Ocean art awards: Art created from marine debris inspires conservation

This art award and exhibition has been postponed until 21-25 October  2024

Creative Western Australians are being invited to transform marine debris and beach finds into art for an exhibition at The University of Western Australia’s Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre (IOMRC).

The Western Australian Marine Science Institution is a sponsor of ‘From Waste to Wonder – Indian Ocean Marine Art Exhibition and Awards’ and donating two cash prizes for the best artworks by secondary school students.

WAMSI CEO Dr Luke Twomey said the world’s oceans absorbed about 90 per cent of the heat generated by rising greenhouse gas emissions and were under increasing stress from the effects of climate change and other pressures.

“We would love to see school students learn more about the importance of the ocean and ultimately help discover new opportunities as well as solutions to problems such as marine heatwaves and the loss of biodiversity,” Dr Twomey said.

“Art can be a great way of engaging with the community and we are excited to support creative students who have an interest in our oceans, particularly the one on our doorstep.”

Exhibition organiser Linda Raynor-Thomas, from IOMRC, said art not only made people feel good it could also inspire them to take more care of the environment.

“Through art we can raise awareness of greater issues concerning the conservation of our oceans,” Ms Raynor-Thomas said.

“One of the early entries we received was made almost entirely of fishing line found on beaches and discarded rope from fishing boats.”

The emphasis of this year’s award will be on recycling Indian Ocean marine and coastal debris with artists invited to creatively transform waste into wonderful works of art.

The art award evolved from a previous event held on the campus within the School of Biological Sciences.

Artist Angela Rossen, a previous award winner, will be one of the judges of ‘From Waste to Wonder’.

“In our lifetime we have a fast-closing window of opportunity to reverse the damage we have done to the very natural systems that support us,” Ms Rossen said.

“Our oceans, which have quietly absorbed pollution since the industrial revolution, are fast reaching saturation point. Heating and acidification are negatively impacting not only the plant and animal communities of the ocean but the very climate systems that support and regulate life on our planet.

“Effective action to conserve, remediate and protect the ocean is imperative now.

“The sciences and arts are well placed to work together to activate for change of the regulatory frameworks that govern extractive and polluting industries to ensure a liveable future,” she said.

Prizes will be awarded for the best works by an adult artist and secondary students. There will also be a prize in the people’s choice category.

For more information head to the IOMRC website.


Plastic’s everywhere – so how do we stop it contaminating samples? 

Microplastics researchers need to think about everything from the jackets they wear in the field and their sampling containers to laboratory washing up methods to avoid contamination, according to a visiting biology professor who runs a plastics testing laboratory in the United States.

Dr Brian Walker, from Fairfield University in Fairfield Connecticut, told a recent workshop at The University of Western Australia’s Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre there had been a big growth in microplastics studies since 2010 as concerns mounted about the vast volume of plastics breaking up and being eaten by land and marine life.

“There is evidence these plastics are now affecting human health,” Dr Walker said.

“They can also be a vessel for bringing organisms such as viruses and neurotoxins into the body.”

The workshop was organised by Dr Belinda Cannell, from UWA’s Oceans Institute. UWA is one of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s partner organisations.

Dr Walker, who has worked for more than 20 years with penguins in Argentina, told the group he had developed some best practices for fieldwork and laboratory analysis to help ensure the highest standards for microplastics research. He said avoiding sample contamination involved scrutiny of every part of the process from the field to laboratory.

“When I have worked with collected penguin excrement, I try to get it as fresh as possible so it’s less likely to pick up micro or nano plastics in the environment although this isn’t always possible,” he said.

Dr Cannell, who is investigating microplastics in little penguins in Western Australia, said the seabirds’ nests can create challenges.

“Little penguins do not nest on the surface, so we don’t usually get to see a penguin defecating, so we scrape the samples from the ground,” Dr Cannell said.

Both researchers take care to avoid contamination by wearing cotton, rather than latex, gloves and retrieving samples with metal, not plastic, tools.

