Son's dismay sparks plan to regrow Barrier Reef
Sparkies are known for their bright ideas and Gary McKenna came up with an absolute doozy.
The Irish-born electrician calls Far North Queensland home and loves diving on the Great Barrier Reef. But when his then six-year-old son Khai got upset while snorkelling over bleached coral in 2016, it got him thinking.
If Gary could grow coral from commercially bought cuttings at home in his fish tank, why couldn't the same be done in the ocean to help the world's largest living organism, the Great Barrier Reef?
He still remembers the three words which gave flight to an idea that has grown into an organisation with global support.
"Dad it's dead,” Khai said as the two hovered above the colourless coral, bleached by higher than usual sea water temperatures.
"I have an aquarium and I used to buy coral for $100 a piece until I discovered I could cut it up with scissors and grow my own. I was doing this one day and listening to news about the bleaching on TV and wondered whether the same thing could be done on the Reef to help it.
"I did some research and discovered coral propagation was being done overseas to help restore reefs, so I started approaching people to do the same here. They laughed at me and asked if I had a board of directors.”
The idea of growing and transplanting coral was first developed in Florida to counter the effects of coral bleaching, disease, hurricanes and cold snaps. Coral colonies had become separated and were too far apart to reproduce effectively.
It's also gained traction in Hawaii, where corals grow very slowly, and in Cuba's national waters.
Gary's first port of call was a social enterprise program in Cairns. He needed to find out how his idea could be turned into a tangible solution for the troubled Reef.
That's where he met former Advance Cairns chief executive, civil engineer and project manager Stewart Christie.
After heading up the region's peak economic development organisation, Stewart understood just how valuable the Great Barrier Reef was to the community and the economy. It supports the direct employment of more than 64,000 people.
Together, they recruited Rob Giason with more than 40 years' tourism experience and marine scientist Adam Smith.
As a second wave of bleaching hit the Great Barrier Reef over the 2016-2017 summer, the not-for-profit Reef Restoration Foundation was born, with Stewart at its helm and Gary directing nursery operations.
Florida coral restoration expert Ken Nedimyer was enlisted to help refine the concept, but Mother Nature wasn't done.
The reef suffered yet another blow when Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie hammered the Whitsundays in March, 2017.
Twelve months ago, the Foundation broke new ground when it was granted the first Australian permit to harvest, grow and plant coral in the World Heritage area.
"Once we got the permit, we harvested 24 corals that had survived the bleaching, turned them into 246 pieces of coral and attached them to six coral 'tree' frames at Fitzroy Island. The frames accelerate the growth of corals and are checked, cleaned and measured regularly,” says Gary.
"Six months later, we harvested another 16 corals. Those 40 corals have been turned into 700 pieces of coral and some grew four or five times their original size after 10 months.
"If we emptied out the nursery tomorrow and put 700 corals in a little area of Fitzroy Island, it would make a big difference. You could build your own dive site with 700 corals.
"We started with four different types of coral and hope to include others in coming years.”
The first full cycle of collecting, growing and planting was completed in August when 100 new coral colonies were attached to damaged reefs at Fitzroy Island using underwater glue, while the 40 mother colonies were retained on the coral trees to repeat the process.
Now he and Khai are encouraging the public to get behind Reef Restoration Foundation's Coral Crusaders campaign to speed up the project, expand the nurseries and strengthen the Reef. Crusaders can "adopt” coral for $50, build a branch for $500 or tend a "tree” for $10,000.
Find out more at www.reefrestorationfoundation.org or follow Reef Restoration Foundation on Facebook.