Marine mapping for a North Kimberley Marine Park

Scientists on a mission to better understand the ecological biodiversity that thrives on the ocean floor in Australia’s remote northwest are about to head out on the fourth of five field trips, this time to uncover what lives in the area of the proposed North Kimberley Marine Park.

The results will be added to the data collected from the recent field trip aboard RV Solander to the islands of the Bonaparte Archipelago to investigate the coral reefs, sponges and other marine life inhabiting this remote area of the Kimberley.

The Solander voyages include researchers from AIMS, the Western Australian Museum, CSIRO and Curtin University.

The surveys focus on sampling in southern, central and northern sections of the Greater Kimberley proposed Marine Park. Researchers map the sea floor using multi-beam sonar technology, examine the distribution of habitats using towed video, make measurements of the water conditions (light penetration levels; temperature; salinity levels) and tidal ranges, and collect representative samples of the benthic flora and fauna using an epibenthic sled.

Video of sponge gardens at Nick’s Rock.

The current ship based surveys have a focus on the deeper areas, from around 10m below low tide, where little information is available from previous Kimberley studies.

The project anticipates that complimentary work will also be conducted to build on existing information of nearshore shallow and intertidal habitats.

Ultimately all available data will be drawn together to provide an overview of the large scale trends in habitats along the Kimberley and highlight the principle factors determining the presence or absence of key biota.

The locations for investigation have been selected with the WA marine park initiatives in mind, in particular Lalang-garram/Camden Sound Marine Park and the proposed North Kimberley Marine Park in the Cape Bougainville-Cape Londonderry region.

Scientists on the voyage collect benthic specimens to characterise the marine biodiversity of the area and create a reference collection at the WA Museum. This sampling and identification process will help the scientists determine what species of animals and plants occur there and what types of habitats each species is associated with.

What does a coral reef sound like?

“The Kimberley is an increasingly active, multiple-use marine region, with a growing need for accessible environmental and socio-economic information,” WAMSI Project leader, Dr Andrew Heyward (AIMS) said. “These are voyages of discovery, which is inherently exciting for the scientists. We expect the project will reveal much about life on the seabed in this region and make a useful contribution to planning and management.”

“The Kimberley region has a vast array of habitat types with a stunning array of biodiversity, much of which has not been studied or collected before,” CSIRO scientist Dr John Keesing said. “The macro tidal range and working in previously unchartered waters makes surveys of this type particularly challenging, but also exciting and rewarding in terms of the scientific discoveries waiting to be made.”

Work is now underway on the analysis of species assemblages, biomass and abundance in relation to habitat types encountered during the surveys.

Related Links:
Marji Puotinen (AIMS) captured the daily highlights of the voyage on the Northwest Atlas blog

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

Providing an evidence base to support decommissioning of offshore infrastructure

When an oil and gas project completes, the infrastructure that was installed on the seafloor needs to be managed properly. Decommissioning this infrastructure is very expensive, but companies do it to leave the site in good order as the company moves on.

There are many strategies that can be employed to decommission offshore infrastructure from removal of all infrastructure, through to minimal removal required to make safe and environmentally acceptable. 

However, different stakeholders have different views on how far decommissioning should go. Oil and gas companies want to meet community expectations while minimising costs, recreational fishers like infrastructure to be left as it creates new environments and can enhance fish stocks, some commercial fishers want it removed as it can damage their fishing equipment and environmental groups want to be absolutely sure the environment is protected.

”Unfortunately we don’t have a clear and broadly accepted understanding of what the effects of different decommissioning strategies are in our Western Australian marine environment,” CEO of the Western Australian Fishing Industry Council John Harrison said. “This means everyone reverts to their own perspectives and opinions and can lead to conflict between sectors, to difficulties in regulation and policy, and in companies adopting precautionary strategies that may not be the most effective. So we want to work together to come up with a shared position we can all agree with.”

At the Premier of Western Australia’s Marine Science Round-table meetings, senior representatives of the interested sectors suggested that a collaborative project would make business sense to all parties to better inform regulatory policy and operational management of decommissioning.

