Vinegar Could Save Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

posted: 09/23/15
by: Danny Clemens
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A common household ingredient may help conservationists win the fight against a destructive starfish that is wreaking havoc across the Great Barrier Reef.

In recent decades, crown-of-thorns starfish have decimated coral across the reef. The starfish naturally occur in low numbers throughout the Indo-Pacific, feeding on coral and forming an important part of marine ecosystems under normal circumstances.

Several times in recent decades, however, crown-of-thorns starfish numbers have skyrocketed, leading to harmful coral overconsumption that takes decades to reverse. According to a 2012 study from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, crown-of-thorns starfish were one the top causes of coral losses over the past three decades.

Crown of thorns starfish

Scientists aren't sure exactly what has caused the repeated starfish outbreaks, although a leading theory links crown-of-thorns population growth with the availability of phytoplankton, a key source of nutrition for starfish larvae.

Thus far, controlling the booming population has proved to be difficult. "Divers use 10 or 12 ml of ox-bile to kill each [starfish]. It's expensive, requires permits and has to be mixed to the right concentration," James Cook University scientist Lisa Bostrom-Einarsson explains in a news release.

In a newly published study, however, Bostrom-Einarsson and her colleagues reveal that household vinegar is a much simpler and cheaper way to effectively control the starfish population.

In laboratory trials, 100% of crown-of-thorns starfish injected with vinegar were completely dead within 48 hours and left to be safely consumed by fish.

Starfish vinegar injection
Lisa Bostrom-Einarsson

Bostrom-Einarsson notes that further field trials must be conducted before researchers can confirm that the vinegar injections can rolled out on a larger scale.

"There's no reason to think it won't work or it'll be dangerous, but we have to be sure," she adds.

Furthermore, injecting individual starfish is a daunting task: current estimates peg the starfish population between 4 and 12 million. While injections can be used to save individual reefs, population control methods that can be widely rolled out are still under development.


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