Report highlights the importance of seagrass in the Kimberley

Fish and turtles can, at times, consume all of the growth of the seagrasses: that’s among the findings of a three-year study that has combined science and traditional knowledge to investigate the productivity of seagrasses and other marine plants, and how important this is for the animals of the Kimberley region.

Researchers from CSIRO, The University of Western Australia (UWA) and Edith Cowan University teamed  up with the Bardi Jawi Rangers – who look after more than 250 kilometres of coast and the 340,700-hectare Bardi Jawi Indigenous Protected Area.

The Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) project team, including UWA’s Professor Gary Kendrick and CSIRO’s Dr Mat Vanderklift, spent three years studying the seagrasses and macroalgae (large seaweed) that grow on the seafloor along the coast and islands around One Arm Point.

Monitoring seagrass growth is very important to assess stress levels and their resilience to change.

The main plants found in the lagoon habitats by the team were the seagrasses Thalassia (also called turtlegrass) and Enhalus, and the large brown algae Sargassum.

These seagrasses are living at extremes in both temperature oxygen levels (high oxygen during the day and low oxygen during the night), and are under threat from climate change.

All of these plants have high growth rates throughout the year, sometimes exceeding a centimetre a day.

However, the research also found that seasonally variable grazing by a range of large vertebrate herbivores, like fish and turtles can consume all of the growth of the seagrasses.

Microscopic algae were very abundant in some places, but not everywhere, and bacteria were particularly abundant in the sediment under mangroves and seagrasses.

The team discovered that herbivores were abundant and ate a lot of the seagrass.

One of the main herbivores was the rabbitfish (Siganus lineatus) which is also a highly sought after food source for the Bardi Jawi people. Green turtles were also abundant, moving at high tide onto the seagrass beds.

Collaborations with the Bardi Jawi Rangers, who are custodians of the Indigenous Protected Area, added enormous value to the research. The exchange of knowledge with the rangers during the project recognised the importance of seagrass to rabbitfish. Therefore, the research concludes, marine park plans should consider these as Key Performance Indicators.

Bardi Jawi ranger Dwayne George and researcher Monique Grol measuring seagrass growth (Monique Grol)

“Particular care should be taken to ensure that the habitats that contain these plants are not degraded, and are monitored in a way that will ensure that any change — even small — is detected,” Professor Kendrick said.

Some work is still needed to develop methods for monitoring that will work in the Kimberley, and that can be adopted and applied by Indigenous ranger groups for Healthy Country Plan monitoring.


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


Kimberley Marine Research Program

New genetic stocks of turtles defined in the Kimberley

New research has uncovered patterns of biological, genetic and developmental change in marine turtles of the Kimberley that could change the way the region is managed.

Marine turtles in the Kimberley nest throughout the year, with flatback turtles stocks separating into distinct summer or winter nesters; generally separated by the Dampier Peninsula.

During breeding season, female turtles emerge from the water and crawl up the beach to dig a nest for a clutch of eggs. Flatback turtles will lay about 50 eggs per nest, while green turtles will lay around 100 eggs per nest. Typically, each female lays between three to five clutches of eggs a season before making the journey to a foraging ground to replenish energy until the next migration 2-4 years later.

Overlap of summer and winter tracks occurs between Lacepede Islands and Dampier Peninsula (WAMSI)

Distribution and Abundance by Parks and Wildlife (Marine Science and GIS Units), and Pendoley Environmental researchers

Aerial counts of turtle tracks along island and mainland beaches found the winter track counts highest at Cape Domett, South Maret, Parry Island and Vulcan Island. The summer track counts were highest at the Lacapedes Islands, Eighty Mile Beach, Maret, Cassini and Oliver Islands.

Ground view of turtle tracks at Cape Domett. Photos (Parks and Wildlife)

Genetic Analysis by Griffith University and CSIRO researchers

Previous genetic studies recognised four major flatback population stocks in Australia. However, the early results from the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s (WAMSI) Kimberley Marine Research Program discovered five genetic breeding stocks in Western Australia alone.

The previously recognised stocks included the Pilbara and Cape Domett stocks. Three newly recognised stocks are provisionally referred to as the Eighty Mile Beach, Ecobeach, and Maret Island stocks.

