Port Stephens’ Purple Cauliflower Coral Could Be Extinct In 10 Years

Some of the Purple Cauliflower Coral on the pipeline dive. Photo: Jim Dodd.

 

THERE is a rare and beautiful coral which calls Port Stephens home, however researchers predict that the purple cauliflower coral may be extinct within the next 10 years.

For many when it comes to what sits below the water it is somewhat out of sight and out of mind.

The researchers from Southern Cross University found that the recent flood events have pushed the coral to the brink with the recent flood events pushing the endangered purple cauliflower coral into significant decline.

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The coral is at greater risk from sand movement (sediment mobilisation) along with boat anchoring and moorings are the likely causes.

Port Stephens’ clusters of Dendronephthya australis, mapped by the research team in 2019, had declined by almost 70% in just eight years.

The Cauliflower Coral is one of the few temperate water soft corals found in NSW.

The species is endemic to eastern Australia and it is currently only known to occur from Port Stephens to Jervis Bay.

Colonies of Cauliflower Coral not only provide shelter within their complex structure, but also support small crustacean (amphipod) communities, which are a key dietary component of many marine organisms.

Previous studies have shown that juveniles of the Australasian snapper Chrysophrys auratus as well as the Endangered White’s seahorse Hippocampus whitei show strong preference for this soft coral habitat.

More recently, researchers were shocked to find high levels of run-off in the Karuah River catchment during the March 2021 floods has caused even further devastation of this population.

The combined NSW Department of Primary Industries and Southern Cross University study, led by PhD researcher Meryl Larkin, has explored the potential causes for the decline of this ecologically unique soft coral species using innovative modelling methods.

“Although environmental conditions are still conducive to the presence of the corals within Port Stephens, this species has continued to decline.

“Modelling has shown there is a correlation between the loss of coral colonies over the past decade and sand movements within the estuary,” Ms Larkin said.

“While the models show that sand movement is likely to be a major contributing factor, many other factors can damage and kill colonies.

“Boat anchoring, moorings and fishing lines have been observed impacting aggregations.

“There may also be other as-yet-undetermined factors at play, such as disease, pollution or other water quality issues contributing to their decline.”

The coral has been recorded here in Port Stephens since the 1970’s.

“To watch it decline so rapidly has been very upsetting. Hopefully this study helps highlight the urgent need to implement measures to protect this species.

“We have started to investigate aquarium propagation followed by transplantation back to the natural environment to aid recovery.

“These early experiments have shown some promising results,” she said.

 

By Marian SAMPSON

 

Nudibranch feeding on the coral at Port Stephens. Photo: Jim Dodd.

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