Scientists: To save Great Barrier Reef, kill starfish
The Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral since the 1980s, scientists say.
October 2nd, 2012
11:37 AM ET

Scientists: To save Great Barrier Reef, kill starfish

Australia's Great Barrier Reef has lost 50% of its coral since the mid-1980s, much of that because of a ravenous species of starfish that can each consume some 12 square yards (10 square meters) of coral in a year, scientists reported Tuesday.

According to a study by the Australian government's Institute of Marine Sciences and the University of Wollongong, the coral cover on the world's largest coral reef ecosystem suffered damage from tropical cyclones (48%), the crown-of-thorns starfish (42%), and coral bleaching (10%).

If current trends continue, the reef will lose another 50% of its coral in the next 10 years, the scientists said.

Stopping the starfish infestation is the one thing humans can do that can save the reef, they said.

"We can't stop the storms, and ocean warming (the primary cause of coral bleaching) is one of the critical impacts of the global climate change," John Gunn, chief executive officer of the institute, said in a press release. "However, we can act to reduce the impact of crown of thorns."

"The study shows that in the absence of crown of thorns, coral cover would increase at 0.89% per year, so even with losses due to cyclones and bleaching there should be slow recovery," Gunn said in the release.

Reacting to the study, the World Wildlife Fund said Australia must reduce fertilizer runoff as a first step to controlling the crown-of-thorns starfish.

“The debate is over. This latest research demonstrates that more decisive action to cut chemical fertilizer is urgently needed to prevent unprecedented and on-going outbreaks of Crown of Thorns starfish, which are in turn converting the Great Barrier Reef into rubble,” WWF-Australia spokesperson Nick Heath said in a statement.

According to the study, the starfish in its larval stage feeds on plankton, populations of which surge when fertilizer runoff floods the coastal ocean waters with nutrients. So plentiful plankton can lead to swarms of hungry starfish.

The starfish consume the corals by climbing onto them, thrusting out their stomachs, and bathing the coral in digestive enzymes, which liquefy it for ingestion. Adult crown-of-thorns starfish, ranging in size from 9 to 18 inches in diameter and with up to 21 arms, can eat nearly a square foot of coral each in a day.

The WWF's Heath said both the Australian government and the state government of Queensland, where much of the reef lies, need to take action now.

“What this report shows is that we need urgent recommitment from both the Commonwealth and Queensland governments that will significantly reduce chemical fertilizer pollution on the Reef,” Heath said in a statement.

“With the right political will we can stop the march of crown-of-thorns starfish in its tracks and save the reef," Heath said.

The starfish threat to the reef is nothing new, according to the institute's report. The starfish have lived on the reef for 8,000 years, and swarms of the coral predators have been recorded as far back as 1962. The last major outbreak of the creatures was seen in the late 1990s.

But pressure from the cyclones and bleaching resulting from climate change exacerbate the damage the starfish can do, the report said.

"The combined effect of these disturbances may result in such regular coral mortality and reduced growth that communities cannot fully recover," it said.

Previous efforts to curb starfish populations have been costly and ineffective, the report said. Those include cutting up the creatures (they tend to regrow their lost appendages) and injecting them with an acid (costs $300,000 a year and divers must inject up to 500 starfish a day).

The WWF said $3 million was spent to control a starfish swarm in 2003 alone.

Besides protecting the environment, WWF said loss of the reef means loss of jobs for Australians.

“Sixty thousand jobs in the tourism industry depend on us acting with urgency over the next few years,” the WWF's Heath said in a statement.

Google's street view goes submarine

Floods a threat to Great Barrier Reef

Natural wonders to see before they disappear

Post by:
Filed under: Animals • Australia • Coral • Fish
soundoff (105 Responses)
  1. banasy©

    I can think of another ravenous species that has its hand in the destruction of coral reefs also...

    Beautiful thing, the reef.

    October 2, 2012 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Lindsay Lohan

      I want you to destroy my chocolate starfish!

      October 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sinfully Yours

    Starfish are evil! Its better to kill them now then to suffer the painful death of them attaching themselves to your face and sucking your brains out of your eye sockets!

    October 2, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • peridot2

      You're thinking of the Facehugger Alien, I think. Different critter.