The green turtles of the Lacepedes were also a different genetic stock than previously recognized.  The research team of Nyul Nyul rangers and CSIRO are taking a skin biopsy from a day-time nester. (Parks and Wildlife)

According to project leader Dr Scott Whiting from the Department of Parks and Wildlife, the new WAMSI data is also updating the thinking about the green turtle populations.

“Of particular interest was the relationship between turtles from the coastal Kimberley (Lacepede Islands) and Northwest Cape,” Dr Whiting said. “An earlier analysis, based on limited genetic sampling, indicated that these distant regions (>1000km apart) should be considered a single stock. In a new analysis with more data, green turtles nesting at the southwestern extremity of their Australian range (Barrow Island & Northwest Cape) were significantly genetically distinct from those at the Lacepede Islands and so could be considered distinct stocks.”

Effects of Temperature by The University of Western Australia researchers

Another aim of the WAMSI turtle project is to understand the effects of a changing climate on turtle populations. Climate change has the potential to significantly alter the balance of populations as incubation temperature determines the sex of the incubating turtle embryos.

To investigate this question the researchers incubated summer and winter flatback and summer green turtle eggs to record the temperatures that produced mixed sexes, and the temperature producing an equal number of sexes. Predictions based on global climate models were used to adjust temperatures to allow for future projections.

Traditional Knowledge by the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science Project and established ranger groups

A fourth component being developed is to incorporate traditional knowledge about turtle populations from 11 Traditional Owner groups on Country to improve outcomes for management activities in the region’s Marine Parks and Indigenous Protected Areas.

Flatback turtle with satellite tag attached in Eighty Mile Beach Marine Park.  Eighty Mile Beach is a newly identified new flatbacks genetics stock determined in the WAMSI study.  Participants included the Nyangumarta, Ngarla, and Karajarri rangers, Marine Park staff, Marine Science program staff and Murdoch faculty and students. (Parks and Wildlife)


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


Kimberley Marine Research Program

Study confirms the ‘uniqueness’ of Kimberley reefs

A new report confirms that reef systems in the Kimberley continue to produce life amid some of the most extreme conditions yet recorded for reefs worldwide, prompting scientists to ask the question: how much more pressure can the Kimberley reefs cope with?

In the report for the Western Australian Marine Science Institution, scientists have documented what life is like on the Kimberley reefs and how that life responds to environmental variability, including extremes in temperature, oxygen and water levels.

The research team, led by Professor Ryan Lowe and PhD student Renee Gruber from The University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute, found the daily variability in temperature and dissolved oxygen that occurs on the reef platform is driven by semidiurnal tides (high and low tides that differ in height) and solar (daylight) cycles.

“The shape and friction of the platform causes water to ‘pond’ on the reef for up to 10 hours during each ebb tide (twice daily),” Professor Lowe said. “When these extended low tide periods occur near noon, extreme warming happens on the reef, with temperatures rising by 10°C over several hours and reaching up to 38oC.”

Researchers placed a scaffolding platform on the reef flat to hold a weather station and several sensors that monitored environmental conditions on the reef during their experiments. (Ryan Lowe)

“This high light availability also drives high rates of reef primary production (such as seagrass growth), which releases oxygen into the water column and results in extremes in oxygen saturation (~270%),” Ms Gruber said. “When low tide periods occur near midnight, community respiration (the consumption of oxygen as reef organisms create energy) causes oxygen levels to plummet, reaching very low (hypoxic) levels; low oxygen levels can harm or kill organisms in other ecosystems, and are not typically recorded on reefs.”

Despite extremes in temperature, light, and dissolved oxygen during low tide (seen here on Tallon reef), Kimberley reefs are able to support many species of producers including coral, coralline algae, macroalgae, and seagrass. (Ryan Lowe)

“Despite these extremes, the study found that overall rates of primary production of reef communities were not adversely affected,” Ms Gruber said. “This is a clear example of uniqueness of Kimberley  reef communities, which are well-adapted to conditions that would kill ‘typical’ reef producers.”

The report also highlights that productivity varied on a day-to-day basis, due to the timing of noon relative to low tide, a cycle that lasts about 15 days. It suggests that future studies shorter than this time frame may over- or under-estimate ecological processes (such as productivity).

The study also found the overall average rates of productivity were similar to the global mean for tropical reefs, demonstrating that tide-dominated reefs can maintain moderate rates of production despite daily extremes in temperature.

