Counting Corals on the Coast
  • Last updated:
  • 09 Dec 2022

The Sunshine Coast is renowned for sand, surf and sun, yet the unique subtropical reefs fringing the coastline are not nearly as famous. However, the reefs on our doorstep host an incredible diversity of marine life, as they are situated in a transitional zone where tropical, substropical and temperate marine species all co-exist.

Local reefs differ from the tropical Great Barrier Reef (GBR), as corals are generally limited from building reef structure due to natural environmental conditions such as light availability, temperature, water chemistry and/or turbidity levels. However, these coral communities offer inherent ecological and cultural values and also provide important ecosystem services for the region, ranging from supporting fish habitat to providing tourism value.

Trained Reef Check Australia volunteers monitor reefs along the Queensland coast, including Sunshine Coast reefs. Surveyors document information about reef composition, abundance of key indicator invertebrates and fish, and visual reef health impacts using a globally standardised survey protocol. From 2007 – 2014, Reef Check surveys documented an average of 24% hard coral cover across Sunshine Coast monitoring sites (compared with 21% across SEQ and 37% on the GBR). The percent cover of hard coral is commonly used as a key indicator for reef health given its sensitive nature and key role in helping to construct a complex matrix of habitat that supports other marine life.

Global Reef Check surveys (8,745 surveys in more than 94 countries 1997 – 2013) have recorded an average of 28% hard coral and documented comparable levels of hard coral cover across both SEQ’s subtropical reefs and Caribbean (18%) monitoring sites. The high average coral cover results indicate selection for coral-dense locations for Reef Check monitoring sites, but also demonstrate that SEQ subtropical reefs host notable coral communities! When compared with the GBR, subtropical SEQ reefs are made up of more rock and non-coral living benthic categories such as sponge and ascidians, as well as more abundant algae communities.

The Reef Check citizen science program is situated to contribute valuable data for making catchment- level management decisions about the unique reef habitats on the doorstep of SEQ, including contributing to monitoring targets for the SEQ Catchment’s Natural Resource Management (NRM) plan. The data contributed by Reef Check volunteers helps to document health on many reef sites that may not have other regular monitoring programs. Additional findings can be found on the Reef Check Australia website via reports and an online Reef Health Database.

Collecting long-term data on reefs offers the opportunity to track potential changes, understand the relationships between marine systems along the coast, and glean insights about reef and catchment health. This is particularly important in SEQ. Not only are transitional marine habitat areas some of the first that may demonstrate climate change effects, such as species range shifts, but the reefs here live in close proximity to extensive urban areas with rapidly growing populations.

Both our water and land based activities can impact sensitive fringing reef communities and Sunshine Coast reefs do show some signs of stress. Across surveys from 2007 – 2014, coral bleaching, coral disease, coral scars, and marine debris were recorded on Sunshine Coast sites. More broadly, there are documented impacts on SEQ reefs from more localised chronic issues such as water quality and fishing pressure, as well as acute events such as floods. These multiple compounding pressures result in complex interactions that reduce the overall health and resilience or reefs.

The good news is there are ways that you can help protect our blue planet by adjusting your daily behaviour. Buying in bulk and items with less packaging, limiting single-use disposable items (like straws), using a reusable water bottle and shopping bag or shopping at local markets can all help to make a difference for our local reef systems. Getting involved in local initiatives such as clean ups (or just picking up litter whenever you see it) is also a great way to be part of the solution.

Want to get involved? Connect to learn more – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reef Check Australia website.  If you want to actively get involved, check the RCA volunteer surveyor program or become a REEFSearcher with the REEFSearch reef identification and observation program. Try attending Reef Check Australia events to learn more about reefs or donate to our award- winning program. Explore, appreciate and protect your local reefs.

Council has supported Reef Check activities in the region since 2009, helping to build a sustainable regional project.

Article by Jennifer Loder and Jodi Salmond, Reef Check Australia.