WAMSI Bulletin

WA marine science nets $5m in ARC funding



Western Australian marine science has attracted more than $5 million in funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) in its latest round of Discovery and Linkage grants and Early Career Researcher Awards.

Under the Discovery Projects Scheme for 2017 a total of $3,131,276 was awarded to eight marine science related research projects investigating a diverse range of subjects including:

  • predicting the ocean carbon dioxide sink’s long-term capacity;
  • improved uderstanding of reproduction in mussels, a commercially important marine species;
  • understanding suction anchors in calcareous seabeds in offshroe australia for future floating oil and gas developments;
  • predicting sediment transport, which controls the health and productivity of marine ecosystems; and
  • understanding the mechanisms behind declines in kelp forests due to climate.

Three marine science related projects in WA that involve collaboration with partner organisations have been awarded $1,172,169 under the ARC Linkage Projects scheme. They involve:

  • developing new environmental DNA-based methods of managing human impact on marine resources;
  • techniques for monitoring Australia’s coastline using drone-mounted applications in remote environments; and
  • exploring seed-based restoration of seagrasses.

Dr Ana Martins Sequeira from The University of Western Australia and Dr Oscar Serrano Gras from Edith Cowan University received Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards for their work into: movement patterns of marine megafauna such as sharks, whales and turtles; and building a history of coastal ecosystems.

WAMSI geomorphology project researcher Dr Mick O’Leary from Curtin University is also involved in the The Flinders University of South Australia project which aims to identify fauna in rock art in the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area, in the Northern Territory, that will inform debates on megafauna extinctions, climate, and environmental change in Australia.        

Western Australian Marine Science Institution CEO Patrick Seares said the funding was good news and in line with the broadly accepted need to better understand WA’s marine environment in order to manage its future. He also acknowledged the leading role WA marine research is playing in contributing to future sustainable development important for both the state and the nation.

For more information on the 2017 funding round, visit the ARC website.


Summary of successful WA Marine Research Projects

Funded Projects – Discovery Projects 2017 round 1

The Australian Government has announced 630 new research grants under the Discovery Projects scheme for 2017.

A total of $234.7 million has been awarded in this 2017 round. For full outcome data view the Funding Announcements web page.


Project Summary

Administering Organisation

Total Project Funding

Project Duration in years

Dr Julie Trotter The project aims to predict the ocean carbon dioxide sink’s long-term capacity and future trajectories of global warming and increasing carbon dioxide. This project will use geochemical proxies encoded in the skeletons of deep-sea corals in the Perth Canyon, Tasman seas, and Antarctica, in the heart of the ocean-climate system, to reveal continuous long-term records of environmental change at annual-decadal resolution for our recent past (hundreds to thousands of years) and the Last Glacial Maximum. These records are expected to provide a more accurate understanding of Earth’s long-term responses to anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. The University of Western Australia $776,000 4

Associate Professor Jonathan Evans; Dr Xavier Conlan; Dr Winn Kennington

This project aims to understand how eggs attract and select sperm, and how the environment influences these interactions. Differential sperm chemotaxis, a form of mate choice involving chemical signalling between eggs and sperm, has only been described in mussels, but may be a widespread form of gamete-level sexual selection. The project will study the biochemical and molecular basis of differential sperm chemotaxis in mussels, and the stability of gamete-level interactions under different environmental conditions. Improved fundamental knowledge of reproduction in a commercially important marine species may yield future commercial benefits for Australia’s marine food production sector

The University of Western Australia



Dr Clelia Gasparini; Associate Professor Simone Immler This project aims to test the causes, consequences and mechanisms of female reproductive fluids in modulating fertilisation bias in a model vertebrate species, the zebrafish. Female reproductive fluids (the fluid surrounding eggs) may moderate sperm selection by females, thus facilitating mate choice at the gamete level. This project will study interactions involving sperm and female reproductive fluid in an evolutionary framework. The intended outcome is increased knowledge of these processes, and better understanding of how non-gamete factors affect fertility, which could benefit fields as diverse as human fertility and aquaculture. The University of Western Australia $510,500 4

Professor Anas Ghadouani; Associate Professor Matthew Hipsey; Associate Professor Matthew Linden; Dr Frederik Hammes; Professor W Mitch; Professor Dr Michele Prevost

This project aims to validate a framework for the management of water pollution. As the world population increases, maintaining robust, cost-effective and environmentally safe water resources is important. This project will investigate environmental controls of toxin occurrence in urban and wastewater systems. The project is expected to mitigate deadly cyanotoxins, which threaten the safety of water resources, while a numerical ecological model will tackle water pollution issues in natural and engineered water systems.

