediment load – minuscule water pollutants – from leaving fishing catchments situated within the Reef by 25 per cent. It is also almost halfway towards its target to reduce dissolved inorganic nitrogen loads – biological waste from fisheries – by 60 per cent by 2025.

“The programme will help deliver a leading-edge sustainable fishing sector in the waters of the Reef and reduce threats to at-risk marine species,” said the DCCEEW spokesperson.

While Ridley deems the Reef’s conservation efforts to be a success story thus far, he believes that we still have a long way to go – both on the Great Barrier Reef and around the world.

“Everything we are building is designed to be efficient, scalable and shareable to meet the escalating urgency of coral reef loss around the world and to support the massive scale-up of conservation that’s required this decade,” he told GovInsider.