Turtle and shark tagging part of new Ningaloo Reef research partnership

Ningaloo Reef is the largest fringing reef in the world, extending for 300 kilometres along the northwest coast of Australia.

The five-year, jointly-funded $5 million research program will include both deep and shallow reef research, turtle and shark tagging, a PhD scholarship scheme and opportunities to engage the local community, including BHP Billiton Petroleum employees, in Exmouth, WA.

Minister for Industry and Science Ian Macfarlane, joined CSIRO Executive Director Environment, Dr Andrew Johnson, and BHP Billiton Petroleum General Manager, Doug Handyside to launch the partnership in Perth.

Mr Handyside said the investment in marine science would help the oil and gas industry to better understand the reef and help target conservation efforts.


Tiger sharks are big movers

WA research has uncovered extraordinary details about the movements of tiger sharks with evidence suggesting their local range extends thousands of kilometres from Indonesia to Esperance.

Despite common beliefs that tiger sharks are almost exclusively a tropical water species, scientists have found they are capable of travelling vast distances in often colder climates.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science, WA’s Fisheries Department, the University of WA and CSIRO have been carrying out a program aiming to break new ground in the understanding of the species.


Rare Ruby seadragon uncovered in WA

A new species of seadragon has been discovered off the coast of Western Australia by researchers at the Western Australian Museum.
The bright red Ruby Seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea) is only the third species of seadragon ever recorded in the world.
Culture and the Arts Minister John Day said the discovery was nearly 100 years in the making after the first recorded seadragon specimen was washed up on Cottesloe Beach in 1919.  

“For many years the specimen found in Cottesloe and another subsequent find were thought to be a common seadragon,” Mr Day said.

But through a combination of modern DNA sampling technology and research linking it to other specimens, the Ruby Seadragon was shown to be a new species. It was identified and classified by WA Museum scientist Dr Nerida Wilson and her colleagues. 
“This is an amazing find in Western Australian waters and clearly shows the value of our museum collections in informing current and future scientific research.”



Dredging Science Kimberley Marine Research Program

A new look at the Leeuwin Current

New research has revealed further insights into the formation of the globally unusual poleward-flowing Leeuwin Current and the role it plays in sustaining the marine ecosystems of the Ningaloo Reef.

In a recently published study researchers from The University of Western Australia and the Australian Institute of Marine Science investigated three-dimensional ocean circulation on the continental shelf as part of WAMSI’s Ningaloo Research Program.

The team made a variety of detailed field measurements that extended along a large portion of the Ningaloo coast (~70 km), enabling a whole-of-reef scale synoptic view of variability over several spring and summer months.

“This was the first time anyone had attempted field oceanographic observations on such a broad scale at Ningaloo,” team member UWA Professor Greg Ivey said. “It was exciting to be able to use the data to start looking into how seasonal transitions affect local ocean dynamics, upwelling and downwelling and how this could then be affecting oceanographic features of statewide importance, such as the Leeuwin Current.”

Detailed analysis of the comprehensive dataset has now shown that variability in the currents offshore from Ningaloo were important in controlling the variability in the strength of Leeuwin Current as it progresses down the southern WA coast. It was also found to be important in the localised transport of nutrient rich water from deep below the ocean surface to Ningaloo Reef, a vital process that supports the coral reefs and fisheries of the region. 

“The interesting thing is that the Leeuwin Current is very weak on the North West Shelf, just north of Ningaloo,” Professor Ivey said, “yet to the south, it is the dominant current feature of southwestern Australia.”

“Our results confirm that the Ningaloo Peninsula and Shelf region can be considered one of the important formation regions for the Leeuwin Current, and therefore understanding the dynamics of the current at Ningaloo increases not only our local knowledge but also the variability of the Leeuwin current and hence the ecosystems that it supports further south,” AIMS Co-author Dr Richard Brinkman said.

The study: Observations of the shelf circulation dynamics along Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia during the austral spring and summer, published in the international peer-reviewed journal Continental Shelf Research, was also supported by the Australian Research Council.


Testing Industry-Government partnership concepts

With expanding offshore development near the Pilbara, the decision to test a bold concept to share the load, and cost, of observing and modelling metocean conditions that would improve operational decisions, especially around severe weather events, has proven timely.

Initial results show there is support across Government and industry for the Pilbara Regional Observing System for Prediction and Enhanced Research (PROSPER).

The concept being investigated by the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) and the WA node of the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) would provide improved regional monitoring to enhance confidence in models and risk assessments through a shared network of monitoring and data. 

The initial findings clearly leaves the door open for a continuing conversation in this area identifying that a range of factors are aligning that will make a more collaborative approach to data, modelling and observing a real possibility in the near future.

The concept was tested late last year by an independent consultant, alongside a representative of WAIMOS, through face to face interviews with key industry.

“The independent interview process was important to establish the genuine willingness of industry and others for this concept, or to consider alternative approaches to better partnerships in this area,” Professor Chari Pattiaratchi, then node-leader of the WAIMOS said. “Of course the research sector is already sold on the idea of shared costs for modelling and better access to industry data.”

The major outcome of the PROSPER project was that it was perceived to be too soon for the many stakeholders in the Pilbara region to see the benefit in supporting a collective operational ocean observing and prediction system in the Pilbara. The concept of sharing real-time data collection infrastructure was fresh but reservations quickly crept in about sharing of broader historical data sets and sensitive company knowledge.

Most interviewees agreed enhanced monitoring and predictive capacity was important.  But while the concept was supported in principle, industry was not ready to commit to the full PROSPER framework at this time.