The University of Western Australia

$372,500 3
Associate Professor Muhammad Hossain; Professor Yuxia Hu This project aims to understand suction caisson anchors in ‘problematic’ calcareous seabeds prevalent in offshore Australia. Suction caissons anchor floating facilities for future deep water oil and gas developments. Their application in calcareous seabeds raises significant challenges due to their complex geotechnical properties. This project will design secure anchoring systems for pushing floating platforms past the current 340 metre water depth limitation, potentially unlocking Australia’s inaccessible gas reserves and creating international leadership in offshore geotechnics and engineering. The University of Western Australia $239,000 3
Professor Ryan Lowe; Dr Marco Ghisalberti; Professor Heidi Nepf; Professor Matthew Reidenbach This project aims to understand and predict the mobilisation of sediment, and the rates and modes of sediment transport. Sediment dynamics control the health and productivity of some of the world’s most valuable marine ecosystems, including seagrass meadows and coral reefs. However, the theory and predictive models needed to quantitatively understand sediment transport over the large bottom roughness in these ecosystems has proven elusive. This project will integrate comprehensive laboratory and field programmes to develop predictive models of these sediment dynamics, which should help better understand, manage and protect these critical ecosystems and their services. The University of Western Australia $285,000 3
Associate Professor Joseph Tomkins This project aims to study the evolution of anisogamy, which defines males and females by the size of their gametes – females’ large eggs and males’ small sperm. Most multicellular organisms have different sized gametes, and this size difference has affected the evolution of life on the planet. Theoretical arguments about why two sexes are ubiquitous have not been tested empirically, mainly because of technical difficulties in experimentally generating different sized gametes. This project will use algae and cell sorting technology to test this. The expected outcome is a greater understanding of how and why the sexes evolved, as well as developing biofuel production methods by paving the way for improvements in algal productivity. The University of Western Australia $400,000 3
Associate Professor Thomas Wernberg; Dr Adriana Verges; Professor Peter Steinberg Global threats to kelp forests from heatwaves, herbivores and diseases. This project aims to understand the mechanisms behind climate-mediated declines in kelp. Ocean warming causes the collapse of valuable temperate kelp forests globally and on both sides of Australia, but it is unknown if this is because of direct physiological effects from temperature or the indirect effects of changes in species interactions. This project will compare the direct effects of marine heatwaves to the indirect effects of range-shifting tropical herbivores and pathogens for the kelp forests of the Great Southern Reef, one of Australia’s largest coastal ecosystems. This project will generate knowledge underpinning adaptation strategies for these critical ecosystems, and could enhance the capacity to respond to degradation of these natural assets. The University of Western Australia $385,000 3
Funded Projects – Discovery Early Career Researcher Award 2017 round 1


The Australian Government has announced 200 new research grants under the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award scheme for 2017.

A total of $71.7 million has been awarded in this 2017 round. For full outcome data view the Funding Announcements web page.


Project Summary

Administering Organisation

Total Project Funding

Project Duration in years

Dr Ana Martins Sequeira

This project aims to apply analyses from big data approaches to reveal movement patterns at unprecedented scales. Environmental legislation dictates that industries (e.g. oil and gas) reduce their effect on marine megafauna such as sharks, whales, or turtles. However, the extent of their effect is unknown, due to limited understanding of these animals’ movements. With large satellite tracking datasets now available, the challenge is to develop a synthetic analytical approach to identify scaling laws and to understand global drivers of marine megafauna movement. Findings are expected to improve the ability to sustainably exploit marine resources while conserving biodiversity.

The University of Western Australia



Dr Oscar Serrano Gras

This project aims to understand how humans and nature affect coastal ecosystems. Globally, billions of dollars are spent on understanding ecosystem services and responses to human and natural pressures, but contemporary datasets’ short time-span makes them inadequate, since ecosystems change at multiple spatial and temporal scales. This project will use seagrass archives to reconstruct the history of coastal ecosystems over millennia, identifying baseline conditions, the time-course of ecological change, cycles and thresholds of ecosystem dynamics driven by human and natural forces, and determining their role as biogeochemical sinks. Intended outcomes are to manage ecological change and remove constraints on sustainable coastal development.

