Coral reefs vital for ocean life

A quarter of all marine species depends on coral reefs but these vital parts of the oceans’ ecosystem are at risk from acidification, pollution, over-fishing and rising water temperatures.

The University of Western Australia’s PhD candidate Josh Bonesso spoke to high school students recently about the significance of coral reefs, as part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s Thinking Blue outreach program. Josh was a finalist in the Student Scientist of the Year category in this year’s Premier’s Science Awards for his innovative research on coral reef islands. He’s also a keen science communicator.

“Coral reefs are nursery grounds for fish, they’re important too for megafauna and the building of coral reef islands that provide nesting areas for many species of seabirds and turtles,” Josh said.

“So, while coral reefs aren’t a large component of the ocean, about 25 percent of marine species rely on them directly and indirectly.”

Josh explained to the Year 12 students how coral reefs formed over thousands of years but that higher-than-normal temperatures and storm events caused by climate change threatened the survival of many coral varieties, particularly fragile branching corals. Mound corals were generally more resilient, but Josh said it was important for reefs not to become homogenous.

“At 34 degrees a species of branching coral, Acropora aspera, exerts a stress response and experiences bleaching.

“We know less about how these corals cope with stress at temperatures below bleaching, at around 32 degrees, and how this impacts their recovery from injury following storm events.”

“But experiments have been done in tanks at that lower temperature where the tops of coral branches are snipped off, to replicate storm damage, and they haven’t grown back,” Josh said.

Thinking Blue is WAMSI’s education outreach program which is designed to educate students about marine science and inspire them to do further studies in the field.

Josh is a PhD candidate at UWA’s Oceans Institute. He did his undergraduate science degree at La Trobe University and initially studied alpine and conservation ecology. But he told the students after a field trip to the Heron Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef, he ‘fell in love with coral reefs’.

You can watch Josh’s lecture here.

Fly larvae offers hope for future food security

Insects could be part of the solution to future global food security pressures, according to an aquaculture researcher looking at black soldier flies as a potential fish feed source.

PhD candidate Isobel Sewell, from The University of Western Australia, told students in a Thinking Blue lecture there was growing pressure on wild stocks from overfishing.

This, combined with the world’s population forecast to exceed nine billion by 2050, meant there was an increased focus on aquaculture as a sustainable alternative.

Thinking Blue is WAMSI’s school outreach program which gives students in Years 11 and 12 a chance to hear from marine scientists doing innovative research. It also aims to inspire school leavers to study marine science.

“The main question is, where will we find enough food for another one billion people and we think black soldier flies and their larvae could help,” Isobel said.

“Aquaculture is the most rapidly growing food production sector globally and there’s a lot of research looking at the feed given to fish that are reared in tanks and sea pens.”

“I am running trials at UWA with barramundi and marron to see how experimental diets containing black soldier fly larvae compare to a more traditional aquaculture diet, which typically contains wild-caught fish as a protein source.”

“For black soldier fly larvae to be considered a suitable alternative protein source, we need to ensure fish growth is promoted whilst still maintaining fish well-being.”

“So far, we have found barramundi fed the insect-based food are growing successfully and tests on their biological parameters, such as blood health, are within healthy parameters,” Isobel said.

She said the principal behind the experiment was to try to find ways of ensuring aquaculture fitted into the black soldier fly circular economy model.

“The three principles of the circular economy are to design out waste and pollution, to keep products and materials in use and to regenerate natural systems.”

Isobel said the ingredients for traditional barramundi aquaculture fish food was about 40 per cent plant dry matter, 30 per cent land animals, 15 per cent marine animals, 7 per cent land animal oil, and 1 per cent marine animal oil.

“There has been research on using more protein-rich plants such as soybean, but results showed they had the potential to cause inflammation of the fishes’ digestive tract.”

She said fish was an important food source for humans and had significant health benefits and there were concerns about the world’s growing population being able to nutritionally sustain itself without putting more pressure on ocean or land resources.

“Food insecurity affects 820 million people around the world, which is the equivalent of the combined populations of Canada, the United States of America and the European Union,” Isobel said.