The report concludes that, while the overall rates of productivity in the Kimberley reef system were comparable to other coral reef habitats worldwide, the environmental conditions under which primary producers survive and grow are extreme.

“This has implications for the resilience of these producers in the face of climate change across the Kimberley environment,” Professor Lowe said. “While these organisms appear well adapted to the local environmental conditions of the Kimberley, many are still likely operating at the edge of their capacity, as evidenced by coral bleaching in the inshore Kimberley associated with the El Niño heat wave in 2016.”


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


Kimberley Marine Research Program

Bleached corals have reduced capacity to clear sediment

An investigation into the ability of bleached corals to cope with dredging related stressors has found that several species of thermally bleached corals cannot clear sediment that has smothered them.

The study was undertaken as part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s Dredging Science Node at the AIMS National Sea Simulator in specially developed tank systems.

Corals were subjected to elevated temperatures to cause bleaching and then exposed to various rates of sediment deposition, or smothering. Bleached corals were found to be able to remove about three times less sediment than those that were not bleached.

Lead researcher Pia Bessell-Browne from The University of Western Australia Oceans Institute, Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis and Australian Institute of Marine Science said that as coral bleaching events become more common we need to increase our understanding of how these large scale pressures interact with more local pressures, such as dredging activities.

“This has important implications for management, as it demonstrates that precautions should be put in place to reduce the impact of dredging related pressures, and in particular sediment deposition, during periods of elevated ocean temperatures that could result in coral bleaching,” Ms Bessell-Browne said.

The full results have been published in  Scientific Reports.

Bessell-Browne P, Negri A.P., Fisher R, Clode P.L., Jones R, (2017) Cumulative impacts: thermally bleached corals have reduced capacity to clear deposited sediment Scientific Reports doi:10.1038/s41598-017-02810-0

The WAMSI Dredging Science Node is made possible through $9.5 million invested by Woodside Energy, Chevron Australia and BHP Billiton 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 Australia, Woodside Energy and Rio Tinto Iron Ore. The commercial entities had no role in data analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.


Dredging Science

The passing of Barry Wilson


It is with great sadness that I inform you of the passing of world-renowned zoologist and biogeographer Dr Barry Wilson, the architect of Western Australia’s marine conservation system which today protects locally, nationally and internationally significant marine environments, and guarantees access for all people to enjoy and experience these unparalleled natural attractions.

Barry’s 46-year career encompassed many roles from specialising in the biology and distribution of marine molluscs and Curator of Molluscs at the WA Museum to Director of Nature Conservation with the Department of Conservation and Land Management, a Director at Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Chairman of the WA Marine Parks and Reserves Authority. He was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal for service to the community in marine science in 2003.

Barry’s unending commitment and passion for conserving the environment was pivotal in building the foundation for the State’s marine parks and reserves system and is reflected in the way we as an agency manage our natural values today and in the future.

His leadership as Director of Nature Conservation from 1985-1991 oversaw the ground-breaking work achieved by the agency in native fauna conservation. He was the driving force behind the establishment of the State’s first marine parks at Marmion and Ningaloo.

After leaving CALM, Barry Chaired the Marine Parks and Reserves Selection Working Group and oversaw the preparation of A Representative Marine Reserve System for Western Australia (often referred to as the Wilson Report), on behalf of the then Minister for the Environment. The “Wilson Report” was published by CALM in June 1994.

The report was the result of seven years’ work in which Barry and fellow scientists prepared a blueprint for WA’s marine reserve system across the State’s 13,500 km coastline from the Kimberley to Eucla, and was one of the most significant marine conservation documents released anywhere in Australia and probably the world.

Barry was a pioneer in conservation management and many of us have been extremely fortunate to have worked with and known him.

On behalf of us all at Parks and Wildlife I have passed on our deepest sympathies and condolences to Barry’s family.