Edith Cowan University




Funded Projects – Linkage Projects 2016 round


The Australian Government has announced 231 new research grants under the Linkage Projects scheme for 2016.

A total of $81.2 million has been awarded in this 2016 round. For full outcome data view the Funding Announcements web page.



Project Summary

Partner Organisations

Administering Organisation

Total Project Funding

Project Duration in years

Professor Michael Bunce; Professor Euan Harvey; Dr Michael Stat; Dr Joseph DiBattista; Dr Stephen Newman; Professor Marcus Gilbert

This project aims to develop new environmental DNA (eDNA)-based methods of managing humanity’s impact on valuable marine resources. eDNA preserved in seawater provides a lens to study and monitor marine biota and ecosystems. This project will work with fisheries managers and the environmental consulting sector, and focus on sites in the Kimberley, Cocos-Keeling Islands, Fremantle and Deep-sea oil/gas sites to demonstrate the value of eDNA methods in best-practice monitoring. A multi-proxy toolkit (including eDNA) that can audit and baseline marine biota could make balancing conservation and sustainable exploitation achievable. Anticipated outcomes are improved management and monitoring of fisheries, ports and offshore oil/gas sites.


Curtin University of Technology



Professor Lorenzo Faraone; Dr Buddhika Silva; Associate Professor Jarek Antoszewski; Dr Mariusz Martyniuk; Associate Professor Adrian Keating; Professor John Dell; Dr Sanchitha Fernando; Dr Adam Dickson

This project aims to investigate techniques and materials for building optical spectrometers based on micromachines, usable in portable ground-based and drone-mounted applications in remote environments. Optical spectroscopy is now an accepted technique for materials detection and analysis. The advent of low-cost drone aircraft makes the potential applications of spectroscopy in an imaging form immense. The project expects the resulting low-cost and highly portable technology will transform Australian industry, including securing Australia’s food supply by improving farming practices, aiding mineral exploration, and enhancing capabilities for monitoring Australia’s coastline.


The University of Western Australia



Professor Gary Kendrick; Professor Kingsley Dixon; Professor Robert Orth

This project aims to explore a demographic approach for seed-based restoration of seagrasses. Sustainable strategies are needed to restore the structure and function of seagrass ecosystems. Although seed-based restoration has been successfully used for decades in terrestrial ecosystems, failures in seagrass restoration are common because the science of seed-based restoration is grossly underdeveloped, and transitions from dispersed seed, seedling, recruiting juvenile to reproductive adult in seagrasses are poorly understood. Recent demographic approaches in terrestrial vegetation restoration identify transitions most limiting to recruitment and successful establishment. Anticipated outcomes are successful seed-based restoration of seagrasses.


The University of Western Australia




Knowledge exchange lessons learned from Ningaloo Research Program

Dr Chris Cvitanovic, University of Tasmania

The integration of scientific research into conservation decision-making processes remains a significant challenge. There is very little empirically grounded guidance to help scientists and decision-makers design and implement research programs that facilitate knowledge exchange and evidence-based decision-making. Chris Cvitanovic outlines how recent research has sought to address this problem, and in doing so established a set of key design principles to guide the development and implementation of future research programs that can be applied across all disciplines.

Successfully responding to modern day conservation challenges requires knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers to enable learning and evidence-based decision-making. In recognition of the need to link conservation science to action, an emergent body of literature has sought to identify and overcome the barriers impeding knowledge exchange, so as to devise and implement new strategies to support evidence-based decision-making.

However, despite these efforts, recent evidence suggests that the integration of science into conservation decision-making processes remains a significant challenge. This is because while our conceptual understanding of knowledge exchange has advanced, there remains very little empirically grounded guidance to help scientists and decision-makers design and implement research programmes that actively facilitate knowledge exchange and evidence-based decision-making.

two-waysImage credit: Two Way by oysh9. This work is licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.


To address this problem, our research team undertook an extensive evaluation of the Ningaloo Research Program (NRP). Commencing in 2006, the NRP was an intense program of marine research (valued at AUD$36m of funding) explicitly designed to generate new knowledge for the Ningaloo region in north-western Australia that would enable conservation practitioners to make more informed decisions about the management of Ningaloo Marine Park and its surrounding area ahead of its nomination as a World Heritage Area in 2011. Through this evaluation we elucidated the perspectives and experiences of all program participants to provide a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the factors that influenced knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers, from which we generated a set of key design principles to guide the development and implementation of future research programs to enhance the related decision-making processes.