Isobel told the students she had improved her experience during her studies by volunteering on projects including looking at plastic abundance on Albany beaches, tagging turtles on Barrow Island as part of a project investigating light pollution and working on a coral nursery in the Seychelles.

Find a link to Isobel’s talk here.

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.

Water quality improving but Cockburn Sound still impacted by pollution legacy

Water quality in Cockburn Sound has been steadily improving for decades but seagrass and some fish stocks are still struggling to recover from the days of unrestricted pollution discharge, according to marine scientist Dr Fiona Webster.

Dr Webster, who works at the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation assessing marine proposals, was speaking to students about the impacts of marine pollutants as part of WAMSI’s Thinking Blue education outreach program.

The program features lectures by some of the state’s top marine scientists, including from WAMSI’s partner organisations.

Dr Webster told the students that in the 1970s there were concerns about the environmental impact of industry discharging pollutants such as nutrients and heavy metals straight into Cockburn Sound.

“Around 80 percent of seagrass was lost and there were concerns people couldn’t swim or couldn’t fish and many were worried,” Dr Webster said.

“Whilst the extent of environmental deterioration sounds extreme, you have to remember that the Environmental Protection Act didn’t exist until 1986,” she said.

To protect Cockburn Sound, the State Government introduced two key initiatives; firstly direct discharges were banned and secondly the State Environment Policy for Cockburn Sound was developed.

Dr Webster said that while parts of Cockburn Sound will remain industrialised, the State Environment Policy ensured environmental, social and cultural values were protected and the water was safe to swim in and fish were safe to eat.

“Monitoring has shown the water quality has been improving since then and most areas now have good water quality,” Dr Webster said. “But seagrass is not recovering so well.”

“Part of that could be the organic nutrient load in the sediment.”

“Some fish stocks are also still depressed including the garfish and blue swimmer crabs.”

Whilst water quality in Cockburn is looking good, there are always new and emerging contaminants to watch out for such as PFAS (a key constituent in fire fighting foam) and microplastics.

Dr Webster told the students there was good work going on to support the environment including the replenishment of fish stocks and the Seeds for Snapper program. This involved volunteers collecting seagrass seeds and dropping them in areas needing regeneration.

Early inspiration

One of the aims of Thinking Blue is to inspire students to study marine science.

Dr Webster told the students, until her dad gave her a pair of goggles when she was six years old, she’d been nervous of seaweed.

“When I had my goggles on, suddenly I could see fish and bubbles and kelp.”

She later studied science and did a PhD after completing researching at Ningaloo Reef.

She told the students her career had ‘meandered’ from measuring crayfish on commercial vessels at the Abrolhos Islands to spending 18 months on a yacht off Madagascar to working with an Australian aid organisation in Tonga.

It’s a career journey that certainly inspires.

You can watch Dr Fiona Webster’s lecture here.

Marine interdependence – From turtle hunting crabs to tongue eating louse

A camera focused on a Ningaloo Reef beach captures life and death in a marine ecosystem in its rawest form: Ghost crabs scramble to catch freshly hatched loggerhead sea turtles before sea gulls swoop in to snap up others as they stagger towards the shoreline.

Once in the water, there are new predators for the few that make it that far, but also organisms for them to eat and fuel their growth.

The footage, shot by recent PhD graduate Casper Avenent, was played to students as part of a WAMSI Thinking Blue lecture on the ‘Interdependence of organisms in marine ecosystems’ by Professor Glenn Hyndes from Edith Cowan University.

“As for the golden ghost crabs, they are possibly eaten by rays and dingoes but we don’t know”.

The scene on a small part of one Australian beach represents a much bigger ecological story.

“On this one beach at Ningaloo, there are different species of ghost crabs with very different diets,” Professor Hyndes said.

“We have found from gut analysis, the horned eyed ghost crabs feed a lot on insects and the golden ghost crabs will feed on carrion including dead rats, birds, fish, as well as turtle eggs and hatchlings.”

Professor Hyndes’ talk incorporated the many ways various species of plants and animals are interdependent and along with the video from the Exmouth area, he used an example of life along the south coast of Western Australia.

“There is algae, consumed by abalone and sea urchins, which are eaten by animals such as western blue groper. Bronze whaler sharks are consuming fish.”

