HEALTHY OUTLOOK: Researchers have been conducting surveys of the reefs to monitor its recovery from Cyclone Debbie.
HEALTHY OUTLOOK: Researchers have been conducting surveys of the reefs to monitor its recovery from Cyclone Debbie. CONTRIBUTED

Research reveals reefs in Whitsundays recovering

NINETEEN months after Cyclone Debbie, the reefs around the Whitsundays are showing signs of recovery.

There are positive reports coming from a James Cook University research team, led by Dr David Williamson, which has finalised its 2018 survey of 43 coral reef sites around the Whitsunday islands.

Marine ecology consultant and James Cook University researcher Daniela Ceccarelli said there were "clear signs of recovery" in some areas that had borne the brunt of the cyclone.

This is a relief to the researchers who last year conducted a similar survey in the wake of Cyclone Debbie.


In 2017 the research team were shocked to find corals the size of cars knocked upside down by the phenomenal force of eight-metre-high waves, Dr Ceccarelli said.

"We saw what happened above the water and you just have to imagine the equivalent (on the reef)."

"Everything gets ripped up and slung around under the water," Dr Ceccarelli said.

However, when her team returned this year, Dr Ceccarelli found coral regrowth and even new baby corals starting to develop in cyclone affected areas.

"We came across some areas of reef that had quite a lot of these baby corals coming back to the reef."

While these are positive signs, Dr Ceccarelli warned that recovery was not uniform.

She said some sites had high levels of sediment, stunting the possibility of coral regrowth.

"Water quality is always a problem on the inshore Great Barrier Reef," Dr Ceccarelli said.

Silt in coral ecosystems was especially damaging to new or recovering reefs as it blocked baby coral from attaching to surfaces and smothered existing colonies, she said.

The James Cook University team also noted an increase in Crown of Thorns starfish, which can occur in plague proportions on the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Ceccarelli said the research team was finding Crown Of Thorn starfish in areas they had never previously recorded them.

Nearly 20 years ago, when surveys began, researchers would typically find only one or two sites with the starfish.

In this year's survey, they recorded their presence in at least five sites, with one site reporting more than nine starfish on a small stretch of reef.

While she said they were "not yet in outbreak proportions" Dr Ceccarelli has reported the sightings to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Despite all of these concerns, Dr Ceccarelli remains cautiously optimistic about the Whitsunday Island reefs, saying she is hopeful they will see signs of recovery from now on.

She predicts that fast growing coral could reclaim destroyed reefs within 10 years, while a well balanced reef community could take a further 15 to 25 years.

Dr Ceccarelli said coral reefs that were pulverised by Cyclone Yasi are supporting "beautiful fields of plate and branching corals as far as the eye can see."

However, she warned that disturbance events like cyclones and heatwaves could further damage the reef.

Dr Ceccarelli was especially concerned about predictions of another coral bleaching event this summer. She warned that these natural events, exaggerated by climate change will shorten the time the coral has to recover and regrow.