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.

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Filed under: Animals • Australia • Coral • Fish
soundoff (105 Responses)
  1. 2MassEffect

    The planet will be half dead in 50 years anyway.

    October 2, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sivick

    so to save the reef, we need to kill stuff? that's great news! we're really good at that.

    October 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Daniel

    That means they should start killing some humans.

    October 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • BermudaTriangle

      Unfortunately that's the most politically incorrect thing that any politician could possibly say...despite decreasing our population through regulation being the most logical and effective solution to 99% of every issue that any politician will ever speak about. As soon as someone steps on stage and says – we need to limit the amount of people on this planet, you'll see pitch forks and flames!

      October 2, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Curt

    Apparently there has been some sort of data loss of sorts. Scientists discovered the Crown of Thorns problem in Australia and elsewhere in the late 70's. It was highlighted in National Geographic. They killed them by injecting with formaldehyde. Pretty slow. The real trouble is akin to this article. Sea conditions are ripe for these things now. What have the scientists been doing since the 70's ?

    October 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • peridot2

      Watching, observing and counting starfish. Trying to figure out what's killing the reef faster than anything else.

      October 2, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. xirume

    Ohh nooo !!! Patrick is in mortal danger.

    October 2, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Lila

    The article states it's the fertilizer runoff that creates more plankton which in turn feeds and makes more starfish. Killing starfish isn't going to fix the problem, they have to stop the fertilizer runoff. There will still be too much plankton, if the starfish is gone another animal will take it's place, that's the way nature works. These greedy, lazy and arrogant people have to stop dumping into the sea if they want to save the reef.

    October 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stuart P

      Lila: That is exactly what the article says, except for accusing people of being lazy, arrogant, etc.

      October 2, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Molokai_Guy

      Back in the 70s Hawaii had a problem with these crown of thorn starfish. It was eradicated and the reef got better. Surprises me that the Aussies are taking this long to take action.

      October 2, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lila

      It's frustrating to read kill kill kill, which is a common answer for every problem, it makes me angry. Rarely do I read an article which states businesses and communities are going to change to fix an environmental problem.

      October 2, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • PeteInOhio

      Umm. .. .. those greedy people are farmers growing crops that feed conservatives as well as liberals. So there's a bigger problem to fix. How to feed the masses with no fertilizer - or coming up with new fertilizers that support the same or better crop output - or move to more unpopular population control measures. Nothing is ever as simple as folks try to make it.

      October 2, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • sumguy2006

      I'm thinking kill the starfish, and control the runoff. Double whammy.

      October 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clicky

      Lila: Did you read the article? It actually says the same thing you are claiming needs to be done. Read it. Its above this writing and below the address bar.

      October 2, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  7. GettingReal

    Don't kill Patrick!!!

    October 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Best Friends Forever!
      ... Bubble Buddy would be sad

      October 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Hide Behind

    We humans have never answered the question of "What is the purpose of our Being", and without that answer we remain no more than another animal.
    The greatest distinction we as humans have over all other animal forms is that of the concept of "Tomorrow" and where as animals lives are base upn the immediacy of moment ,they cannot and do not conceptualize time ,past or future; only humans have that concept and have the ability to form a future
    Unless humanity stops actng much like sea coral, suking up the the earts resources the many tentacled planners will continue to pollute and destroy. and yes consume, our very existence.

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

      Animals do have concepts of the future. Why else would they hoard, or bury or hide stashes of food, if not for later use? They don't just have a concept of "tomorrow', they have a concept of "future winter".

      October 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • MV

      HideBehind, what is your IQ? Guessing it is pretty low.

      October 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. revansatoda

    Sterilize the starfish.

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

    Killing the starfish will not solve the problem. Instead of saying you can't do anything about global warming or runoff or whatever, DO SOMETHING about those things. Otherwise, you are just taking the easy way out.

    October 2, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • sumguy2006

      Actually killing starfish will fix the problem....the scientists said so.

      October 2, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • humtake

      Considering global warming is not entirely anthropogenic and will happen regardless if humans live on this planet or not, there is no way to do anything about it unless we can find a way to completely alter the planet's natural climate shifts it has gone through for the last millions of years. Sure, get rid of any human involvement might slow it down a bit, but not by much. The reef is still a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.

      October 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Derek Hart

    Aww love you too CNN thanks for not posting my comment I typed for a good 20 minutes. You really love the Earth, don't ya? It's the people like youuuu who will fall.

    October 2, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. sumguy2006

    Pay a $1 per starfish bounty and let divers go nuts. Recreational divers could enjoy the reef and pay for their trip at the same time.

    October 2, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Solar Energy Saves Lives

    Personally, I think star fish will be the new sea food cuisine for australians over the next decade.

    October 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Big Gay John

    I am all for saving the environment but sometimes we need to stop and think that sometimes things happen in due course. According to the article, run off fertilizer is the culprit here, which is something that we can do something about. Doing anything more than that (ie. controlling the starfish population via another means such as killing) I feel is foolish. I like the great coral reef and it is truly amazing, but everything comes to pass in the ebb and flow of time. There was a time when it did not exist and so shall it be again. Kind of like the ice caps, did we hasten their melting yes, was this something that would have naturally happened anyway? Yes. If we eventually work on the fertilizer issue, than the starfish population will right itself once again and the reef will be back on an even keel. All species have a rise and fall within this ecosystem, including ourselves. There was a time when man wasnt here, and it will be that way again (hopefully not for another couple million years from now.....)

    October 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  15. dark matter

    yes right this is a type of predator design by the alien,,, but dont destroy the ethnics because we need that predator if our planet are over loaded of energy,,,,if the night are starting to long than day we needs to reduce the supply of oil in the ocean by reducing coral reef and sea weeds,,, the most important in the ocean are to remove the ufo,,to stop creating a predator many country has no action for this terminator

    October 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
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