NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub Annual Progress Report 4 (2018)

Letter from the Hub Leader, Prof Nic Bax

2018 saw an increase in the rate of delivery of products to the Department. An early delivery was the first estimate of population size and trend for the white shark populations on the east and west coasts, generating considerable media interest and providing a sound basis for the Department to respond to many conflicting proposals on the control and protection of this species. The new and intensive genetic approach – close kin genetics – used for this estimate provided the first statistically valid population estimate for this species worldwide. Its development for rare and threatened species started with the freshwater sawfish in 2012 (insufficient animals could be caught to provide a valid estimate), switched to speartooth shark in 2014 and was extended to grey nurse shark in 2015. Population estimates for all species are now with the Department.

Of course there are many species of sharks and rays in Australia and not all can have the resources expended for a quantitative population estimate. Hub researchers worked closely with the Department in 2018 to develop a comprehensive shark action plan, building on a previous national assessment. The plan indicated that 38 of the 328 shark species in Australia were threatened and in need of protection although the status of a further 30 was uncertain due to lack of data. This is one of the lowest proportions of threatened sharks and rays globally and assisted the Department in developing a process to prioritise action on the threatened species.

It may already be too late to restore populations of the critically endangered handfish populations in their once natural environment, although trials are underway to improve the quantity and quality of artificial spawning habitat. Working with industry, a captive rearing population of the spotted handfish was established in 2018, which successfully produced the first captive-born generation. Meanwhile an emergency response was put into action to remove an egg mass from the red handfish, of which only about 100 fish survive worldwide, in an attempt to establish a captive rearing population for this species. Much more work needs to be done in closing the life-cycle for these two species, but the essential first steps have been taken through a collaboration of researchers, managers and industry, supported by the Hub.

There are insufficient resources to work to recover all listed marine species in Australia, so the Hub has been working with the Department on two initiatives to support these other species. The first stage of an integrated management project was completed in Northern Australia with the aim of managing the landscape which supports many species, and following a national evaluation and prioritisation exercise, including responsibilities under the EPBC Act, restoration activities were started for the listed giant kelp community off Tasmanian and seagrass in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, two keystone species that support many other vulnerable species.

A major impetus of the Hub has been to help access and promote the many diverse Australian marine data collection initiatives so that they support, at little additional cost to the taxpayer, the ongoing information needs of marine managers in the Department and beyond. An important approach has been promote standardisation of data collection and sharing for the many marine environmental surveys occurring every year in Australian waters. The Hub worked with the National Marine Science Committee to hold the first Marine Baselines and Monitoring Group that is identifying the opportunities for national coordination of marine environmental data collection so that Australia will be able to profit in the future from sustained time series data, the lack of which is regularly identified in State of Environment reports. Hub researchers led over 65 researchers from 30 institutions to develop and publish Standard Operating Procedures for major data collection platforms and collaborated with national infrastructure initiatives to ensure that some of the major data streams used for Marine Park and SOE reporting will come under national archiving and FAIR data initiatives. Global interest in these approaches have led to their inclusion in the Ocean Best Practices repository and current prioritisation for inclusion in the global ocean observing system. Earlier data syntheses by the Hub have now been picked up through major national initiatives supporting improved data accessibility for managers including SeaMap Australia, AusSeabed and the Parks Australia Science Atlas.

Collating and improving access to existing data, while setting the standards for future data collection is very useful but going to sea to collect new information is considerably more fun, and given the paucity of knowledge of what the new Australian Marine Parks contain, equally useful. Marine surveys in the Beagle and Hunter Marine Parks provided a good opportunity to test and refine these national approaches while the year ended with a 27-day voyage to the southern seamounts in and adjacent to the Huon and Tasman Fracture Marine Parks developed collaboratively with Parks Australia, CSIRO and NIWA (New Zealand) and including students and early career researchers from universities and museums around Australia. The presence of Parks Australia on board throughout the voyage allowed an almost unprecedented level of engagement between managers and early career researchers that will provide ongoing benefit for the future baseline and monitoring of Australian Marine Parks. The survey itself generated a larger set of data on coldwater corals on deep-water coral reefs than exists anywhere else in the world, that together with similar, although less intensive, surveys 10 and 20 years ago will result in new understandings of how these vulnerable coldwater coral communities and structured through depth and their potential for recovery from physical disturbances including fishing.

It is a rare privilege these days to receive six-years dedicated funding for a body of research such as marine biodiversity. The value of this approach is witnessed by our increasing engagement with departmental officers as we now have the information and resources to ensure that the data collected by scientists is prepared and delivered in a form that is useful to managers in the Department and beyond. This extended engagement between researchers and the Department has enabled Australia’s marine research organisations to build their scientific capacity and this manifests as increasing expert advice to the Department. Hub researchers support departmental officers in preparing for and representing their scientific priorities in national fora including the National Marine Science Committee, and the review into allocation of ship-time for the Marine National Facility. Hub researchers support, and in some cases represent the government (as scientific experts with DoEE and DFAT) at international negotiations including the Convention for Biological Diversity, the UN dialogue on developing a new implementing agreement for managing biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction, the UN Convention on Migratory Species, and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species. Hub research is now being used in studies funded by the Australian Government (ARC, DFAT), the German Government, and the Fisheries and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations to develop new bioregional and bathymetry maps for the Indian, South Pacific and Antarctic oceans, and support environmental reporting through the State of Environment Report and the World Ocean Assessment.

In the last two years of the Hub, our researchers are working with the Department and stakeholders to identify and develop synthesis projects that will further focus and deliver our research and the combined expertise of the research collaborations that we have developed into products that are of immediate and of long-term value to the Department and marine stakeholders in general.



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