 “The Blueprint Initiative has been an excellent process to allow the different sectors that share the ocean to work together on common issues,” Bruce Lake Chairman of APPEA and a member of the round-table said. “Decommissioning is clearly one of those issues that is imminent and is also important to many sectors so it’s a great exemplar project for this collaboration with real value to all.  APPEA is pleased to be able to support this multi-sector approach and particularly to have WAMSI run the project to ensure the outputs are genuinely independent.”

APPEA, RecFishWest, Western Australian Fishing Industry Council, National Energy and Resources Australia, along with NOPSEMA, the Office of the EPA, and Department of Mines and Petroleum and Department of Fisheries are supporting and advising the independent WAMSI project.

“We are also discussing with some other key stakeholder groups to ensure proper representation across the different views,” Patrick Seares CEO said.

The six month project is focussed on ensuring all stakeholders are involved in the conversation about decommissioning through workshops and other forums to understand and document everyone’s issues.  A review of global knowledge and experiences against those questions will then be completed before a consultative approach to deciding what is reasonable to adopt right now, and what are the knowledge gaps we need to do further work in.

“The projects follows in line with the approach tested successfully during the establishment of the WAMSI Dredging Node,” Patrick Seares said. “We will take the time to properly bed down the actual, instead of perceived, questions that need answering before planning a science program. This ensures that science, if required, is targeted and leads directly to the development of guidance that addresses management priorities.” 

Kimberley dolphins vulnerable to human activity.

By Natalie Jones, ABC

Dolphins in Western Australia’s Kimberley are heavily reliant on their specific habitats and “quite vulnerable” to human activity, researchers have said.

The researchers published the findings of a four-year study which provides the first estimates of the abundance of three shallow, inshore species of dolphin — the Australian snubfin, the Australian humpback and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin.

The Murdoch University team travelled to five remote locations in the Kimberley to collect data, counting dolphins and mapping the sightings.

They focused mostly on the West Kimberley, visiting Roebuck Bay, Beagle Bay, Cygnet Bay and Cone Bay, but also took in the Inner Cambridge Gulf in the region’s east.

“The motivation for this research was that these animals, from what we know elsewhere in Australia, tend to occur in quite small populations that really depend on the near-shore environment,” lead researcher Alexander Brown said.

ABC TV News story by reporter Natalie Jones

“So that makes them quite vulnerable to human activity that occurs in these habitats.

“Particularly in the Kimberley region, we really had no idea of how many of these species were out there and what key areas there might be.”

The researchers found there was a high degree of population variance between the sites.

“We could go just 100 kilometres up the coast and we’d see quite a change in the dominance of a species over another,” Mr Brown said.

He found that snubfin dolphins were most abundant at Roebuck Bay, and bottlenose dolphins were most abundant at Beagle Bay on the west side of the Dampier Peninsula.
Boosting dolphin conservation

Mr Brown said the team thought each species favoured some habitats over others, and said there may also be some competition between species.

“Without this abundance of data it makes it very difficult to assess the conservation status of the species, to determine if they should qualify as threatened species or otherwise, and it’s very difficult to determine appropriate conservation and management measures,” he said.

Snubfin and humpback dolphins are unique to the waters off northern Australia and Southern New Guinea, but little is known about the species in the tropical north.

The research comes as the State and Federal Governments plan and gazette several marine parks across the Kimberley coast.

Mr Brown — a Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU) PhD student who partnered with Lars Bejder, Kenneth Pollock and Simon Allen on the study — said his team’s work could help manage those areas.
Snubfin dolphins swimming off the Kimberley coast.

Snubfin dolphins (Jenny Smith, MUCRU)

He also warned the three species of dolphin would be particularly vulnerable to any new development.

“If any coastal development or potentially threatening activity is likely to take place, site-specific surveys need to be conducted in order to ascertain if the area’s of particular importance for any one or all three of these species,” he said.

“We also really recommend building upon these abundance estimates in the future by establishing more long-term monitoring programs, in order to determine if populations are stable, increasing or in decline.”

Existing threats to dolphins remain largely unknown, as the study surveyed just six per cent of the Kimberley’s coastline.

The MUCRU research was funded by the Federal Government’s Australian Marine Mammal Centre, WWF Australia and the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s Kimberley Marine Research Program.