“The PROSPER concept in its entirety was always ambitious and the interviews show there is genuine support for certain parts of the concept around data sharing and modelling, that means we’ll continue to work with industry and government to grow collaboration in this area,” Professor Pattiaratchi said.

WAMSI CEO Patrick Seares said the process has provided a lot of useful feedback that needs to take seriously but two things stand out.

“Firstly, our colleagues in the offshore industry are suffering ‘concept fatigue’ from all the various ideas proposed by different groups in the research sector. I think we need to be more coordinated to manage this,” he said.

“Secondly, while this wasn’t the right time, a number of different factors are converging that may make something akin to PROSPER feasible in the northwest soon. So we need to take on the advice about being a little more focussed and specific about operational implications but keep the conversation with operators and Government going in this area.”

The good news is that even now operators in the oil and gas industry are voluntarily exploring ways to make some of their information more accessible. WAMSI partners are assisting in that effort.


Cooperating with industry to better predict dredging sediment plumes

Much of the research being conducted through WAMSI’s $19 million Dredging Science Node is delivering benefits to industry as well as regulatory agencies and the marine environment. Some of the field work requires close cooperation between researchers and those conducting active marine dredging operations in the Pilbara.

Dr Graham Symonds from CSIRO leads the multidisciplinary WAMSI research team investigating the characteristics of sediment plumes generated by dredging operations associated with the Chevron-operated Wheatstone Project near Onslow. The ultimate objective of the research is to improve predictions of the zones of impact, and to provide the datasets necessary to map ecological responses for future dredging operations.

“Our two periods of fieldwork to date have been good examples of two-way cooperation,” said Graham.

“Chevron and the port authorities were very accommodating in terms of where we needed to collect samples and data during active dredging operations.”

The team used a number of different methods and instruments to look at what was actually happening in the water column in the area around dredging operations.

“We collected samples and data about sediment size and characteristics at a wide range of different depths and locations using a diversity of instrumentation,” said Graham. “In addition, another WAMSI project led by Dr Peter Fearns from Curtin University made ground-truth observations that will help improve the accuracy with which sediment plumes can be monitored by satellite.”

“The staff at the Port of Ashburton – the guys who actually manage all the on-water operations in the area – were also very accommodating to our request to install a mooring (containing longer-term water quality monitoring equipment),” recalled Graham. “The resultant long term water quality data will be very helpful for the success of our research project.”

The data collected from an active dredge program, in addition to the environmental monitoring datasets collected by industry that have been made available to WAMSI, are beginning to contribute to better numerical modelling of the characteristics of sediment plumes from dredging operations. Combined with results coming in from other projects within WAMSI’s Dredging Science Node, greater certainty will be possible in future when predicting the real impacts of marine dredging projects, and how best to minimise them.

Chevron Australia’s Marine HES Advisor, Daniel Kelleher, said that Chevron and its subcontractors worked well with WAMSI researchers to achieve successful outcomes amidst a challenging marine environment.

“The team of scientists from WAMSI safely completed complex plume monitoring tasks within the Wheatstone Project marine construction work area on numerous occasions. Simultaneous operations were well-planned and communicated across WAMSI, Chevron, our prime contractor and marine dredging subcontractor to ensure that all parties could achieve their objectives in the complex marine work environment,” said Daniel.

“Communications between Chevron and the WAMSI team were excellent throughout the planning and execution of the works, ensuring marine safety and environmental protection values were maintained at all times. Information collected through WAMSI and Chevron working together will allow for improvements in best practice environmental management for future dredging programs,” said Daniel.

Secrets of the green sea turtle revealed

It’s turtle nesting season and the Nyul Nyul Rangers have been recording this unique event on the Kimberley coast to learn more about the genetics of the green sea turtle and help ensure its survival.

The rangers joined scientists from CSIRO and the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) to monitor and record turtle nesting sites across the Lacepede Islands and gather skin samples for genetic research. The field trip was held from December 5-11, 2014.

Nyul Nyul Ranger Ninjana Walsham said green turtles were listed as vulnerable to extinction which was why it was so important to find out more about their genetics. He said the research trip was a success with the group exceeding proposed targets and collecting 48 genetic samples and installing 12 remote sensors.

“We went out at night when they were nesting and there were just heaps of turtles everywhere on the beach. Before the female went to lay her eggs, we took just a little skin sample from the back right flipper,’’ Ninjana said.

“That information will be used to tell us how turtles are related and a bit about their family tree. It’s pretty amazing that from one little bit of tissue you can get all that information.

“We also tagged some of the turtles. They now have their own number so we can keep track of them and record information about them. We’ll use this information for future knowledge and to help us with management plans so we can continue to protect them.’’

Genetic sampling of sea turtles forms part of a two-year project by WAMSI to work out relationships between different turtle nesting groups, identify when and where turtles nest in the region and to assess possible climate change impacts to the species.

What is already known about green turtles is that adults can weigh up to 300kg and live for more than 80 years. Females can lay up to 100 eggs per clutch with nest temperatures determining the sex of the hatchlings. In the wild mostly females are born because incubation temperatures are above 29 degrees.

Ninjana said watching a group of hatchlings being born and make their way into the ocean for the first time was the highlight of the trip.

“There were lots of little hatchlings coming out. We had to help a couple, but it was just pretty amazing and pretty intense,’’ he said.

“It’s good to see that there are heaps of turtles out there nesting and knowing that your country is healthy. Every turtle goes back to the same nest where it was hatched to lay its eggs. We have a lot of turtles which is a really good sign.’’

Click here to listen to Dr Oliver Berry talking on ABC Kimberley