Wildlife watch: Keeping a protective eye on Carnac Island’s sea lions

A camera mounted above a beach at Carnac Island is giving researchers real time footage of Australian sea lions and allowing them to monitor the endangered animals.

The equipment, which was installed in 2022, provides a window into the world of the male sea lions that use the A-class reserve to ‘haul out’ or recuperate between foraging and making return trips to their breeding islands.

The project involves researchers from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Edith Cowan University, and The Australian National University.

Associate Professor Chandra Salgado Kent from ECU, who is studying the mammals as part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program, said the camera was providing valuable information.

“We are hoping to get an estimate of how many sea lions actually use the Perth metropolitan area and how many sea lions might use a particular haulout site like Carnac Island, which is south west of Fremantle,” Assoc Prof Salgado Kent said.

“The animals are not here year-round. They do migrate up to Jurien Bay for the breeding season which typically takes place every 17 to 18 months.  Sea lions also spend a fair amount of time at sea foraging.”

Australian sea lion numbers have struggled to recover since hunting was banned. And while historically there may have been breeding in the Perth region, currently the area is only used by males.

“The camera there gives us a chance to keep an eye on the sea lions, see how many are there every day, if the numbers change throughout the day and what they may be doing.”

Assoc Prof Salgado Kent said staff from the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development had set up the camera and were managing and maintaining it, which had been an enormous help for the project.

Project co-investigator Dr Sylvia Parsons, from DBCA, said researchers could change the direction the camera pointed and zoom in on particular animals.

The researchers have marked nearly 50 sea lions with numbers using hair dye and have also fitted some with satellite trackers.

“We are hoping to be able to use the camera to identify some of the individuals that we have marked or tagged. We can then use this information to determine how long sea lions may spend on land between foraging trips and hopefully the data will help estimate the size of the population using this space,” Dr Parsons said.

While the project is ongoing, she said the camera had helped them observe sea lions without disturbing them in any way.

“The camera provides a real-time window to be able to observe the behaviour and dynamics of the sea lions on the beach.

“The juveniles in particular seem to be the most active, coming out of the water and settling right next to other sea lions, which may result in the whole group reorganising themselves, before they relax and go back to their resting state again,” Dr Parsons said.

The technology is also helping support other research including on fairy terns, which are another threatened species.

“It is one of the reasons that Carnac Island is closed every year during the breeding season,” Assoc Prof Salgado Kent said.

“If nesting fairy terns are disturbed, they won’t sit with their eggs which means the chicks won’t hatch.”

Researchers say the camera has also been valuable for DBCA management staff to detect if people are illegally going ashore and disturbing birds and sea lions.

“We want the community to be aware of the regulations and appropriate behaviour to ensure the conservation of these species,” Dr Parsons said.



WAMSI coral researcher a Student Scientist of the Year finalist

Marine scientist Josh Bonesso said he was honoured to be a ‘Student Scientist of the Year’ finalist in the Premier’s Science Awards and hoped it shone a light on the impact of climate change on coral reefs.

Josh is a PhD student at The University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute and works part time at the Western Australian Marine Science Institution. The Premier’s Science Awards winners were announced at a ceremony in Perth on 11 September.

Josh was named as a finalist for his work developing ways to rapidly assess the sensitivity of coral islands to climate change.

“I hope being a finalist helps draw attention to the impacts of climate change and the vulnerability of the world’s coral reefs and their islands,” Josh said.

“Coral reef-islands are the landform most threatened by the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels and ocean warming,” Josh said. “But much of our knowledge of changes to these islands has come from two-dimensional satellite images. My research, using three-dimensional mapping technology, captured the largest regional-scale group of islands globally, here in WA’s Pilbara.”

“This led me to develop a unique tool to rapidly assess changes to key features which could act as a crucial warning of imminent threats to the islands.”

He said he was thrilled for the winner, medical researcher Denby Evans, from Telethon Kids Institute and Curtin University.

The awards recognise remarkable achievement and innovation of scientists and science students in the state.

WAMSI CEO Dr Luke Twomey said Josh was an innovative scientist with a passion for educating and inspiring people about marine science and he congratulated him on being an award finalist.

“Josh’s research, which has now been published in a leading scientific journal, has broad ranging benefits worldwide,” Dr Twomey said.

“Josh’s ability to think laterally has established opportunities to lead and collaborate across government and scientific institutions to better safeguard WA’s marine assets.”

“Josh has been a regular speaker with WAMSI’s Thinking Blue outreach program and is always happy to share his knowledge about coral reefs and islands. He does terrific work communicating marine science within the community.”

Huge numbers reached in survey of tiny fish larvae 

The most comprehensive survey of fish larvae in Cockburn Sound has now uncovered more than 40,000 of the tiny creatures from at least 50 families.

Researchers started monthly surveys in September 2021 as part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program.

Researcher Jake Nilsen, from Curtin University, said at least 128 unique taxa had been identified, including pink snapper, whiting, trevallies and flatheads. Sea garfish and yellowfin whiting were recorded for the first time.

Another first-time recording was larvae of the highly sought after King George whiting.

Mr Nilsen said the King George whiting (pictured) was a particularly interesting find given the species typically spawns further offshore.

DNA techniques are also being used for species that are more challenging to identify and where there is limited information on their larval stages, including species of whiting and baitfish.

Now fieldwork has been completed, researchers will focus on analysing the vast dataset to identify patterns of when and where fish use Cockburn Sound during their larval stages.

Researchers from the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development are also working on the fish larvae project by providing research vessels and staff for the sampling.