NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub Annual Progress Report 5 (2019)

Letter from the Hub Leader (Professor Nic Bax)

We started 2019 well with a publication in the prestigious international journal Nature on the origins of deep-sea biodiversity from tropical Australia to Antarctica. The article is the first indication that biodiversity in the deep ocean, where the majority of Australian Marine Parks (AMPs) are located, is evolving from polar latitudes and not tropical latitudes where shallower marine biodiversity originates. Tropical deep-water AMPs harbour a museum of old lineages that warrant special consideration. It is gratifying to see this kind of research coming to fruition as it is the result of the Marine Biodiversity Hub’s emphasis on building national information streams and expertise since 2007. Some of the first outputs of the Marine Biodiversity Hub were predictions of national marine biogeography (provincial structure, depth structure and geomorphology) requested by the Environmental Resources Information Network (ERIN). These predictions were based on the restricted information available at the time, including early Russian commercial fish surveys obtained from Vladivostok, but were essential to the design of what has become the AMP network. Twelve years later we have the data that validate those predictions (and AMP design) at the macro level, and which can be used to further improve spatial management of the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

This is just one example of the national capacity developed by the Marine Biodiversity Hub, as a result of which marine scientists from partner agencies have been able to engage in both significant national programs and international programs and negotiations supporting the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)  in areas including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, the United Nations (UN) negotiations on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, the UN Decade on Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, the Global Ocean Observing System, the Global Climate Observing System, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IOC-UNESCO) Ocean Best Practices portal to name just some. While the National Environmental Science Program (NESP), and earlier Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities (CERF) and National Environmental Research Program (NERP), have built the capacity for Australia’s marine community to engage in these initiatives, international activities are funded externally, increasing the Hub’s influence at no cost to the program, showcasing the NESP program to the world, and bringing back additional ideas and perspectives that improve our capability to support Australian researchers and managers. At the end of 2019, Hub researchers supported the Department in accessing regional input to the CBD post-2020 framework that will develop the global biodiversity goals and metrics for the next decade, and attended the post-2020 marine thematic, including facilitating the workshop on marine restoration and its role in climate mitigation and adaptation, an increasingly active area for the Hub.

While the Marine Biodiversity Hub works at the national scale in driving consistency in measurement, such as through a leadership role on the National Marine Science Committee (NMSC), Marine Monitoring and Baselines working group, or through national inventories of opportunities for marine restoration, work is often started on a regional basis, and through its network into the marine community it becomes nationally relevant. The Integrated Monitoring Framework that provides the basis for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program is now being used to inform monitoring program design across the New South Wales (NSW) marine estate and the Parks Australia Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement (MERI) framework. Similarly, the cumulative impacts framework developed for the GBR now informs the Hub’s Northern Australia Seascape program, Parks Australia’s MERI framework and potentially the cross-Hub Integrated Environmental Assessment. This sequential regional approach used by the Hub, where knowledge gained in one regional implementation is built on in subsequent implementations has proven to be a sound model for Hub research, but it is important to ensure that the national perspective is part of initial planning so that the process developed for each region is relevant nationally. An important synthesis product this year will be applying these regional approaches nationally, to provide an assessment of pressures, assets and the resulting cumulative risk at 1kmP2P resolution all around Australia.

A notable success in 2019 was the Hub working through the Australian Marine Sciences Association (AMSA) to bring together regional Indigenous representatives from the Kimberley to Esperance for the first time in their history to meet with representatives from research agencies operating in Western Australia. This is the culmination of 4 years of learning with Indigenous experts through workshops in New Zealand, Darwin and Adelaide, each building expectations and trust, until finally in Perth last year we were able to understand the breakthroughs in regional collaboration that will be needed to support the expanding engagement in a respectful and sustained manner. A key outcome was to realize that it is not only Indigenous groups that need to coordinate among themselves to develop agreed standards of engagement, but also the research agencies that will need to improve their consistency and standards so that the capacity of Indigenous groups is not swamped by a variety of alternative approaches and protocols. This result was facilitated by the attendance of all major Hub partners who represent the major Western Australian and national research providers.  The outcomes of the 2019 Perth meeting will this year be built upon for the eastern seaboard by a different group working with advice from the Hub deputy director.

This sixth and final year of NESP promises to be an exciting and productive year with many projects releasing their results and the Hub engaging in a series of interactions (which will use new engagement tools and products during the period of COVID-19 travel restrictions). One of the Hub’s early synthesis products is the Shark Action Plan designed to support a strategic and effective approach to the conservation and management of this vulnerable group of species. While the Policy Report has already been developed with the Protected Species and Community Branch, preparing the large amount of data on listing status of the 328 species of sharks and rays present in Australian waters to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) standard has taken longer. The complete Shark Action Plan will be delivered this year, together with the first population estimate for the Australian population of Southern Right Whales being developed by an international team, and updated information on the status (including newly found populations) and recovery opportunities for seasnakes, hammerhead sharks, and red and spotted handfish. A second synthesis product is the analysis of coral reef surveys from Reef Life Survey. This program was supported in CERF and has since had continued support by the Marine Biodiversity Hub through NERP and NESP. It has had spectacular National and global success, providing the most important biological dataset in the 2016 State of the Environment (SoE) Report and many high profile papers from their global surveys, resulting in the research leader being made an ARC Future Fellow and becoming a member of the IOC/UNESCO Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). It is surprising that of all the reef monitoring occurring in Australia, this (and the long-term temperate reef survey program that it grew from) are the only reef surveys which discriminate communities at the species level. The synthesis product will compare reefs across Northern Australia (including Ningaloo, GBR and the Coral Sea) to determine which coral species have been affected by bleaching events and which have survived. This species-level approach will be vital to inform ongoing and substantial government investments in coral reef restoration.

Targeting delivery of our scientific products to meet the Department’s needs for effectively administering the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act is an important component of the Hub’s research design and delivery strategies, especially working with the Protected Species and Communities Branch and Parks Australia, and more generally in particularly challenging areas such as developing a framework to address cumulative impacts for jurisdictions (in 2019 for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and in 2020 for NSW) that are ready to apply them. The Hub has been steadily developing a focus on marine restoration, recognising it as an important option for climate mitigation and adaptation. Carbon sequestration is much higher for coastal communities like mangroves, saltmarsh, seagrass and kelp than terrestrial communities and there are clear biodiversity benefits. The Hub started its restoration research by developing and supporting a national audit of coastal restoration and is now focussing on developing restoration options with direct benefits to marine biodiversity and communities, including Traditional Owners. Identifying where restoration fits into the Department’s legislative requirements under the EPBC Act was the focus of a 2018 research workshop that resulted in a report characterised as “a really good piece of research/writing to inform work in the Department.” A follow-up workshop planned for March 2020 has been postponed due to COVID-19.

It is an ongoing focus of Hub research to map how restoration research will support management of Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES) including AMPs, how we can promote international policy in this area (through the CBD post-2020 agenda), and how we can work with Australian communities (including Indigenous) to make coastal restoration a key Australian deliverable to enhance ecosystem services and mitigate biodiversity losses resulting from human activity and climate change.

Finally, I would like to end on a personal note and thank the Department, research users, partners and researchers for the opportunity to lead the Marine Biodiversity Hub since 2007. It has been a privilege to be given the opportunity to impact the way that marine science can be made most accessible and useful to Australian managers and policy makers, and satisfying to understand and effect (with my most able Deputy Director Paul Hedge), the increased value from joint development of marine science questions by Hub researchers and research users. I look forward to hearing of the Marine Biodiversity Hub’s continued successes.

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