Original article published on Australian Geographic 8 July 2015 by Chris Ashton

Unemployment is the┬ábiggest challenge faced by young Australians living in regional areas. The desire to work can be strong, but, as often is the case, it’s difficult to find full time employment without relocating to the capital cities.

According to recent statistics, the city of Cairns has a youth unemployment rate of around 20 per cent, over three times higher than the national average. To combat this social issue, and protect the fragile Great Barrier Reef marine environment in the process, one company has chosen to take matters into their own hands.

The Crown of Thorns Starfish Control Program, a government-funded project, is the result of a partnership between the peak industry body, Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO), and private marine consultancy firm Gempearl.

This program is taking long-term unemployed youth and training them to cull the environmental pest known as the crown of thorns starfish (COTS).

Trainees Bonnie Martin, Tarquin Singleton and Indi-Lee Banks. IMAGE CREDIT Simon Ceglinski

Trainees Bonnie Martin, Tarquin Singleton and Indi-Lee Banks. IMAGE CREDIT Simon Ceglinski

Innovative way to solve the crown of thorns problem

Cairns locals Col and Margie McKenzie created the program as a way of funding their mission to control the COTS population on the reef. These native sea creatures are responsible for 47 per cent of the coral loss on the reef over the last 27 years.

In the same way that plagues of locusts can devastate crops, COTS can consume vast areas of living coral when numbers are high. Adult starfish are capable of producing in excess of 60 million offspring per breeding season. To help restore balance, AMPTO are actively culling these pests on the reef.

From 200 applications received, just 12 candidates are selected for the program. Tarquin Singleton and Bonnie Martin, two of the program’s most recent trainee recruits, have undergone a fast-tracked dive training course, taking them from non-divers to experienced and qualified dive instructors in just six months.

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