New trial to future-proof Western Australia’s seagrass meadows 

An innovative trial to test the limits of seagrass under different dredging scenarios is underway that could make seagrass meadows more resilient to environmental pressures.

The findings could help to future proof seagrass meadows across Western Australia.

Edith Cowan University’s Centre for Marine Ecosystem Research has established a new state-of-the-art facility to assess the effect of global change pressures on the temperate seagrasses that are found in Cockburn Sound.

The research is being carried out under the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program to inform the environmental impact assessment for WA’s future terminal. A series of tank experiments will simulate a range of dredging pressures, including sediment quality and increased water temperature, with the initial three-month trial examining the effects of sediment burial on seagrass.

The researchers are using healthy adult seagrass plants collected from Cockburn Sound and transplanted into plots containing locally sourced sediment from the site and left for a week to acclimatise to the new tank conditions.

The seagrass are subjected to a range of sediment burial levels from 0–16 centimetres depth, to simulate potential dredging pressures from the port development close to the dredge site and spoil disposal area.

WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program theme leader Associate Professor Kathryn McMahon, said it was incredibly exciting to be able to carry out the research in a facility that bridged the gap between the laboratory and the real world.

“We are taking a two-pronged approach. Firstly, to generate knowledge that will assist environmental impact assessment, and secondly to develop strategies to build resilience of seagrass meadows into the future by looking for seagrass species or populations that may be more resilient to ocean warming and heatwaves.” Associate Professor Kathryn McMahon, ECU

Monitoring is currently underway to assess the health of the seagrass under these different burial conditions through examining key physiological indicators such as plant growth rate and photosynthetic performance.

Research Associate Nicole Said advised future tank and field experiments would target the combined effect of temperature, light reduction, and organic matter expected to gain valuable insight into the tolerance limits and thresholds for seagrass.

“We will commence the field experiments during spring this year using underwater structures to simulate different dredging and port development scenarios in Cockburn Sound.”

Seeds for Snapper – community spearhead citizen science

An annual program led by leading UWA and WAMSI scientists to address the loss of seagrass in Cockburn Sound, is calling on volunteers to participate in local marine science to help restore the meadows.

Community-based initiative ‘Seeds for Snapper,’ is a collaboration between The University of Western Australia and fishing conservation charity OzFish. United by a common aim to restore extensive loss of seagrass meadows in Cockburn Sound, the partnership has established a long-standing community volunteer base with a passion for seagrass restoration.

Seagrass meadows are an important part of Cockburn Sound’s ecosystem, which also act as a nursery for baby pink snapper, calamari, whiting and blue swimmer crabs.

In October, Seeds for Snapper will scale-up its operations with funding support under the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program to inform seagrass restoration potential for Western Australia’s future terminal [Link to WAMSI website].

The collection and processing of seagrass fruit for their seeds to restore shallow areas in Cockburn Sound was originally a UWA-based initiative. This involved a small team of experienced researchers and students, led by project co-ordinator Professor Gary Kendrick and Research Officer Rachel Austin from UWA’s School of Biological Sciences.

Following a partnership with OzFish in 2020, a growing community volunteer base was established, with the project expanding to seven days a week during the fruit collection season. A mixture of skilled and beginner divers and onshore volunteers were recruited for the collection of fruit, as well as the onshore preparation, cleaning and counting of fruit and seeds.

“The enthusiasm and passion in our volunteers was incredible and their dedication and commitment. Some volunteers did 15 to 20 dives each, even on their days off. We have big plans for next season.” Rachel Austin, UWA

The project has facilitated a means for volunteers to participate in marine science, particularly for those with a passion for the ocean and seeking to make a difference but lack the qualifications.

Professor Kendrick said “many volunteers want to get involved in research but were unsure how or lacked the appropriate qualifications. Seeds for Snapper has provided them with a unique opportunity.”

In coming years, the team hopes to further equip volunteers with the skills to monitor fruit maturity and density and improve understanding about which sites to target and when.

Last season, more than 1.1 million seagrass fruit were successfully collected over 316 dives by 100 individual divers in Cockburn Sound and Owen Anchorage. This year, the team hope to disperse over one million seeds.

Research Officer Rachel Austin said the plan is to expand and scale up the seeds for snapper project into other areas of seagrass restoration. “Our aims is to be able to restore seagrass on ecologically relevant scales” she said.

To volunteer for the Seeds for Snapper Program visit the OzFish website.

Science Plan to guide $13.5 million investment

One of the largest research programs ever undertaken of Cockburn Sound is underway with the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) and Westport releasing the Science Program for its three-year partnership.

The $13.5million investment in understanding the Cockburn Sound environment will drive a sustainable design, ensure a robust environmental impact assessment process, and improve long-term management of the area.

The research spans nine key themes, which were shaped from 16 workshops involving scientists, key stakeholders, and community representatives. Across the nine themes are 31 research projects, including a series of on-ground trials for restoring seagrass meadows and improving knowledge of the marine biodiversity.

WAMSI CEO Dr Luke Twomey described the Science Program as a significant collaborative science investigation into Cockburn Sound’s unique marine environment.

“The extensive collection of science projects delivered by Western Australian scientists will fill important knowledge gaps about the Sound and provide stakeholders and the community access to new information needed to manage this environment into the future,” Dr Twomey said.

Introducing the Cockburn Sound Science Program Manager

Cockburn Sound Science Program Manager Dr Alan Kendrick is leading the research study to fill knowledge gaps, investigate potential impacts and improve understanding of Cockburn Sound’s ecosystem.

Involvement in large, science-based marine environmental programs has always piqued Alan’s career interests.

In his previous role he oversaw marine conservation science at the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, managing large marine research programs associated with offset funding from the Wheatstone, Pluto and Gorgon gas developments.

During this time, he was also involved with the delivery of WAMSI’s Ningaloo and Kimberley Marine Research Programs.

Alan will now manage a huge collaboration of research effort that will inform environmental assessment of the State’s new container port.

The WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program is a three-year program that will see local scientists deliver about 30 ecological and social research projects designed to support environmental assessment of the new port and the future management of Cockburn Sound.

Alan is looking forward to the challenge of managing the science program and developing knowledge that will help to protect Cockburn Sound’s unique marine environment.

“As the biggest collaborative investigation into the ecosystems of Cockburn Sound that has ever been undertaken, the science program is an incredible venture that will fill important knowledge gaps and deliver the information needed to manage this environment now and into the future,” he said.

Alan hopes the research outcomes resulting from the program will pave the way for future strategic science collaborations across the State.

“The science program is a great example of local scientists carrying out research in our own backyard.”

“It showcases how industry, government and the wider community can access WAMSI’s rich expertise in marine science to inform the sustainable development of how big WA projects are implemented.”