Crown-of-thorns starfish management to achieve Reef 2050 goals for the Great Barrier Reef

Roger Beeden

The Reef 2050 Plan identifies crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) outbreaks as a significant threat to the health of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem. It calls on us to work collaboratively across government, research and industry bodies to reduce the impact of COTS in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. These outbreaks compound the damage caused by tropical cyclones and coral bleaching events, and mitigating their impact is one of the most scalable and feasible on-ground management interventions currently available to enhance Reef resilience and recovery in the face of climate change. The COTS Control Program is delivered as part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s management strategy to address the COTS threat. The Program’s manual in-water control component is delivered through a strategic partnership between the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF), Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC). Since its inception, the COTS Control Program has been carried out in collaboration with tourism industry and research partners to ensure the best available science and local knowledge are incorporated into on-ground action. The goal of the COTS Control Program is to protect coral by culling starfish down to ecologically sustainable levels that promote coral growth and recovery. We are not attempting to stop the outbreaks or eradicate the starfish; these are not feasible goals given the limitations of current control methods. The Program strategically focuses its resources on individual reefs of high ecological and economic value across the Marine Park using dedicated vessels and trained crews. With the expansion of the program in 2018, we implemented an innovative new approach to pest management in collaboration with our research partners in the National Environmental Science Program (NESP). NESP investment has underpinned collaboration among the research, management and industry partners and has significantly enhanced the capacity of the on water control program to effectively target COTS outbreaks in the Marine Park. This collaborative, iterative approach enables crews on board the COTS culling vessels to use targeted surveillance, intensive culling, and reef health surveys to achieve sustainable starfish numbers that promote coral growth and recovery. To support this new approach, the Marine Park Authority has developed data capture apps and visualisation tools to support adaptive and data-driven decision making. The expanded COTS Control Program is protecting coral from COTS impacts on a network of >100 high value reefs across the Marine Park. The COTS Control Program has undergone significant improvement since its inception, and we strive to maintain this momentum, delivering world-leading, science-based, adaptive management of COTS on the Great Barrier Reef. The success of the COTS Control Program to date highlights the critical role that investment under the National Environmental Science Program has played in supporting the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef under a changing climate.