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

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.”

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.

How does the ocean’s only flowering plant cope with being buried?

In water tanks at Edith Cowan University, pots containing Posidonia sinuosa, the most widespread species of seagrass in Cockburn Sound, have been tested to see how much burial under sediment they can withstand. The research, part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program, is looking at the resilience of the ocean’s only flowering plant, to dredging.

ECU researcher, Chanelle Webster, said seagrass was an important part of the ecosystem – providing not only food and habitat for marine animals but also stabilising the seabed and storing carbon which could help combat climate change.

Seagrasses tend to occur in the shallow waters along coastlines as they require a lot of sunlight, but they are easily affected by disturbances in the light reaching the plants.

“One of the main impacts of dredging is changing the amount of light plants receive when sediment is stirred up during operation,” Ms Webster said.

“Another effect of dredging on seagrass is when sediment gets moved and dumped in an area, the particles can settle on seagrass and bury it. This is where my experiment comes in.”

“There are about 10 different species of seagrass in the Sound but Posidonia sinuosa is the main species, you can find it in all areas of the Sound from Kwinana to Garden Island, and this is why we decided to do the experiment with this species.”

“We have been trying to understand how much burial Posidonia sinuosa can tolerate before you start seeing negative impacts to their growth or survival.”

Some of the potted seagrasses had no sediment added, others had up to 16 centimetres of sediment put on them in controlled conditions over four months.

The research team measured the amount the plants grew and noted cellular changes.

“From preliminary analysis, plants tolerate up to four centimetres of burial by sediment but with eight centimetres and more of burial they are impacted.

“When plants were buried by 8cm or more of sediment the growth was significantly less.”

The research indicated Posidonia sinuosa could tolerate burial of four centimetres of sediment for 16 weeks which was the duration of the experiment.

Ms Webster said while further analysis was still to be done, the preliminary results were promising in terms of being able to minimise impacts to seagrasses in the Sound.

WAMSI offering two free student registrations for lobster biology conference

The Western Australian Marine Science Institution is offering two WA-based Honours, Masters or PhD students the chance to improve their understanding of rock lobster and crab biology with free registration for the International Conference and Workshop on Lobster Biology and Management (ICWL) in Fremantle this October.

The theme of the 12th ICWL is ‘Ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM)’ – an approach that recognises all interactions within an ecosystem rather than considering a single species or issue in isolation.

WAMSI is a Bronze Sponsor of the conference and has secured two student registrations to offer people undertaking study at any of our partner universities (Curtin University, Edith Cowan University, Murdoch University and The University of Western Australia) or working at our partner organisations while doing further studies. They must be WA based but can be enrolled at other universities.

WAMSI Research Director Dr Jenny Shaw said it was an opportunity for students to find out more about marine research and fisheries and explore career opportunities.

“The ICWL began in Perth more than 40 years ago. At the time, 37 biologists from six countries met to discuss and compare their work on a range of lobster topics,” Dr Shaw said.

“Since then, it has grown in popularity and prestige.”

“Given the WA rock lobster fishery is the largest single species fishery in Australia with a value of more than $450m annually and was the first in the world to achieve Marine Stewardship Council accreditation, this is a fabulous opportunity for students to learn more about the industry as well as science around the species.

“It’s also a terrific opportunity to network at a prestigious, international conference.”

Students who are interested in applying for WAMSI’s student registration offer are asked to:

Write a letter (maximum of one page) outlining their area of study, explaining how they would benefit from attending the conference and stating where they are enrolled.

Applications should be addressed to Dr Jenny Shaw and be emailed to info@wamsi.org.au by 5.00pm on Monday 4 September 2023. A decision will be made on Monday 18 September.

Details about the conference can be found here.

Data team collecting, checking and delving into historical records

While dozens of scientists working at Cockburn Sound are busy with field trips and laboratory work, a team behind the scenes is occupied with managing huge amounts of research data while also uncovering and collating crucial historical data to feed back to the projects.

Dr Alicia Sutton, who is part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution Location Data Management Services team, said its role was to help with quality control on current data collection and locate historical scientific information to support the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program’s 30 projects.

“With historical data, we collate data from as far back as possible,” Dr Sutton said.

“One source of data has come from seagrass monitoring which has been collected by the Cockburn Sound Management Council for many years. This data has been provided to WAMSI researchers looking at seagrass in the Sound to provide context and allow for comparisons.”