One theme of Professor Hyndes’ talk was ‘Habitat Matters’.

Certain jellyfish provided shelter for juvenile fish and seagrass also played a vital role in a number of ways including giving a habitat for fish.

“The different seagrass species will be important for different fish species. For instance, the sea trumpeter fish prefer the canopy formation of the Amphibolis griffithii seagrass and blow fish are more likely to swim among the more sparce Posidonia coriacea.

Another example of interdependence was the anemone fish which can have sea louse feeding on its tongue and the inside of its mouth.

“This has a negative impact on the fish but there are cleaner wrasse fish that feed on the louse” Professor Glenn Hyndes said.

Professor Hyndes’ talk, including his slides and video footage from Ningaloo, can be found here on the WAMSI YouTube page.

Snapper research helping to evaluate hatchery release programs

Researchers are working on non-lethal ways of evaluating the success of programs that release hatchery-reared snapper fingerlings into Cockburn Sound.

The WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program project, led by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, involves analysing photographs of hatchery snapper to ultimately determine any physical differences with wild snapper.

DPIRD’s Dr David Fairclough, who is working on the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program project, said the release of hatchery – reared juvenile snapper was perceived as a positive way of improving wild stocks but it was not always clear whether the fish thrived or how long they survived.

“Such information is crucial to assess how hatchery-reared fish may contribute to stocks,” Dr Fairclough said.

The project also involves research scientists from Murdoch University and Flinders University.

“For the research, photographs of the hatchery-reared snapper are imported into a computer program that allows 16 physical features on the fish to be assigned and the distances between them measured,” Murdoch University’s Dr James Tweedley said.

The same process will be conducted on juvenile snapper collected from Cockburn Sound but these fish will also be dissected and have their otoliths – a bone in their ear – removed to determine whether they were grown in the hatchery.  A non-toxic substance is used to stain the otoliths of live hatchery snapper before their release, allowing them to be identified later in biological samples.

“If significant differences end up being detected then, in future, citizen scientists or recreational fishers could become involved in monitoring released snapper by providing photos of their catches for analysis,” Dr Tweedley said.

The project is also investigating whether snapper from inside Cockburn Sound are genetically different than snapper in the open ocean outside the Sound. In addition, it will test if hatchery-reared juveniles contain the same levels of genetic diversity and are as well adapted as those found in the wild population in Cockburn Sound.

“The role of Cockburn Sound as a spawning and nursery area for snapper is well recognised. However, the level of contribution made by those fish to the population and associated fishery along the lower west coast is not fully understood,” Dr Fairclough said.

“Information from this project will help with future identification of where hatchery-reared fish move to, either in Cockburn Sound or along the west coast,” Dr Fairclough said.

Fish frames donated by fishers to DPIRD as part of their ‘Send Us Your Skeletons’ citizen science project, would give researchers an understanding of where hatchery-reared fish move by removing their otoliths to see if they are stained.


Huge state delivers vast array of marine ecosystems

From mud skippers in Kimberley mangroves to orcas in south coast canyons and bizarre looking sea pigs in the deep ocean, Western Australia with its 12,500 kilometre coastline, boasts a vast array of ecosystems, according to marine scientist Dr Tom Holmes.

“In fact, if you include the islands, WA’s coastline is closer to 20,000km which is equivalent to almost half the circumference of the earth,” Dr Holmes said.

In a recorded talk to students, as part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s Thinking Blue series, he discussed WA’s coral reefs, estuaries, mangroves and deep-sea ecosystems.

“There are more than 3,000 species of fish in Western Australia and there are a large number of animal and plants that are not found anywhere else in the world,” Dr Holmes said.

Thinking Blue is WAMSI’s school outreach program which allows students to hear from the state’s top marine scientists on a range of topics.  It’s run with passionate educator and marine scientist John Ryan, who is a teacher at Sacred Heart College in Sorrento.

Dr Holmes, the Marine Science Program Leader at the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, was the first speaker in the latest series of talks and told the students the state they lived in boasted eight of Australia’s 15 biodiversity hotspots.