Dr Walker advises researchers to wear clothes made of natural fibres as much as possible because fabrics such as Polarfleece, which is widely used in cold climate garments, often shed synthetic fibres.

“When it’s raining, cotton is not an option so after one field trip where I wore a raincoat, I removed some of its fibres for testing to check they hadn’t got into the samples from the field,” he said.

“Back in my laboratory we hand wash glass sample jars with double filtered water and don’t use the dishwasher because of the plastic hoses.”

“The jars are always covered with foil rather than plastic and we even check to make sure there is no film on the foil.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of stopping contamination.”

Dr Walker said a new infrared microscope, he’d bought with the help of a grant, would speed up and improve the laboratory’s process for identifying microplastics on filters.

Volunteers spring into action to help seagrass recovery in Cockburn Sound

A seagrass restoration program, that is helping to regenerate Cockburn Sound’s underwater meadows, has had a record number of volunteers helping to spread hundreds of thousands of seeds from the plants.

About 80 per cent of Cockburn Sound’s meadows were wiped out in the 1950s and 60s because of poor water quality. Seeds for Snapper harnesses community help, backed by scientific knowledge, to collect seagrass seeds and disperse them where they are most needed.

Research officer Rachel Austin, from The University of Western Australia’s School of Biological Sciences, who helps run Seeds for Snapper with fishing conservation charity OzFish, said volunteers helped disperse 670,000 seeds over 10 sites during November. They donated 1500 hours.

“It’s very simple, very scalable and results in much higher seeding density than what happens naturally,” Ms Austin said.

“We estimate that more than 90 percent of seagrass fruit ends up where it cannot grow, including on the beach and in deep water.

“We are able to collect the seeds and throw them into specially chosen areas where they are more likely to take hold.”

Rachel Austin with a beaker of seagrass seeds.

Rachel Austin from UWA with seagrass seeds at a volunteers’ day in Cockburn Sound.

“By doing what we are doing we can get substantially more seedlings in an area compared to what can happen naturally.”

She said the program had not only had a practical benefit in helping regenerate parts of the seabed but had also increased awareness of the importance of seagrass for storing carbon, stabilising the seabed and providing breeding areas and habitat for marine animals.



“If you want squid, fish and octopus you’ve got to have somewhere for them to live and that is your seagrass meadows,” Ms Austin said.

“About 200 hectares has regrown but we’re still missing 2,000 hectares.”

Seagrass restoration is among the research projects currently underway as part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program.

OzFish Western Australia Program Manager, Steve Pursell, said 2023 was the second biggest year for Seeds for Snapper in terms of the number of seeds released into Cockburn Sound. Last year was the highest since it started six years ago.

“The program has really gained momentum,” Mr Pursell said.

“We had people from a range of backgrounds and all ages, helping out this year.

“We even had a volunteer fly in from New York, just to work on the project,” he said.

“Some volunteers who come along don’t initially realise the difference between seagrass and seaweed but they soon learn that, and many go on to become great advocates for the importance of seagrass and our habitat restoration work.”.

He said volunteer divers collected seagrass fruit in nets and other groups on shore worked at tanks to sort husks from the seeds. Volunteers and recreational boaters then took the seeds into Cockburn Sound to throw them back in the water at selected sites.

Ms Austin said she was heartened by the response to Seeds for Snapper from fishers they met at boat ramps.

“Public awareness around the importance of seagrass has really grown and the fishers we speak to are really enthusiastic. It gives you hope for the future.”

She said the program involving monitoring sites where seeds were dispersed.

“Our main species Posidonia australis (ribbon-weed) is quite a slow growing species so you’re talking a good five to 10 years before you have a dense meadow.

“But we have found incredible growth in some areas.

“Some sites are not as good, and we learn every year.

“At all our sites it does look like we are getting higher seedling densities than if it was left to nature.”

People who are interested in volunteering for the 2024 Seeds for Snapper program can find more information here or email seedsforsnapper@ozfish.org.au