Australia has announced a cull of coral-eating starfish that have been destroying the Great Barrier Reef, as part of a £35 million rescue package for the 1,500-mile stretch of delicate coast.

Following growing pressure to combat widespread damage to the reef, Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, unveiled an 18-month plan, which includes funds for diving patrols that have already cleared the reef of more than 300,000 starfish.

The reef, off the north-east coast of the state of Queensland, has faced heavy coral damage in recent years from bleaching and warmer water temperatures as well as coastal development, agricultural and industrial pollution, storms and the starfish.

Surveys by the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that coral cover declined by about 50 per cent between 1985 and 2012, and that crown-of-thorns starfish were responsible for almost half of this decline.

The plan includes £21 million to prevent pollution from entering the reef, particularly from surrounding farms, as well as £6 million for an “all-out assault on coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish” and £3.5 million for research into improving the resilience of coral.

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of the Whitsunday Islands, along the central coast of QueenslandCredit:

The coral-eating starfish are naturally occurring but have proliferated due to pollution and agricultural run-off at the struggling reef.

“There’s a very strong link between polluted water and outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish,” Mr Turnbull said, adding that most of the funding would be going to supporting farmers stopping runoff off their properties.

The plan was welcomed by tour operators who have expressed concern about reduced visitors following the heavy coral bleaching in recent years.

"Tourists are going to be reluctant to fly long-haul flights out of Europe or the US, if they think they’re going to come out here and there’s no Great Barrier Reef for them to see," Col McKenzie, from the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, told ABC News.

"So I think this helps allay those fears and certainly puts us on a move positive step."

Critics of the new package said Mr Turnbull should instead focus on reducing carbon emissions and preventing the proposed construction of one of the world’s biggest coal mines in Queensland.

"If Malcolm Turnbull was serious about protecting the Great Barrier Reef he would listen to scientists and transition away from the real reef-killer, the fossil fuel industry," said Andrew Bartlett, a Greens MP.

The government has committed to spending £1.1 billion to improve the health of the reef over the next decade.

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