Reef insurance

Interview with Dean Miller

“Citizen science is literally going to save the day on this one.”

Dr Dean Miller is a marine biologist, film maker, photographer and the managing director of Great Barrier Reef Legacy, a non-profit organisation based in Port Douglas dedicated to conservation of coral reefs around the world with an array of innovative projects. We sit down with him to discuss his latest endeavour – a Living Coral Biobank.

OM: What was the inspiration for the Living Coral Biobank?

DM: Our organisation, Great Barrier Reef Legacy, was created by a group of dedicated professionals who live and breathe the Great Barrier Reef every single day. Tourism operators, educators, multimedia professionals, marine biologists, scuba divers, engineers – people who work out there and could really see that we could make a big difference really quickly if we band together. We created a non-profit organisation that supports research so we can understand what’s happening out on the Great Barrier Reef and try to address the issues.

We had 2016 and 2017 mass bleaching events back to back here, which were devastating for the Great Barrier Reef, particularly the far northern region, which is where we’ve been doing a lot of our work. We put together some major expeditions back in 2017 we were the first team to go up and assess what had happened underwater, and we took a team of experts from all over the world to provide an overall reef health assessment, and to look for where the corals survived. We knew a lot of corals had died, but what we were hoping to find was where the corals had actually made it. They were called the Super Corals and that expedition was called Search for the Super Corals, and that was really good. We found the first definitive Super Coral species, which was the one that seemed to survive everywhere, everywhere we went.

We ran an expedition in 2018 called Search for Solutions, and again we supported research projects that looked at trying to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef through a range of different ideas. Everything from gene modification to, improving heat tolerance through generations of increasing heat in coral fragments. We realised that all of these projects were really hopeful, but 10-15 years away from becoming successful. We came up with the idea for the Living Coral Biobank by looking at the aquarium collectors that have been pioneering the keeping of corals for the last 30-40 years, and using the technology, skills and expertise that had already been established. I thought: ‘look, let’s just collect all the corals. Let’s keep them in a holding facility, and at least we’ve got them you know, as an insurance policy. So, when these other projects come online, you know we’ve got the fragments they need to repopulate and regenerate.’ Anything that needs to be done down the track can be achieved through this Biobank project. We connected with Cairns Marine and Dr Charlie Veron, a world-renowned coral expert. Together, we realised that this is all possible.

Great Barrier Reef Legacy Coral Biobank bleach
Great Barrier Reef Legacy Coral Biobank drone
Great Barrier Reef Legacy Coral Biobank Charlie Veron

OM: How do you hope to structure this project?

DM: The aquarium collectors are going to be kind of leading the way, showing us how to keep corals alive. The project will be a bit like Uber, in that it’s one of the largest transportation companies in the world but it doesn’t make a point of actually owning vehicles. We thought about using the same method in with the aquarium collectors. They have tanks all around the world to keep corals alive and they do it very well. Then there are all of the public aquariums who pay staff and have the most state-of-the-art facilities to do exactly that. We will collect and keep the corals right here in Australia too, but it’ll be a global distribution network, utilising everyone from professional aquarium collectors, to citizen scientists and private collectors, so this is revolutionary in a way. We’re taking advantage of corals’ natural biology. They will live for thousands of years if you let them, there are colonies out on the Great Barrier Reef that are more than 5,000 years old.

The Living Coral Biobank facility that we’re creating for Great Barrier Reef at the moment here in Port Douglas; it will be its own life-support system. And the promise that we’re trying to make is that no coal-driven power will be used to save the coral, because that seems to be where the problem originated. The facility in itself is going to be a tourism attraction on its own, because the plan is for it to be a highly advanced, eco-friendly building. We’ve got lots of really good strong partners coming along and helping us.

The good thing about it is it’s achievable immediately, we have all the technology, we have all the skills, we have all the know-how, there’s no lag-phase in this, we just need the cash to move forward, to get out there and start collecting corals. We’ve had three mass bleaching events in five years here. It’s a system that’s under heavy stress. We’re not the only system under stress, corals all over the world are struggling – more than 25% of all marine life needs coral reefs in some stage of their life. So that’s a huge portion of our oceans that really depend on corals. And then there’s literally hundreds of millions of

people around the equatorial part of our planet who depend on coral reefs every single day for their survival. If we lose corals we’re in for a real big shock. This is you know the insurance policy for a lot of different reasons.