He explained that mangroves, which are predominantly in the north of the state, supported a lot of life including molluscs, birds and mud skippers. Roots from the plants emerged from the sediment trapping organic matter and allowing the plant to breathe.

“Around Roebuck Bay near Broome scientists have found mangroves are an important area for juvenile green turtles and the area is like a nursery or creche for the animals.”

“There are 13 species of mangroves in the Kimberley and six or seven in the Pilbara.”

Speaking about estuaries, Dr Holmes said they contained a ‘mix of fresh and saltwater species’. One of these was the sawfish, which was a threatened species.

Dr Holmes shared photographs of life in the depths of the Indian Ocean including the sea pig, which is a pink coloured sea cucumber with modified legs and face tentacles.

“It’s a complete alien world at those depths where animals have adapted to live where the environment is cold, with high pressure, low oxygen and low light,” Dr Holmes said.

His talk also covered Western Australia’s spectacular coral reefs, of which Ningaloo is the most famous. He also explained that the biggest individual plant in the world was in WA, a seagrass in the sheltered embayments of Shark Bay.

“This plant has cloned itself over an enormous scale and is now 180km long.”

Dr Holmes finished his lecture, which will be shared with other schools and on the WAMSI website, by taking questions including one from a student about how they could find work in marine science.

He explained he grew up three hours from Queensland’s spectacular coast and learned to dive by retrieving golf balls. Once he had the chance to dive in the ocean, he was hooked on marine life and went on to study marine science.

He said it was a competitive area and it helped to get higher education qualifications.

“But there are many other jobs in this area that don’t require a doctorate including in policy and out in the field as a ranger.

“Get experience where you can, perhaps work towards a skipper’s ticket. It all helps.”

Check out Dr Tom Holmes’ Thinking Blue talk here:

Study examines 30 years of seagrass restoration to find best methods

A major review of seagrass programs in Cockburn Sound has helped identify the best methods for restoring large scale seabed meadows and found community involvement was a key to success.

Seagrass meadows were decimated from the 1950s and restoration attempts in the past three decades have included everything from sprig and seed-based methods to mechanical plantings, seagrass in sandbags being placed on the seabed and wire coils being used to fix small plants into the sediment.

The project, which is part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program, looked at more than 110 restoration efforts since the 1990s and re-visited 31 sites to assess their success.

The study was led by Professor Gary Kendrick from The University of Western Australia and Professor Jennifer Verduin from Murdoch University.

Professor Verduin said sprig-based programs, where mature seagrass shoots were collected by divers from natural meadows, were found to have achieved high transplant success rates.

“Survival was as high as 90 percent on larger scale sprig-based restoration trials of up to three hectares,” Professor Verduin said.

“We found over a period of 15 to 20 years, the growth of sprigs resulted in the formation of new meadows.”

The study found both sprig-based restoration and seeding programs, such as Seeds for Snapper, had developed viable methods for revegetating large areas of bare seafloor. But large-scale sprig-based restoration programs, while labour intensive, were particularly efficient in quickly stabilising the sediment and creating almost instant meadows. This accelerated the formation of natural meadows.

“Cockburn Sound and Owen Anchorage suffered a major loss of seagrass from the 1950s to the 1990s and while there have been dozens of programs since to rehabilitate the area, there has been limited follow-up to gauge their success,” Professor Verduin said.

“Restoration programs are important and contribute to the rapid natural recovery of seagrass habitats by ameliorating loss and supporting the recovery of grasses.”

“Some of the projects in the past have been on areas of no more than three hectares and we wanted to see if we could recommend a restoration package that could be scaled up to ten times that area to enhance restoration success.”

One of the main findings of the review was confirmation that engaging with local communities was key to the success of large-scale seagrass restoration programs.

Community-based citizen science and restoration projects working with volunteers were recommended as cost-effective approaches to increase the scale of restoration.

“These transplanting projects have already been successful at Southern Flats, Cockburn Sound, and Oyster Harbour, Albany,” Professor Verduin said.

Seagrasses, sometimes referred to as the ‘oceans’ lungs’ are a vital part of the ecosystem. They reduce coastal erosion by stabilising sediment, provide critical habitat for marine animals and efficiently store carbon.