Great Barrier Reef Census: Massive citizen science research fleet to survey the reef



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Great Barrier Reef Census kicks off today. Credit: Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.
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A world-first citizen science project has kicked off on the Great Barrier Reef today with a flotilla of research vessels, tourism boats, private boats, and superyachts deployed to key sites to capture large-scale reconnaissance data to support reef research and management.

Over the next 10 weeks, the Great Reef Census led by Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, will see boats across the Reef’s 2,300km length, from Lady Elliot Island in the south to the remote Far North capturing data.

Comprising over 3,000 individual reefs, capturing reconnaissance data in the form of images from across the Great Barrier Reef is an immense task which requires new and innovative ways of working together.

Following a successful pilot program in 2019, this year sees a major scale-up to 100 priority reefs from the remote far northern reefs, to the Swains and Lady Elliot Island, with the intention to build on this year’s learnings to launch an even bigger Great Reef Census in 2021.

This collaborative approach across science, tourism and local communities seeks to establish an innovative and scalable method to conservation challenges, as well as foster a sense of stewardship for the Reef.

“To achieve the scale required this year needs a massive collective effort and that's what we're seeing, from the tourism industry, to some of the Reef’s top scientists, tech companies and reef managers,” Andy Ridley, CEO Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef said.

“In essence, we’re utilising the skills, vessels and knowledge of many passionate people to build a reef-wide research flotilla.”

In November, citizen scientists from around the world will be invited to participate online by helping to analyse the reef images captured.

Given the immense size of the Great Barrier Reef, the impacts of climate change, extreme weather and poor water quality are patchy, affecting some reefs or areas of reef more than others. The reconnaissance data captured during the Great Reef Census is a trial to explore new ways for how citizen science data can help scientists and managers improve their ability to locate some of the most important sources of coral recovery.

“Healthy reefs release many larvae or ‘baby corals’ during the annual mass spawning event and play an important role in helping their neighbours recover from disturbance events like coral bleaching,” Professor Peter Mumby, University of Queensland said.

“We need information on where these ‘key source reefs’ are located to help researchers and managers better target their resources.”

Managing Director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation Anna Marsden said “as an organisation dedicated to collaboration and innovation, we’re proud to be bringing together people and science to help pioneer this program that will help save this irreplaceable ecosystem and its marine life for future generations.

“With the Reef spanning an area the size of New Zealand, this project will help address an important gap in information by mobilising citizen scientists, and this critical pilot program will allow us to test the impact of this approach.”

The Great Reef Census is a Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef project, delivered in partnership with the University of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science with support from James Cook University, the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Tasmania. The project is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the Prior Family Foundation and the Reef & Rainforest Research Centre.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is supporting the Great Reef Census by providing data collection capability through its long-term Eye on the Reef - Sightings Network.

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