OM: How has the 2020 bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef impacted your work?

DM: The 2020 bleaching really was another moment for us to really take stock about what’s happening on the Great Barrier Reef. This one was reef-wide – the 2016 and 2017 events didn’t see the entire extent of the Great Barrier Reef bleached. This was the hottest summer on record on the Great Barrier Reef and we saw temperatures on average up to 2.5°C to 3.5°C above average. This was a really hot summer for Australia and the reef felt it. It really does bring home the point that we’re running out of time if we’re going to try to do something significant to save this reef. Yes, we need to address climate change, but it’s not going to happen quickly enough that we can secure the future of what’s out there right now. That’s why we’re trying to create the Living Coral Biobank, because what’s out there right now has to be saved right now. But the longer we wait the more we lose. Reefs are a bit like a Jenga game the corals are the building blocks of coral reefs and when you start taking those out of the foundation of that reef system you start to lose ecosystem function. We’ve seen that in many places around the world. That’s a lot of what we saw in the far North last year on the Search for Biodiversity expedition. It’s a wake-up call for everyone. How many warnings are we going to get before it’s too late?

Great Barrier Reef Legacy Coral Biobank bleaching
Great Barrier Reef Legacy Coral Biobank GBR

OM: How did the Search for Biodiversity expedition late last year tie in with plans for the Biobank?

DM: Search for Biodiversity really was looking for those collection sites, where we could start collecting the coral fragments. The far Northern section of the Great Barrier Reef is the area most hard-hit by the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events, wasn’t as hard-hit in the 2020 bleaching event when you look at the maps, but that’s really because a lot of the coral had already gone.

Previous to that expedition, we had found the most diverse coral reef site ever found on the Great Barrier Reef – in its entire history, no site had ever had this many coral species in one small area. It was only about 250m long by about 50m wide, but it had over 205 species of coral in that section. So more than half of all species found on the Great Barrier Reef in this one site. We knew that Cyclone Trevor had been across there in early 2019. We didn’t know how bad it was going to be, but we knew it went over the top of that site. When I got into the water on the Search for Biodiversity expedition and saw it had all been swept away, gave me a push to speed things up. That was the best site that we’ve found in all of 2017 and 2018 on our expeditions. To know that that site is now no longer is kind of devastating. But it helped us get the fire started to make the Biobank project happen once and for all. We’re excited, we’re certainly not giving up on the Great Barrier Reef, there’s a lot of good sites still out there, and there’s a lot of reef worth saving. So it’s not too late.

What 2016 and 2017 showed us is when the hot water comes from global heating, there is nowhere for corals to go. It doesn’t matter what else you do, it’s a major threat and it can devastate a 1,200km long area in the space of a month or two. So, this is the real problem, it’s warm water. That’s why the Biobank is just so important because with every bleaching event we’re losing the most vulnerable species. It’s imperative that we get up there as soon as possible and collect the species that are going to be gone in the next 5-10 years. We’ve already lost species according to Dr Veron so, Search for Biodiversity really was looking for sites to collect from.

OM: What sort of timescale do you have in mind to get the Biobank project off the ground?

DM: We would like the full Biobank facility up and running within five years. Our plan was to have the first 200 species of the 400 from the Great Barrier Reef collected. We’re still hoping for that, if we can get out there sooner rather than later. And then we were hoping for the second 200 species by the end of 2021. And then the full 800 species of hard corals from around the world by the end of 2024. So, that was the initial plan, let’s hope we can get back on track as soon as possible, and start generating some funds. We’re not getting a lot of government support here in Australia, and it really will come down to I guess the people of the World just going This is worth doing.

Great Barrier Reef Legacy Coral Biobank Search for Biodiversity
Great Barrier Reef Legacy Coral Biobank Lab
Great Barrier Reef Legacy Coral Biobank

OM: Have you noticed any development in recent years regarding governmental support for conservation of the Great Barrier Reef?