Related Links:

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

Mapping public values and preferences for Marine Protected Areas

One of the first studies to examine social values to be considered in management planning for Marine Protected Areas has highlighted the similarity and diversity among individuals when weighing the importance of environmental, economic, and social interests for proposed marine reserves in the Kimberley region.

The results of the WAMSI-supported study was recently published in Applied Geography. The study used an internet-based mapping method called public participation geographic information systems (PPGIS) and volunteered geographic information (VGI) to collect spatial information from a broad cross-section of the general public (non-experts).  Individuals were invited to identify and map place values (for example, scenic and recreation values) and management preferences (for example, places that should receive greater environmental protection or places that are acceptable for resource development). Both residents and non-residents of the Kimberley region were invited to map their values and preferences with over 500 individuals participating.   

Participants were classified into different “stakeholder” groups based on who they identify with, their future interests in the region, and their personal preferences for economic development versus environmental protection. For example, stakeholder groups included residents, visitors, Aboriginal Traditional Owners, oil/gas industry, commercial fishers, tourism operators, government, and non-government organizations.

The results showed that people mapped values and preferences generally consistent with their stakeholder identity. For example, NGOs mapped more conservation preferences while oil/gas stakeholders mapped more oil/gas development preferences in the region. However, conservation-related values and preferences dominated the mapped results in all proposed marine reserves.    

Lead author Professor Greg Brown from the University of Queensland said the results show the importance of engaging broad social interests in spatial mapping when developing management plans and policies for Marine Protected Areas. 

“There is an assumption that conservation and development stakeholder interests will disagree on how to manage the marine environment,”Professor Brown said. “But place-based mapping allows stakeholders to identify specific areas of agreement/disagreement. Our participatory mapping results showed consensus for conservation in the five MPA areas in the study region leading to win-win outcomes.”

The study demonstrates that while differences in stakeholder interests are real and most be accounted for in MPA planning and management, public participatory processes that include spatial mapping of values and preferences can find the “middle-ground” between government-led and community-based approaches that result in cost-effective conservation outcomes. 

The following website shows the distribution of the more than 27,000 values and preferences mapped in the Kimberley region by study participants:

Published Article: Brown G, Strickland-Munro J, Kobryn H, Moore S (Dec 2015) Stakeholder analysis for marine conservation planning using public participation GIS Applied Geography doi:10.1016/j.apgeog.2015.12.004

Kimberley marine parks (current and proposed) (Source: Geoscience Australia 2014, Department of Parks and Wildlife).

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

Human use study confirms Kimberley’s top tourist cruise destinations

As part a broader WAMSI research project examining human use off the Western Kimberley coast, Professor Lynnath Beckley and her team from Murdoch University have estimated visitation by expedition cruise vessels using cruise itineraries advertised online.

Cruise visits

The study found that there were 18 vessels (excluding vessels engaged in fishing tours) advertising Kimberley cruise itineraries in 2013 indicating relatively little change since a 2008 study (Sherrer at al.).  The cruises take place mainly from April to September between Broome and Wyndham. Just over half of these vessels carried less than 20 passengers but the two largest accommodated more than 100 passengers.

In total, 114 sites were listed in the itineraries of cruise vessels in the Kimberley in 2013, up from 96 sites in 2008. Thirty per cent of the sites, however, were visited less than 20 times during the season and only by smaller vessels.

The most popular places to visit by cruise vessel, excluding the port of Broome, were Montgomery Reef (275 vessels visits with 7382 passengers), Horizontal Falls (260 vessel visits with 7068 passengers), Raft Point (250 vessel visits with 6786 passengers), Prince Regent River (235 vessel visits with 6308 passengers), Talbot Bay (211 vessel visits with 6176 passengers) and King George Falls (115 vessel visits with 5234 passengers). These estimates did not include crew, were based on the assumption that all vessels operated at full occupancy and did not take into account whether passengers actually went ashore at the site or not.

Estimated cumulative number of visits by cruise vessel passengers at the major sites along the Kimberley coast during 2013. Note that numbers assume full occupancy of the vessels, exclude crew members and do not imply that all passengers go ashore. The figure only includes sites with >3000 potential visitors.


