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Crown of Thorns Starfish in the Whitsundays

While the regular outbreak of Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (COTS) on the Great Barrier Reef have been a problem for over forty years, up until the present date, sightings in the Whitsundays have been relatively few and far between. Although sightings have been recorded in many of the bays and coves around the islands, the fringing reef that surrounds the Whitsundays is relatively free of the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish.

Since the first recorded outbreak in the 1960's, where only relatively small numbers were seen, COTS outbreaks have occurred regularly until the present day, growing larger in numbers and also the area affected. Outbreaks generally begin in northern waters and spread south with the prevailing currents, with the first recorded sighting in the Whitsundays occurring in the mid-1970's.

With one female Crown-of-Thorns Starfish producing up to 60 million eggs per year, and the COTS ability to regenerate itself from just one severed limb and part of the central disc, the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish is a diverse and effective species. Growing to 80cm across in adulthood with 20 arms, the COTS will reproduce in the millions upon a single reef, where they feed on the coral by turning their stomach inside out and digesting the living coral off its skeleton. With the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish occurring in such large numbers, this can often lead to the devastation and destruction of the reef.

While the Whitsunday Islands themselves remain largely unaffected, their have been recent outbreaks close by on several nearby sections of the outer reef, where large numbers of Crown-of-Thorns Starfish are being monitored and culled. This has had a dramatic effect on tourism in the Whitsunday area and currently costs the Queensland government nearly 3 million dollars per year through the research and control of populations of COTS.

Although many Crown-of-Thorns Starfish are sighted in the Whitsundays, up until the present they have had little negative impact on the health and diversity of the reef. And, while the danger of an outbreak is present, the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, like all species, still remains part of the delicate balance that gives us the spectacular environment of the Whitsundays.

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