[ASC-media] Subject: ASC-media Media Alert

Wendy Ellery wellery at aims.gov.au
Tue Jan 6 11:37:46 EST 2004

MEDIA RELEASE   6 January 2004

New reef survey shows Crown-of-thorns starfish menace no worse

The Crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) has long been the scourge of the Great 
Barrier Reef, but the latest results from a comprehensive long-term study 
of the reef show that outbreaks are not escalating.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) study of reefs off 
Townsville has found that currently less than half of the reefs surveyed 
have outbreaks, compared with 1986 when more than 75% of these were badly 
affected with the coral eating starfish.

Leader of the AIMS monitoring team Dr Hugh Sweatman said the results 
challenge the commonly held idea that outbreaks are worsening.

In the 1960s there were fears that COTS spelled the end of the reef, and 
the waves of outbreaks since have also led to dire predictions.

The AIMS long-term monitoring program is the longest running and most 
extensive study of COTS infestations on the Great Barrier Reef, covering 
reefs from Cape York to Gladstone. Started almost two decades ago, the COTS 
surveys are part of one of the biggest coral reef monitoring programs in 
the world.

Dr Sweatman said there have been three waves of outbreaks in the last 40 
years, each wave lasting approximately 15 years. "The infestations appear 
to start on reefs north of Cairns, then spread south in a wave as the 
starfish larvae are carried by ocean currents."

"Until now much of the information on the outbreaks has been anecdotal, but 
AIMS has maintained a program of surveys since the mid 1980s, when the 
reefs near Townsville were suffering the second wave of outbreaks," he said.

"Now, seventeen years later, a new set of outbreaks is affecting those same 

"For the first time, we can compare the numbers of starfish on the same 
reefs using data that have been collected in the same way," he said.

"While there are large numbers of the starfish on several reefs off 
Townsville, the evidence shows the epidemic is no worse than previously 

"The data shows that the proportion of affected reefs is lower and there 
are fewer reefs with high numbers of COTS," Dr Sweatman concluded.

Dr Sweatman said the average spell between the wave of COTS outbreaks is 
not long in the life of a coral and there is still concern about the reefs' 
ability to recover between plagues.

He said there is no cause for complacency with the spectre of increasingly 
frequent coral bleaching and other stresses and pressures affecting parts 
of the Great Barrier Reef.

Media contact:
Dr Hugh Sweatman, Senior Research Scientist, Long-term monitoring team 
leader, Ph: 07 4753 4470; mob: 0419 986 746; email: h.sweatman at aims.gov.au,
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