      October 2, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
  3. yea,um?

    So a study by the Australian government and the University of wallawallabingbang says the coral reef is going away. So let's kill the starfish,yea that's a great idea.

    October 2, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Logic(TM)

      Yeah, we wouldn't want something like Science getting in the way of making a rational decision.

      October 2, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Gary

    Kill one species to save another... Yah, I'm sure this will be well thought out and go well...

    October 2, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. OhYeah?

    Meanwhile, humans continue to kill off the entire world. When will scientists say we should be killed off to save it?

    October 2, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Prof Hubert Farnsworth

      Some of us have been saying that for a while now.

      October 2, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      You are more than welcome to be the first....

      October 2, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • BermudaTriangle

      The ridiculous suggestion that "you should go first" to someone stating that humans are overpopulated and should be reduced is a perfect example as to WHY we continue to have the same issues over and over and over...

      Most people, like the numskull suggesting that "you go first" aren't rational enough to fully understand the intricacies of a natural ecosystem and it's evolutionary processes. Which is why someone who DOES should be the LAST person to sacrifice themselves. There are plenty of dangerously ignorant people that should certainly be the first to volunteer their genetics...

      October 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • MDAT

      Yes.But the diet of this starfish is coral reef.

      October 2, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bill

    That is treating the symptom and not the underlying problem. It would be like fixing a flooded basement by bailing out water rather than fixing the leak. It would be a lot of wasted resources to attempt to farm coral on that large of a scale without first addressing the agricultural runoff and the overabundance of starfish.

    October 2, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Canopy

      Bill....yes! EXACTLY. We have a tendency of putting bandages on cancers rather than identifying the root cause. The problem is that the root cause is US.

      October 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Al

    Do a control harvesting and monitor the results yearly. Allow locals, divers, and tourist to collect them.

    October 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • BermudaTriangle

      Better idea...start an Internet and TV campaign in China, Thailand, Indonesia, ect...that states the "unconfirmed", cancer-fighting, performance-enhancing, qualities only found in the Crown of Thorns. They'll be endangered in a few years.

      October 2, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Al

    Control harvest by allowing locals, divers, and tourists to collect them. Then monitor the progress to make sure it is not completely overdone. l

    October 2, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. organically

    The increase of invasive species interfering with ecosystems around the world, as well as the increasing droughts, floods, and wildfires in the U.S. and worldwide are all a major indicators of climate change, which is directly caused by human fossil fuel use. Romney/Ryan fossil fuel dependent energy policy would only perpetuate the problem, which would be catastrophic for our country. In spite of the endless proof of human induced climate change, some of the population is still in denial. There are three reasons for this (1) the belief that the rapid change in our climate over the last 50 years is part of a cycle although these cycles take thousands of years, (2) the occasional negative news story on the science of climate change, and (3) rightist conservative radical or ignorant tea party philosophy that climate change is a hoax. There are deniers in every scientific fact. Climate change deniers threaten humanity. Reversing climate change is impossible at this point due to the international thirst for fossil fuels and our overall society living standard. This is not going to change. So, rather than talking about stopping climate change, let’s ignore the utopian deniers and begin a dialogue on how to adapt and stop dwelling on environmentally and socially damaging energy topics like Solyndra and the keystone pipeline.

    October 2, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Al

    Sorry for the double post. Thought the first one didn't go through.

    October 2, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. banasy©

    I'm not on FB.
    Nice try.

    October 2, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Peter

    And as we've seen with farmed species of fish, farming usually does more damage than just addressing the real problem, which in that example is overfishing of certain species.

    October 2, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. WhatisanOBAMA?

    We voted... for nothing... an obsolete Reagan as no other- all over the world they say the same-
    Why not just put up a poster of obsolete senile Reagan with hand puppets? 🙂 Have fun !!!
    "im every woman" < more of the same silly fascist diatribes from the worlds most laughable puppets.

    October 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Sinfully Yours

    A Crabby Patty and I will buy you a new pineapple in the middle of a nice field full of jellies. 😉

    October 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  15. idiophobia

    little known fact the carter administration put solar panels on the roof of the white house, when reagan took office he removed them

    October 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • peridot2

      It's not little known. I remember. Reagan was an idiot.

      October 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5