Another example is collating data on beach profiles (measurements of the angles of the shoreline to look at variability in topography and slope) previously collected by local and State Government, which WAMSI researchers are using to understand shoreline movement across time.

“Water quality data has also been collated across industry and government bodies to help inform a water quality response model for Cockburn Sound as part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program.”

Dr Sutton said collecting historical data had been challenging but it would have benefits beyond the current science program.

“In the case of data collected during the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program, data will become publicly available and be accessible for the long term.”

“That is going to be really helpful for future projects and will allow researchers and other stakeholders to access relevant data easily, without having to contact multiple organisations and trawl through large volumes of reports,” Dr Sutton said.

The range of the data coming in from the projects of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program is broad. It includes spatially mapped data, photos and video footage, models, acoustic spectrograms, social surveys, laboratory and field experimental studies, biological surveys and more.

The data from the current science program, when combined with other available government and industry data has the potential to support the development of regionally specific products and science outcomes, including hydrodynamic and sediment transport models and integrated marine ecosystem biogeochemistry and ecological models.

Managing the data and keeping it safe is a big task.

Data is stored on a collaborative but secure WAMSI storage space as well as at the Pawsey Super Computing Research Centre.

Studying the elusive syngnathids of the Sound

Dozens of Perth divers and keen underwater photographers are helping research into the seahorses and pipefishes of Cockburn Sound and Owen Anchorage as part of a project which will also see water-borne DNA tested for evidence of the beautiful but elusive animals.

The project forms part of the WAMSI Westport Marine Science Program and Dr Glenn Moore, the Curator of Fishes at Western Australian Museum, is leading a research team looking into the diversity and distribution of syngnathids, a family of highly specialized and often cryptic fishes that also includes seadragons.

The fish have national protection under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999.

“They are one of the most challenging groups of fish to survey,” Dr Moore said.

“We can’t run fine nets over the reef because they get caught up and the fish are difficult to spot diving, so we are using multiple methods including looking at historical records.”

“We are using as many data sources as we can to try and compile as much information as possible about the syngnathids in the Sound.”

Dr Moore said citizen scientists had so far uploaded more than 1,000 images to an online portal along with the location where the fish were spotted.

He said one limitation of citizen scientists was they tended to head towards common dive areas where seahorses were well known but the information was still valuable.

Environmental DNA testing will also start soon on water collected from Cockburn Sound to add to information about their distribution.

“We have done some water sampling and we will do eDNA work in the next few months.

“We have frozen water samples and these will be analysed at a specialist laboratory at Curtin University.

“We are hoping we can start to build a picture of their distribution and habitat preferences,” Dr Moore said.

He said part of the eDNA work involved building a DNA library.

“You need to have something to match the eDNA to when we are doing the analyses.

“We need to get DNA from specimens we are looking for and that is a challenge because we don’t get to collect all the species we know are there.”

Dr Moore said most syngnathids lived in shallow coastal waters and were especially reliant on habitats well represented in Cockburn Sound, including seagrass, filter-feeder communities, shallow detritus, reefs and artificial structures.

He said the distribution, habitat preferences and abundance, particularly of seahorses and pipefish, wasn’t well known but the research aimed to find out more with the aim of improving their protection.

Photos: Western Australian Museum

Science influences art in a marine-inspired exhibition

An art exhibition that fuses scientific knowledge with creative inspiration is set to open later this month in Albany.

Immerse will feature artworks by 20 MIX Artists from the Great Southern that showcase a unique art-science collaboration between contemporary artists and marine scientists working in the region.

The waters of the south coast and around Albany are well known for their unique diversity of plants and animals, as well as their productivity, and the works will convey important marine science knowledge and current research from the region to a broad audience.

The Western Australian Marine Science Institution coordinated opportunities for the MIX Artists to learn from marine scientists, through talks and presentations, provision of resources and engagement with marine science students from The University of Western Australia during a field trip. The artists also followed up with ongoing self-research and observation of their environment.

Dr Jenny Shaw, WAMSI Research Director, said it had been particularly interesting to observe how the artists were interpreting their local marine environment.

“It’s been a great opportunity to move science into the community and also see different interpretations of marine research topics,” Dr Jenny Shaw, WAMSI

“The scientists benefit from explaining their work to different audiences and the interest from the artists has been incredibly high, contributing to a shared appreciation for the marine environment.”

