Starfish fear for coral reefs

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A Fresh wave of the destructive crown-of-thorns starfish could threaten popular coral reefs in Queensland’s Whitsundays within 12 months, the marine tourism industry has warned.

Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO) executive director Col McKenzie yesterday said an “unstoppable” plague of the coral-eating starfish was heading towards islands in the Whitsundays, north of Mackay, after causing extensive damage to northern reefs.

Mr McKenzie said an eradication program funded by the federal and state governments was targeting numerous Whitsundays tourism hot spots where high numbers of crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) had already been found.

The new outbreak on the Great Barrier Reef would take a long time to bring under control, he said.

“In our last 10-day trip at least 1800 COTS were caught by our eradication team and most of these were found on Elizabeth Reef in the Whitsundays, which is just phenomenal and indicative of their numbers considering they haven’t fully hit there yet,” Mr McKenzie said.

“A concerted effort is being made to try and keep them at bay and stop them from destroying the Great Barrier Reef, but it seems our job is far from over as the outbreaks just keep occurring and the starfish are growing thick and fast on many outer reefs.”

Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which leave only the white skeletons of coral behind them, were first reported on the Great Barrier Reef in the 1960s, but early predictions they would destroy the whole reef have never eventuated.

The latest outbreak began five years ago near Lizard Island, north of Cairns, and is moving south and damaging reefs between Townsville and the Whitsundays.

Mr McKenzie said the eradication team hoped to halt starfish infestation at the Whitsundays within the next 18 months, partly thanks to government recognition that water quality and over-fishing were responsible for the problem.

After a crown-of-thorns outbreak, coral can take up to 12 years to regenerate.

“We are hoping there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that ongoing research and the state and federal government’s Great Barrier Reef water quality protection plan will provide the long-term answers to the outbreaks we have been experiencing,” Mr McKenzie said.

He said divers from the program, which costs almost $1 million annually, had discovered starfish as big as 1.3m in diameter and weighing 80kg.

“These things eat their own body size in coral daily and are as big as coffee tables,” he said.

“When in balance they play an important role because they eat the fast growing coral and let the slow growing corals emerge but when in plague proportions, like now, they eat anything.”

Source: Herald Sun