Most advertised activities included boat/tender excursions, swimming and walking. At Montgomery Reef cruises offer tender excursions to witness the water cascading off the reef on a falling tide and a few offer opportunities for reef walking, snorkelling and fishing at this site.

Cumulative frequency of times activities appeared in the advertised itineraries of all schedules cruises in the Kimberley during 2013.

Boat cruises to the scenic Horizontal Falls are also common on cruise itineraries, with some vessels also offering speed boat rides through the falls.

At Raft Point, the majority of visiting vessels use tenders to transfer passengers to shore where they are guided on a short walk to a secluded Aboriginal rock art gallery.

Prince Regent River is most often mentioned in itineraries as a waterway through which vessels transit on their way to King Cascades waterfall, though approximately half of the vessels visiting the area also offer passengers the chance to do some fishing in the river.

Implications for Marine Park Management

Of the sites estimated to have the highest number of tourists by cruise vessel, Montgomery Reef and Prince Regent River are located in the Lalang-garram Camden Sound Marine Park. Horizontal Falls, Talbot Bay and Raft Point are within the designated Horizontal Falls Marine Park.

“The estimates of total potential visitors within the new Kimberley parks provide managers and Traditional Owners, particularly the Dambimangari people, with an indication of where any environmental or cultural impacts would be more likely to occur,” Professor Beckley said.

Professor Beckley recommended that the number and size of cruise vessels operating in the Kimberley should be monitored annually as more large vessels with increased passenger capacities could rapidly change visitation patterns to the marine parks and adjacent coastal sites.

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

Beaches viewed from above helping to tell Kimberley turtle story

More than 40,000 aerial photographs of the Kimberley coast have been taken and scrutinised for signs of nesting turtles as part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) turtle research project.

Information about adult females and turtle hatchling numbers and species gleaned from tracks seen in the images of more than 2500 islands and 1300 mainland beaches is now being verified through a process of ‘ground truthing’.

The aerial and ground surveys are part of the distribution and abundance facet of the WAMSI Kimberley Research Program’s sea turtle project that aims to identify when and where turtles nest, develop climate change models to predict how turtles might be impacted and work out relationships between different turtle nesting groups.

Aerial view of the winter-nesting flatback turtle rookery at Cape Domett, north of Kununurra, showing turtle tracks and a lurking crocodile. (DPaW)

Department of Parks and Wildlife senior research scientist Dr Tony Tucker said more than 90 per cent of the Kimberley coastline’s available turtle nesting habitat was accessible only by foot, boat or helicopter posing significant challenges for field surveys.

“The aerial images taken during the summer and winter surveys in 2014 have helped identify hotspots of relative density for follow-up by ground survey,” he said.

The ground truthing phase of the project, started during 2015, will continue this year, as will work on the other facets of the project.

Dr Tucker said, during the ground surveys, tissue samples had been collected from more than 700 turtles, including a rare WA sample from an olive ridley turtle, and by the end of the year the number of samples could be close to 1000.

“The genetic analysis will help us work out the relationships between groups of nesting turtles and define breeding units for the four predominant nesting species,” he said.

“We need to know what are the breeding groups for summer and winter-nesting flatback, green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles to protect and conserve these species through effective strategic management of habitats.”

Dr Tucker said the sea turtle project team was working with 10 different Traditional Owner groups who had assisted in the ground surveys and were helping to establish how traditional and scientific knowledge complemented each other.

Partners in the WAMSI Kimberley sea turtle project include Parks and Wildlife, The University of Western Australia, CSIRO, Griffith University and Pendoley Environmental. The project will provide a knowledge base for future monitoring and information to help understand if populations are increasing or decreasing.

It will also develop effective and efficient monitoring methods that can be conducted over the long term and build capacity amongst Indigenous ranger groups to enable ongoing monitoring. Together this assists in management across the entire Kimberley, including the four new and proposed marine parks.

Ground view of turtle tracks at Cape Domett. (DPaW)

WAMSI’s $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 and co-investment by the WAMSI partners.


Kimberley Marine Research Program