The interaction between artists and scientists and the resulting creative process has been well documented and will enable the exhibition audience to learn more about the art-science collaboration.

MIX Artist coordinator Annette Davis said the collaboration had given the MIX Artists fantastic insight into another world and engagement with the scientists have been fundamental as to how the artworks had developed.

“Responding with intuition, curiosity, and imagination, the artists have interpreted their findings through chosen materials and techniques and created individual artworks to help move this understanding into the wider community,” Ms Davis said.

Topics that have inspired the artworks centre around the finely balanced coastal environment and the impact of structural change, such as the threats of plastic pollution and rising sea levels, but also include an emphasis on restoration methods to protect the marine environment.

The pursuit of marine science has inspired some artists.  Catherine Higham has used seagrass and seaweed, on a structure made from willow and bamboo, to make a large-scale listening horn to listen to underwater life.   Another artist used the shapes of scuba diving equipment and scientific data to create a ‘newly discovered’ sea creature, named Scubadeepus data-analyticae, in homage to marine scientists.

Christine Baker’s work, titled Micro Plastic Menu, was inspired by a talk on microplastic contamination in the ocean by UWA’s Dr Harriet Paterson and how it can potentially be transferred through marine food chains.

Immerse will run at the Albany Town Hall from Friday 21 January until Saturday 25 February.   Artists and scientists will talk about the process of this project at a special free event titled Dive In on Saturday 4 February in the Town Hall auditorium.

After being shown in Albany, the exhibition will tour to the Collie Art Gallery, where it will run from 6 May to 11 June.

More information is available here: http://www.mixartists.org/immerse.html

How hair dye is helping conservation of WA’s sea lion population

An innovative new project is using human hair dye on Australian sea lions at Carnac and Seal Islands off the coast of Perth to track and learn about the local population.

Edith Cowan University (ECU) are jointly leading the project with Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) marine researchers, in collaboration with Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD).

The Australian sea lion (ASL) project forms part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) Westport Marine Science Program.

“The hair dye marks are temporary and completely safe, just like hair colour on a human, but for a period of about two months it allows us to identify each sea lion and monitor how often they move amongst the six haul-out islands, such as Carnac Island and Seal Island.

“This project also enables monitoring of the total numbers that occur in the Perth metropolitan area when the animals are at their peak numbers, which is anticipated to be around December or January,” ECU Associate Professor Chandra Salgado Kent said.

The marking method, which has been applied to other species of seals and sea lions elsewhere, is non-invasive and does not harm the animals in anyway.

It only takes a matter of minutes, less than an appointment to the hairdresser!

“A layer of dye is spread on numbers with foam material on them, and the numbers are mounted on a plate attached to a long pole, we then press the plate onto the sea lions back or side.

The poles allow us to keep our distance to create minimal disruption to the sea lions,” Associate Professor Salgado Kent explained.

Tracking via satellite

The use of satellite tags is also being deployed by the expert team, that includes DBCA, ECU and ANU researchers, DBCA and Werribee Open Range Zoo wildlife veterinarians and DBCA and DPIRD marine rangers and wildlife officers.

“We are trying to better understand how many sea lions use the area and where they may be foraging,” DBCA’s Kelly Waples explained.

“To do this we will be putting satellite tracking devices on a small number of sea lions.  These tags are a small package that is unobtrusively glued to the fur on their back just behind their shoulders and will be retrieved from the sea lions in a couple of months’ time before the animals fully moult.”

The satellite tags have already been successfully attached to four sea lions, who were also marked with the hair dye.

Sea lion behaviour and conservation

Male sea lions tend to move between breeding islands around Jurien and haul-out sites in the Perth metro area, many using the Perth Metro Area during non-breeding periods.

The satellite trackers will help obtain high resolution information on where they forage and what habitat is important for them to find and capture their prey.

By understanding which habitats are important, the researchers can get a better understanding of how to manage and protect this endangered species, that have experienced a more than a 60% decline in numbers over the last 40 years.

Simple and effective

The satellite tags are attached only to the fur of the animal using glue.

“This ensures that the animal is not impacted by having the tag on them, and we retrieve the trackers after a month or two so that we can download the high-resolution data from the tag,” Associate Professor Chandra Salgado Kent said.

The ASL hair dye marking, and satellite tracking will continue over the next few months, providing the researchers with information on sea lion behaviours, movement patterns and numbers in the Perth metropolitan area.