Developing improved management strategies for coral reefs
Who Dr Emma Camp, University of Technology Sydney
What Dr Emma Camp’s discovery of corals thriving in extreme conditions is informing new adaptive management solutions in both Australia and abroad. Together with government and nature conservation agencies, she is developing improved management strategies for coral reefs worldwide, while using her work as a platform to advocate for action on climate change.
Winner of the 2021 Macquarie University Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher
A marine biologist, you’ve built a research career around the ocean and worked in some beautiful locations. What initially attracted you to marine science?
I have always been fascinated by the ocean. As an eight-year-old I was lucky to snorkel with my family in the Caribbean. This sparked my love for coral reefs. As a young person, I didn’t realise that there was a job such as a marine biologist. It wasn’t until I was at university and took an environmental science course that I learned how important coral reef ecosystems were from an environmental and socio-economic perspective. Furthermore, I learned of the threat marine systems, such as coral reefs, were facing from human impacts. It was this knowledge that drew me to the marine sciences. I wanted to understand how systems such as coral reefs function and what we could do to try and conserve them.
You recently discovered that certain species of coral have a natural capacity to survive stress. What are the implications of this finding?
This was such an important discovery to aid our predictions on how coral reefs will be impacted in the future. The mangrove corals have an enhanced natural capacity to survive stress and can be utilised in active management efforts, such as coral propagation or assisted migration. Furthermore, studying naturally tolerant corals provides a natural laboratory to better understand the mechanisms that support coral resilience and any fitness trade-offs that support coral survive in hostile conditions.
What would surprise people most about your work?
That many locations globally appear to have mangrove lagoons that house corals living in extremely hostile conditions (warmer, more acidic, lower oxygen than your typical reef). This makes them potentially important reservoirs of stress hardened corals. The more locations we explore, the more ‘extreme’ coral habitats we find.
Many people also think that I spend the majority of my time on the reef, but I actually spend quite a lot of time both in the University of Technology Sydney lab, and supervising students. I can’t wait to get back to the reef once we can travel again.
The impact of climate change on coral reef health is supported by extensive scientific evidence. As the issue continues to intensify, what gives you hope?
At times it can be hard to remain hopeful for the future of coral reefs. I do, however, remain optimistic for a few reasons. Firstly, we know what is harming reefs and we do have the tools to fix it. While not simple, we know that addressing climate change will help safeguard a future for coral reefs. If we had no idea why we were seeing coral bleaching events and loss of corals, then it would be hard to remain hopeful.
... young people have immense knowledge and drive to protect the environment. Their passion and action give me hope.
Secondly, young people have immense knowledge and drive to protect the environment. Their passion and action give me hope. And finally, we still have amazing coral reefs around the world. We have not lost coral reefs and for these reasons I remain hopeful and driven to help secure their future.
You’re also part of the Coral Nurture Program, a finalist in the 2021 Eureka Prize for Applied Environmental Research. Can you tell us a bit about this project?
The Coral Nurture Program is a world-first partnership between science and tourism to retain and rehabilitate high value Great Barrier Reef sites. The program incorporates site stewardship and novel research to optimise best-practice for growing and planting coral at scale. To date, the program has out-planted over 50,000 corals in efforts to increase local site resilience while also building socio-economic resilience through diversifying reef tourism stewardship.
What are some of the larger impacts you hope to see from your work in the future?
Through disseminating my research findings to a diverse range of reef stakeholders, I hope I can contribute to positive action to address climate change. Furthermore, I hope that knowledge from my work can help inform ways to improve existing active management efforts for coral reefs, while also identifying new management strategies. I also hope that through my work and actions I can inspire more girls and women to consider Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). The enormity of the environmental challenges we face requires diverse thinking, and as many minds at the table as possible to come up with the novel solutions we ultimately require.
The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research & innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.