Principles for designing research programs that facilitate knowledge exchange

The guiding principles generated from our study can be mapped to the three stages of scientific research programs: the development and design phase; the implementation phase; and the period following the conclusion of the research (Figure 1). Of these, the design and development phase was identified by participants as the most important for ensuring the success of knowledge exchange; with the co-development of research questions being identified as a particularly critical factor. Our findings also stressed the importance of identifying and articulating all relevant stakeholders and end-users as early as possible in a research program, so as to incorporate all of their different values and interests at the outset, and to ensure that the research that is done is the research that is needed. Furthermore, we found that the design phase should include people with expertise in knowledge exchange, as well as social scientists who can help to understand the social networks and patterns of influence among program participants (e.g. through stakeholder mapping approaches).

cvitanovic-figure-1Figure 1. Key principles in each of three research phases for improving knowledge exchange among conservation scientists and decision-makers. Source: Cvitanovic et al, (2016). From science to action: Principles for undertaking environmental research that enables knowledge exchange and evidence-based decision-making, Journal of Environmental Management. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.


To facilitate knowledge exchange during the implementation of research programs we identified the potential benefits of utilising a dedicated knowledge broker throughout the life of the program, who was solely responsible for building networks among the scientists and decision-makers and facilitating the exchange of knowledge among the groups. Our results suggest that to be most effective knowledge brokers should be embedded within the management agency, be politically astute, and have strong communication skills with the ability to cultivate expansive and productive social networks.

Our results also emphasised the need for participatory research approaches during the implementation phase (e.g. knowledge co-production). Doing so ensures that decision-makers have a stronger understanding of the research content, develop a strong sense of ownership of it, and feel more confident communicating about it more broadly within their organisation.

Furthermore, to improve knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers during the implementation phase of research programs, we identified the need to focus on broader community engagement. While it was noted that this does not directly influence knowledge exchange processes per se, decision-makers in our study discussed how community engagement in science can lead to the establishment of social licence and acceptance of management actions, thus empowering them to use the new knowledge to inform decision-making processes.

Finally, our results show that knowledge exchange strategies are also needed for the period following the completion of research programs. In particular, we identified the need for effective knowledge management systems within decision-making agencies to ensure that knowledge remains discoverable, accessible and understandable to decision-makers. This requires that knowledge management systems be maintained and updated as new scientific knowledge is generated.  To complement knowledge management systems, we also identified the need for a mechanism to remain in place that proactively links science to decision-making, which could be achieved through the continued involvement of a knowledge broker following the completion of a research program.


Our study is among the first to evaluate knowledge exchange activities associated with conservation research programs, allowing us to generate empirically grounded guidance to help scientists and decision-makers design and implement research programs that actively facilitate knowledge exchange and evidence-based decision-making. While the implementation of some of the structures outlined here are large in scale and potentially costly, doing so will improve knowledge exchange among conservations scientists and decision-makers, thus building capacity for evidence-based decision-making and increasing society’s ability to respond to modern day conservation challenges.

This blog post is based on the author’s co-written article, ‘From science to action: Principles for undertaking environmental research that enables knowledge exchange and evidence-based decision-making’, published in the Journal of Environmental Management.

This article was originally published by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Read the original article.

About the author

Dr Chris Cvitanovic is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania, Australia, specialising in knowledge exchange, stakeholder engagement and the governance of marine resources. In doing so Chris draws on almost ten years of experience working at the interface of science and policy for the Australian Government Department of Environment, and then as a Knowledge Broker in CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship. Find Chris on twitter via @ChrisCvitanovic or get in touch via email: Christopher.cvitanovic@utas.edu.au.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

What’s on the menu for flatback turtles?

In partnership with the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife (DePaW), Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) scientists on the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) vessel RV Solander recently spent 15 days in the field collecting data to help determine what flatback sea turtles in north-western Australia eat.



Kimberley Marine Research Program

The third global bleaching event took its toll on Western Australia’s super-corals

Verena Schoepf, University of Western Australia

Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef has suffered through the worst bleaching event in its history, part of the world’s third mass bleaching event.

However, coral reefs from the other side of the continent have also experienced unprecedented bleaching and coral death. This is bad news because the unique coral reefs of Western Australia’s northwest are home to some of the toughest coral in the world.