DM: We’ve still got a government who is very pro-coal, and that is in direct contrast with what we’re trying to achieve on the Great Barrier Reef. Everyone knows that the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living icon on our planet, here in Australia we certainly feel like the weight is on our shoulders to do everything we can to protect that reef, not just for Australians, but for everyone. But it doesn’t feel like that’s the push from up higher in government circles, which is disappointing. We are seeing a bit of a change, there’s now an overall consensus from government agencies admitting that climate change is the number one threat to coral reefs, so that’s a really good first step. But we’re seeing projects at the moment that are kind of the Band-Aids to the problem. So, yes, we’re fixing up water quality; yes we’re addressing Crown-of-Thorns starfish; yes we’re trying reef restoration activities; everything that absolutely needs to be done but there doesn’t seem to be an overall push to really address climate change, and I think that’s a huge concern. We’d like to see a bit of change there but being a non-profit organisation that lives on the Great Barrier Reef, we can see what’s happening out there each and every day, and I guess that’s why we’re so proactive in trying to make things happen. I think it’s really important that people see for themselves what’s going on, because only then can you make up your own mind.

OM: How does citizen science play a part in your work?

DM: We do lots of citizen science, including data collection for our own organisation as well as others. But it really comes into play with the Biobank, as we’re going to be relying on the people who have been looking after corals in their homes for the last 5-20 years. And hoping that they’re able to keep the fragments alive indefinitely as part of the living coral biobank project. This is pretty unique because the citizen scientists are actually the experts, and what’s really exciting is that we’re trying to leave the power and the expertise in the hands of the people that have created this opportunity in the first place. It’s only because people have learned how to do this in their lounges that we’re able to do this at all for the Living Coral Biobank and that’s hugely exciting. So yes, citizen science is literally going to save the day on this one.

OM: In terms of those experts, what role do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities play in the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef?

DM: There are 70 clan groups up and down the Great Barrier Reef coast. We currently work with two here in Port Douglas and it’s an important collaborative relationship. They’ve been the custodians of the Great Barrier Reef for the past 60,000 years, so we have a lot to learn from them. And likewise, they have a lot to learn from us so, it’s important that we work together and move forward together. Part of the Living Coral Biobank project is creating living coral biobank hubs, facilities up and down the coast – so people can look after their own local stock of coral. That won’t happen just in Australia, that will happen all across the equatorial zones so if you’re in Tahiti, Fiji, Hawaii, yes your corals will be banked in the Living Coral Biobank facility, but you also have the opportunity to keep your own living stock in your local area. That makes sense because local organisations can use those for restoration activities or research projects. Having these local Living Coral Biobank hubs is going to be really important for us to be able to draw in new fragments from those areas, but also recede their native reef. So yes, Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders have a huge role to play, as do all the other indigenous populations around the world who rely on coral reefs.

OM: Having those local hubs could really foster that connection with the ocean that has been lost for so many people.

DM: We have a motto at Great Barrier Reef Legacy: “Together there are no barriers too great to save our reefs.” It’s absolutely true. You need to work hand-in-hand with all these different groups to move forward in one direction and, it’s exciting when you do that.

OM: Is that sense of community hope how you personally cope with witnessing the devastation that you have to see on a regular basis?

DM: Yes – we live in a relatively small community here in Port Douglas, there’s just 4,000 people. So it very much is a community feel about the Great Barrier Reef, we all love it – that’s why we’re here. People love their homes. Whether they love them because they provide fish or because they provide other services, or just because they love living on coral reefs, these are very special places to people. And that’s really what keeps me going is that, there are so many people at risk here if we don’t get this right. We have an opportunity now to do something very simple, but very quickly, to try to safeguard a lot of different people, and the oceans in general. And I think that’s what keeps me going, is that this project is not a ‘what if?’ It’s a when.

Photographs courtesy of: Manny Moreno, Katerina Katopis, XL Catlin Seaview Survey via The Ocean Agency, Coral Reef Image Bank and Great Barrier Reef Legacy.