Australia launches mass cull of coral-eating starfish to save Great Barrier Reef

Jonathan Pearlman
Crown-of-thorns starfish has been blamed for destroying large swathes of the reef - Alamy Pay

Australia has launched an “all-out assault” on the crown-of-thorns starfish that has been destroying coral in the Great Barrier Reef, as part of a £35 million rescue package for the  1,500-mile stretch of delicate coast.

Following growing pressure to combat widespread damage to the reef, Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, unveiled an 18-month plan to try to ensure its survival.

“This is the largest living creature, organism in the world,” he said. "It is extraordinary and it is under challenge. But it is resilient."

The reef, off the north-east coast of the state of Queensland, has faced heavy coral damage in recent years from bleaching and warmer water temperatures as well as coastal development, agricultural and industrial pollution, storms and the starfish.

The plan includes £21 million to prevent pollution from entering the reef, particularly from surrounding farms, as well as £6 million for an “all-out assault on coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish” and £3.5 million for research into improving the resilience of coral.

“There’s a very strong link between polluted water and outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish,” Mr Turnbull said.

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of the Whitsunday Islands, along the central coast of Queensland Credit: AFP/ SARAH LAI

“The largest single part of the money . . . is going to into supporting farmers stopping runoff off their properties. The techniques are basically to build swales and ditches and  plantings to slow down the run-off, so that all of the fertilizers and nutrients don’t get into the river and therefore into the reef.”

The plan was welcomed by tour operators who have expressed concern about reduced visitors following the heavy coral bleaching in recent years.

"Tourists are going to be reluctant to fly long-haul flights out of Europe or the US, if they think they're going to come out here and there's no Great Barrier Reef for them to see," Col McKenzie, from the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, told ABC News.

"So I think this helps allay those fears and certainly puts us on a move positive step."

Critics of the new package said Mr Turnbull should instead focus on reducing carbon emissions and preventing the proposed construction of one of the world’s biggest coal mines in Queensland.

"If Malcolm Turnbull was serious about protecting the Great Barrier Reef he would listen to scientists and transition away from the real reef-killer, the fossil fuel industry," said Andrew Bartlett, a Greens MP.

The government has committed to spending £1.1 billion to improve the health of the reef over the next decade.