Western Australia’s unique coral reefs

Although much less well-known, coral reefs in Western Australia are highly diverse. They include, for example, Australia’s largest fringing reef, the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef, as well as Australia’s largest inshore reef, Montgomery Reef which covers 380 square kilometres.

WA’s remote Kimberley region also features “super-corals” – corals that have adapted to a naturally extreme environment where tidal swings can be up 10m. These corals can therefore tolerate exposure to the air during low tide as well as extreme daily temperature swings.

My past research has shown that these naturally extreme conditions increase the heat tolerance of Kimberley corals but that they are nevertheless not immune to bleaching when water temperatures are unusually hot for too long.

Previously I had put these super-corals in tanks and subjected them to a three-week heatwave to see how they would respond, but I always wondered how they would cope in the wild where such events typically unfold over longer timescales. Unfortunately, I did not have to wait long to find out.

Kimberley reef exposed at low tide before… Verena Schoepf, Author provided
….and during the bleaching. Morane Le Nohaic, Author provided

The hottest years on record

2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 will likely be hotter still. This has caused an unprecedented global coral reef crisis. Although global coral bleaching events already occurred in 1998 and 2010, this third global bleaching event is the longest on record and still ongoing.

Sadly, in WA the Kimberley region was hit the hardest. As part of Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, colleagues and I conducted extensive monitoring before, during and after the predicted bleaching event along the entire WA coastline. In the southern Kimberley, we also carried out aerial surveys to assess the situation on a regional level.

Aerial view of a bleached inshore Kimberley reef in April 2016. Claire Ross and Steeve Comeau, Author provided

The severity and scale of bleaching that we observed in April was devastating. Almost all inshore Kimberley reefs that we surveyed had about 50% bleaching, including Montgomery Reef. Researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that offshore Kimberley reefs such as Scott Reef fared even worse, with 60-90% bleaching in shallow lagoon waters.

Many corals had already died from the severe bleaching in April, but the final death toll has only been revealed during visits to the Kimberley last month. Vast areas of coral reef are now dead and overgrown with algae, both at the inshore and offshore Kimberley reefs.

According to local Indigenous Rangers and Traditional Owners who assisted in the research, this appears to be unprecedented. Such events had never previously been described in their rich local history of the coastal environment.

Bleached staghorn coral on inshore Kimberley reefs in April 2016. Verena Schoepf
Dead staghorn coral on the same reefs in October 2016. Verena Schoepf

Some good news

There was nevertheless some good news. Corals living in intertidal areas, where they regularly experience exposure to air, stagnant water, and extreme temperature fluctuations, bleached less than corals from below the low-tide mark, where conditions are far more moderate. And importantly, the majority of intertidal corals were able to fully recover within a few months.

Similarly, researchers from the Western Australian Museum and Curtin University confirmed last month that intertidal coral reefs in the central Kimberley (Bonaparte Archipelago) were in great condition.

Overall, these observations confirm the findings from my past research which showed that highly-variable, extreme temperature environments can boost the bleaching resistance of corals.

It is also important to note that the 2016 severe bleaching event in WA was restricted to the Kimberley region. Ningaloo Reef as well as coral reefs in the Pilbara and the Abrolhos Islands all escaped the bleaching. This is great news because some of these locations are still recovering from major bleaching in 2010-11 and 2013.

Healthy coral at Ningaloo Reef in 2016. Morane Le Nohaic

The future of WA’s coral reefs

Although it is now clear that WA’s coral reefs are at risk of bleaching during both El Niño (as in 2016) and La Niña years (as in 2010-11), they have some advantages over other reefs that may hopefully allow them to recover from bleaching more quickly and stay healthy in the long term.

For example, most of WA’s coral reefs are located far away from major population centres and are thus less affected by environmental threats such as poor water quality (though other threats such as oil and gas exploration do exist). We also know that their isolation, particularly in the case of offshore reefs, helped them recover from previous mass bleaching events.

Finally, it is critical that we identify coral populations worldwide that are already naturally adapted to higher temperatures and have a greater bleaching resistance, such as the Kimberley corals.

These super-corals, while not immune to climate change, should be a priority for research into the limits of coral tolerance, as well as conservation efforts.