Jim Sharp

Director General

Department of Parks and Wildlife

Vale Dr Barry Wilson (Funeral Notice)

We would like to let members of the marine science community in Western Australia know that Barry Wilson passed away on Monday (12 June). Barry was an extraordinary human being whose contributions to the conservation of our Australian marine ecosystems have been profound.
In 1994, Barry led the landmark “Wilson Report” (A Representative Marine Reserve System for Western Australia. Report of the Marine Parks and Reserves Selection Working Group) when he was head of the Marine Parks and Reserves Authority which created a shift in the way we view our marine resources and paved the way for the Marine Parks that we now have, and are continuing to create in WA. For those of you who are interested, his article “the West Australian Marine Reserves Conservation System” (in Fitzsimons and Wescott (2016) “Big, Bold and Blue“, provides a recent, unique and invaluable perspective on these issues.
His latest major contribution, a book called the “Biogeography of the Australian North West Shelf: Environmental Change and Life’s Response”, is testament to his dedication to understanding our wild and under-studied natural world.
To many of us, Barry had the broadest and deepest knowledge of marine (as well as  terrestrial) ecology out of anyone we have met. We will miss Barry’s ability to grasp the bigger picture and share this so clearly, with childlike enthusiasm and with such great spirit, but we will remember him with much warmth and great respect.

Dr Jim Underwood on behalf of the marine science community of WA


Funeral notice


Twomey takes the helm at WA Marine Science Institution

Former BMT Oceanica Director Dr Luke Twomey has been appointed General Manager and Dr Caroline Ochieng-Erftemeijer has been appointed Research Manager at the 15-member joint venture partnership, the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI).

Dr Twomey will oversee the completion of the current WAMSI science programs, including the $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program and the landmark $19 million Dredging Science partnership, as well as drive planning for the long-term future of WAMSI.

A graduate of Curtin University and the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Dr Twomey has experience across the fields of environmental impact assessment, management, research and teaching in estuarine, nearshore and offshore environments, both in Australia and internationally.

WAMSI Research Manager Dr Caroline Ochieng-Erftemeijer

Dr Ochieng-Erftemeijer, as Research Manager, will work on continuing to roll out Western Australia’s Blueprint for Marine Science 2050 science priorities for decision-makers to help align the research sectors’ response and establish a foundation of willingness across multiple sectors to find ways to be more strategic and more collaborative in marine science.

A marine ecologist with more than 14 years of international experience in ecological marine research, biodiversity conservation and project management, Dr Ochieng-Erftemeijer is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire USA, Imperial College, UK and Egerton University, Kenya.  

Acting Executive Chair Naomi Brown welcomed the appointments as heralding a new chapter in the ten-year WAMSI joint venture partnership.

“We’re pleased to have Dr Twomey join us to lead WAMSI and Western Australia’s marine science priorities to a new level of cooperation and coordination between government, industry, academics and the community,” Ms Brown said. “The blue economy is expected to be worth about $100 billion by 2025 and we need to continue our strong leadership in this space.”      

Both Dr Twomey and Dr Ochieng-Erftemeijer will take up their positions during the week beginning Monday 29 June.

WAMSI Executive Chair
Naomi Brown

Marine strategy to boost WA’s blue economy

Premier and science minister Colin Barnett has launched the Blueprint for Marine Science Initiative, which is the result of high-level collaboration between many sectors engaged in the marine environment.

Full story in the Mandurah Mail

Marine science funding to boost WA’s blue economy

State Government of Western Australia

31/05/2017 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 31/05/2017 15:58








  • ​$1.29 million funding boost for marine science
  • State support to capitalise on opportunities within the blue economy

Science Minister Dave Kelly today announced a $1.29 million funding boost to help develop Western Australia into a global marine science hub.

The McGowan Labor Government has provided these funds to the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) and the Perth Programme Office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

The funding will help WA capitalise on opportunities offered by the Australian blue economy, which utilises oceans’ resources for sustainable economic gain. The blue economy is expected to be worth about $100 billion by 2025.

WAMSI and the UNESCO IOC Perth Programme Office contribute to Perth’s development as a global marine science hub and increase global awareness of the world-class marine science research that takes place in Western Australia.

The State Government is providing WAMSI with $550,000, and the UNESCO IOC Perth Programme Office with $740,000 in funding.

For more information, visit

Comments attributed to Science Minister Dave Kelly:

‘Western Australia’s rich marine biodiversity is a unique and proud part of our State’s identity.

‘That is why the McGowan Labor Government is committed to building WA’s reputation as a global marine science hub.

‘This investment will also support a number of industries that depend on our marine environment, including the oil and gas sector, tourism, and commercial fisheries.’

Minister’s office – 6552 6100