Doubts over crown of thorns starfish control program

Doubt has been cast over the effectiveness of the new $14.4 million program, funded by the Australian Government, to control the destructive crown of thorns starfish (COTS) on the Great Barrier Reef.

Mid last year, the Australian Government committed an extra $14.4 million for an additional control vessel and a tender is currently open seeking prospective contractors to deliver this activity.

Dr Udo Engelhardt, director of Reefcare International and a former co-ordinator of the COTS program with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), has called for the program to be immediately suspended while a review is undertaken.

In a report published in Fairfax newspapers, Dr Engelhardt warned that the sporadic efforts to control COTS would probably fail and were a “serious case of negligence”.

He said that since the current operations began in 2013, none of the approximately 70 target sites had been visited by vessels on the weekly basis that is recommended for COTS control. Instead, it was typically weeks or months between visits, effectively ensuring the control program would fail.

Earlier this month GBRMPA reported a severe outbreak of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish in the Swain Reefs, the southernmost location in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park found to have the starfish during the current outbreak.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Director of Education, Stewardship and Partnerships Fred Nucifora said efforts were being dedicated to getting a more complete picture of the outbreak to inform the control efforts underway in the Marine Park.

“We’re concerned to find an outbreak of the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish this far south in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park,” Mr Nucifora said.

“Until now, the current crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak was largely limited to the northern and central part of the Reef, between Townsville and Cooktown.

Meanwhile, the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, which oversees the program and coordinates between NESP Tropical Water Quality Hub researchers from CSIRO, managers at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO)’s starfish control teams in the water, has stated that the COTS Targeted Control Program which has operated in the northern Great Barrier Reef Marine Park since 2015, is now in a ‘mopping-up phase’ .

“The program has been successful at protecting these key sites, along with the world-class biodiversity and over 60,000 jobs they support, from Crown of Thorns Starfish predation.”

Currently, the program operates two control vessels, MV Venus II and MV Hero, each with a complement of divers that can remove approximately 3000 Crown of Thorns Starfish per 12-day voyage.

Data from CSIRO indicates that the integrated approach, combined with other discoveries and the extra vessel should enable divers to remove over 320,000 starfish per year by 2020, equal to saving 6.4 million square metres of coral a year. This represents an increase in effectiveness of 155 per cent – and CSIRO considers that estimate conservative.

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