The Conversation

Verena Schoepf, Research Associate, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

APPEA launches important environmental metadata sharing collaboration

A pilot project that generated the first snapshot of combined environmental data collected off the northwest coast has led to the sharing of metadata from many industry and publicly funded studies in Western Australia.

The Industry-Government Environmental Meta-database (IGEM) – a collaboration between the oil and gas industry, government agencies, research organisations and the Western Australian Marine Science Organisation (WAMSI) – was officially launched by the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) at its Health, Safety and Environment Forum in Perth on 26th October.


Effects of dredging on filter feeder communities, with a focus on sponges

Sponges can filter up to 50,000 times their own volume of water in a day, making them an important link between the water column and seabed. They serve as habitat to other marine organisms and play an important role in the cycling of nutrients, making them a critical part of the marine ecosystem. So, understanding whether they can survive in turbid water, and being covered in sediment from dredging operations are important questions scientists are asking.

A report released by the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) evaluated sponge responses to acute and chronic sediment stress included elevated respiration, reduced or arrested pumping, pore closure, tissue retraction and changes in sponge morphology. Other responses included bleaching, disease and death. However, not all of these responses occurred in all species examined.

More than 900 articles were reviewed including those in peer-reviewed journals, grey literature, technical reports and theses for a Dredging Science Node project to define the thresholds and indicators of filter feeder responses to dredging-related pressures.

From an ecological perspective, turbidity and sedimentation were likely to alter the structure of filter feeding communities by reducing fitness and survival. There are, however, factors other than dredging (e.g. river inputs, cyclones) which have the potential to re-suspend sediment and increase turbidity.

There are sponges that are well adapt to living in turbid environments and may continue to survive at dredging sites. These include endopsammic sponges (living partially buried within sediments), fast growing species that are able to change their morphology (highly plastic), and species with erect growth forms. Sediment tolerance may also be related to species that are more capable of keeping their surfaces sediment-free.

Whilst little is known of responses to cumulative pressures, sponge vulnerability was found likely to be exacerbated during certain periods, e.g. when struggling to satisfy high energy demand for growth or reproduction, during thermal stress events or after tissue damage from e.g. spongivory, storms or reduced salinity.

The review found that sediment associated with dredging activity can affect the physiology of filter feeders in very complex ways, which are not yet adequately understood.

The high diversity and abundance of filter feeder communities in Australia, especially in Western Australia, combined with the lack of knowledge about their biology suggests two critical information needs:

  1. experimental research to improve the understanding of the ecophysiology of filter feeders and determine pressure:response relationships to dredging pressures; and
  2. identification of the dominant and habitat forming filter feeder species and their local and regional significance at possible future dredging locations.

This review also identified potentially sensitive sponge taxa, and summarised stress responses relevant to dredging-related pressures, which are necessary for the monitoring and management of this biodiversity resource.



The Western Australian Marine Science Institution is delivering one of the largest single-issue marine research programs in Australia. It will vastly improve the planning and regulation of major dredging operations in our precious marine environment.

This world-class marine research is enhancing capacity within government and the private sector to predict and manage the environmental impacts of dredging in Western Australia. The outcomes will increase the confidence, timeliness and efficiency of the assessment, approval and regulatory processes associated with dredging projects.

The WAMSI Dredging Science Node is made possible through $9.5 million invested by Woodside, Chevron and BHP as environmental offsets. A further $9.5 million has been co-invested by the WAMSI Joint Venture partners, adding significantly more value to this initial industry investment. The node is also supported through critical data provided by Chevron, Woodside and Rio Tinto Iron Ore.


Dredging Science

The rise and fall of seagrasses in the Pilbara

By Jo Myers & Mat Vanderklift (CSIRO)

Dredging associated with large port developments can reduce the light required for seagrass photosynthesis and smother their growth. This can be caused by large plumes of sediment which some seagrasses are very sensitive to (along with natural disturbances such as cyclones), while others have the capacity to cope, or to recover quickly.

Relatively little is known about normal patterns in seagrass composition, abundance and distribution in north-western Australia, including whether they have natural cycles in abundance across seasons. Knowing more about seagrass ecosystems is important for designing or interpreting studies that aim to detect potential dredging-related impacts on seagrass, and when making predictions about whether they can recover from disturbances, and if so, how quickly.

Results from research on seagrasses in the Pilbara, funded by the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) Dredging Science Node, has found that the most common species of seagrass in the region have similar life histories (they tend to be relatively good at colonising new space) but tend to have different patterns of spatial and temporal variation in abundance and reproduction. This creates challenges for people who assess environmental approvals, because it means that the temporal dynamics of seagrasses in the Pilbara might be less predictable than those of seagrasses in adjacent regions (the Kimberley and the Gascoyne). Monitoring programs that are established to detect potential changes in abundance will need to ensure that their design accommodates this variability.

WAMSI Scientist monitoring recovery of seagrass from cleared experimental plots
(Photo: Paul Lavery, ECU)

Another key finding from the research, led by CSIRO and Edith Cowan University, was the main mechanisms by which seagrasses recover after disturbance. In tropical regions, such as northwest Australia, small-leaved species of seagrasses are often characterised by natural patterns of loss and recovery that can span months or years. Vegetative growth (extension of rhizomes by remaining plants) accounts for most recovery, though recovery from seeds has also been recorded. Understanding which of these mechanisms dominates at a particular location is important for predicting the potential for seagrasses to recover after loss or reduction in abundance.

A field experiment undertaken at Thevenard Island during 2014 and 2015 involved clearing areas of seagrass and the placement of partial and full barriers around the cleared areas — these barriers were designed to disentangle vegetative growth from regeneration from seeds. The experiment showed that the primary mechanism for recovery of cleared areas was vegetative growth.

Halophila ovalis seagrass. Tropical seagrasses are important habitats for marine turtles including the loggerhead turtle that feeds on fauna associated with seagrass beds such as ascidians, clams, mussels and other invertebrates (Photo: Mat Vanderklift, CSIRO)

The main seagrass species at the study site was Halophila ovalis, which is also the most widespread species in the Pilbara. One key implication of this finding is that recovery from disturbances that remove seagrass from relatively small areas should occur within months, provided that sufficient meadow remains for rhizomes to colonise from. When seagrass loss occurs over a larger area, recovery might rely more heavily on immigration of plant fragments or seeds from distant sites, which will take much longer.


For further information about WAMSI and the Dredge Science Node, including access to the final reports (Theme 5.3 and Theme 5.4) see wamsi.org.au/dredging-science-node

The WAMSI Dredging Science Node is made possible through $9.5 million invested by Woodside, Chevron and BHP as environmental offsets. A further $9.5 million has been co-invested by the WAMSI Joint Venture partners, adding significantly more value to this initial industry investment. The node is also supported through critical data provided by Chevron, Woodside and Rio Tinto Iron Ore.


Dredging Science

Kimberley dolphin project covers new ground

By Dr Alex Brown

WAMSI-supported researchers have been in the Cambridge Gulf and Prince Regent River working with local rangers to find out more about the distribution, abundance and population structure of the Australian snubfin (Orcaella heinsohni) and humpback (Sousa sahulensis) dolphins.

The Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins are found in coastal and estuarine waters across northern Australia and the aim of the Kimberley Marine Research Program’s dolphin project is to contribute data towards assessment of their conservation status.

The first trip saw researchers Dr. Alex Brown (Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit) and Dr. Simon Allen collaborate with the Balanggarra Rangers to perform a two-week survey in the Cambridge Gulf and adjacent coastal waters.

The aims were to:

  1. collect data on the relative abundance and genetic connectivity of coastal dolphins; and
  2. provide rangers with camera equipment and training in dolphin survey techniques – part of a project funded by the Commonwealth Government and WWF-Australia to support the capacity of Indigenous rangers across northern Australia to conduct dolphin research and monitoring.

Following a day of training presentations and exercises, the research team established a base camp at Lacrosse Island, 85 km north of Wyndham, providing good access to the remote waters at the top of the Cambridge Gulf. The support of Department of Parks and Wildlife’s utility vessel Joowinyin was essential to move food, fuel and equipment to the island.

A view of Turtle Bay and our camp from ‘Telstra Hill’. (Photo Alex Brown)


Using the ranger boat, the team covered a 476 km area, focusing on the northwest of the Gulf between the Lynne and Helby Rivers but also covering the open coast west to the Berkeley River, north along King Shoal and Medusa Bank, and east around Cape Domett.

Balanggarra Rangers, Wesley (left) and Wayne (centre left), assist with photo-identification alongside researcher Simon Allen (right) and skipper Andy Yardley (centre right). (Photo: Alex Brown)


Both species were encountered throughout the area surveyed, including the river mouth habitats, which they are known to often frequent, but also along less sheltered sections of open coast and where shallow waters extended further offshore.

Snubfin dolphins were sighted 22 times, while 18 schools of humpback dolphins were observed – providing ample opportunities for the Balanggarra Rangers to develop their data collection skills.

The survey team attempted to quantify the number of dolphins in the area by taking photographs of unique markings on their dorsal fins. However, many of the animals were too shy to be approached close enough for high-quality photos (< 50 m), and only one quarter of all dolphins approached could be properly recorded.

The boat-shy behaviour, which is not uncommon in these species, also limited the team’s success in using a darting system to obtaining tissue samples for genetic analyses – a single humpback dolphin sample being the total from the trip.

Snubfin dolphins (Photo: Pete O’Connor, Dambimangari Rangers)


On the second trip, Dr. Brown joined Parks and Wildlife and Dambimangari Rangers on PV Worndoom for an eight-day survey in Lalang-garram / Camden Sound Marine Park, focussing on the popular Prince Regent River.

Regular sightings of snubfin and humpback dolphins suggest this to be an important habit for these species – both of which are key indicators of marine park health under the management plan.

Photo-identification techniques were more successful in this area, and biopsy darting provided an additional two snubfin dolphin genetic samples.

With this initial survey complete, an ongoing monitoring program will be developed to allow park managers to monitor the status of tropical dolphin species in key parts of the park.

Overall, these data add to our understanding of the distribution and relative abundance of tropical inshore dolphins off northwest Australia, and provide comparisons to encounter rates at other studied sites in the western Kimberley.

The genetic samples will be analysed alongside others from the region, providing a starting point for further data collection and investigations of population connectivity in the Kimberley.


The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

Changes needed to sawfish barriers in Fitzroy River

At least two access ways through freshwater barriers need to be established for endangered freshwater sawfish (Pristis pristis) populations living in the north of Western Australia and other areas need to be monitored according to a new report by Murdoch University researchers.

The report1, funded by the Chevron Wheatstone project through the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) recommended fishways need to be constructed on the Camballin Barrage and the Myroodah Crossing on the Fitzroy River.

Camballin Barrage, Fitzroy River (Photo: David Morgan)


Sawfishes are a family of rays with a long, narrow, flattened rostrum, or nose extension, lined with sharp teeth. Some can grow up to seven metres in length. All of Australia’s species of sawfishes are listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Research has found their ranges have decreased by 30-80 per cent depending on the species as a result of habitat loss and overfishing2.

David Morgan holding a tagged Green Sawfish (Photo: Jeff Whitty)


In northern Western Australia, the Fitzroy river is arguably the most important nursery for freshwater sawfish and the Ashburton River estuary is currently the only identified pupping site and nursery for green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) in the world.

Freshwater Sawfish are born in estuaries before migrating upstream to spend their first four-five years of life in river systems. Locally they have been recorded up to 400 kilometres from the coast in the Fitzroy River. Upon nearing maturity they move back to coastal and marine waters.

Freshwater sawfish (Photo: David Morgan)


Dr David Morgan led the research to examine what prevents sawfish in northern Western Australia from being able to migrate. 

“The Barrage, on average (2002-2015), reduces the time that Freshwater Sawfish can move upstream by 184 days,” Dr Morgan said.

”Northern Australia represents one of the only remaining population strongholds for this sawfish and although recruitment is linked to river flood, there have been a number of years recently where recruitment has failed.

“The relatively pristine nature of large northern Australian rivers is essential for juvenile freshwater sawfish. We have some understanding of the importance of rivers such as the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley and the Daly River in the Top End. However, we know little about the adult population.

“There is considerable pressure to develop the freshwater resources of northern Australia, but proposals will firmly need to consider impacts on freshwater sawfish.

“Structures such as dams and barrages in rivers are barriers to sawfish migration, while dry season water extraction could reduce available river habitat. Connectivity from estuaries through to upstream reaches of rivers is essential for allowing the species to complete its lifecycle,” Dr Morgan said.


1Wheatstone Environmental Offsets: Barriers to sawfish migrations report

2.Dulvy, N. K., Davidson, L. N. K., Kyne, P. M., Simpfendorfer, C. A., Harrison, L. R., Carlson, J.K., and S. V. Fordham. 2016. Ghosts of the coast: global extinction risk and conservation of sawfishes. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 26:134-153.


Sawfish Project