NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub Final Report (2015-2021)

Since July 2015, the NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub has provided evidence and tools to help the Australian Government, state governments, Indigenous communities, industry and the community to better understand, manage and conserve Australia’s marine environment. The Hub research partners have worked closely with the Department to align their co-investment towards key management and policy priorities, and have established enduring partnerships to deliver fit-for-purpose scientific advice and tailored outputs to meet the needs of research end-users.

The final year of the Hub research program, delivered through Research Plan Version 6 (2020), presented the Hub’s researchers challenges that required them to adapt and respond to travel restrictions associated with COVID-19, and manage program level risks associated with delayed milestones. With a total of 29 active research projects in 2020, delayed milestones extending into 2021 were spread across a number of projects, and the Hub executive worked closely with the project leaders and end-users to ensure the needs of decision makers were met.

Highlights during 2020 include leading and supporting Australian Marine Park (AMP) seabed mapping and biodiversity surveys and analysis covering the Hunter, Lord Howe, Ningaloo, Arafura, Wessels, Beagle, Gascoyne and South-west Corner Marine Parks. These surveys extended the Hubs program of inventory and baselines, with large areas of high-resolution multibeam sonar surveys of the seafloor allowing detailed bathymetric mapping. Biotic data on benthic assemblages and fish surveyed using stereo camera systems on Autonomous Underwaters Vehicles, Remotely Operated Vehicles, towed systems and baited cameras has provided a raft of new insights into patterns of marine habitats and biodiversity around the country and across large depth ranges in Australia’s extensive marine estate.

These surveys have applied the Hub's Field Manuals for Marine Sampling to Monitor Australian Waters, version 2, which are endorsed by experienced researchers, managers and technicians from multiple agencies. The field manuals are a critical requirement for nationally coordinated marine research and monitoring, and are used by Parks Australia as part of approving scientific sampling in marine parks. Much of this work has also contributed to projects supporting the development of the AMP Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement System, which has also incorporated mapping of pressures and evaluation of risks to natural values, and common approaches to evaluate social and economic values associated with AMPs. All of this work has been built on effective collaboration between researchers and marine park managers, and has raised the bar for achievements with co-designed and co-delivered practical research for Australian Marine Parks.

An important focus for much of the work of the Hub has been to support the recovery and conservation of a number of threatened and migratory marine species. Projects have aimed to strengthen Australia’s capacity to effectively meet the requirements of regional, national, and international conservation policies. One of the Hub’s key products soon to be published is “The Action Plan for Australian Sharks and Rays 2021” for Australian cartilaginous fishes, which provides a comprehensive and consistent review of the extinction risk of all Australian sharks, rays, and chimaeras. This publication provides a benchmark from which changes in population and risk can be measured; and to help guide management for their conservation. The Action Plan also serves to raise the profile of their diversity and conservation needs.

Another area of important development over the life of the Hub relates to coastal habitat restoration where research investment is generating national research capacity and a better evidence base to target and accelerate restoration research in Australia. Our work with stakeholders and research users, in particular through the Australian Coastal Restoration Network, is forging nationally coordinated approaches to the repair of shellfish reefs and saltmarshes, and testing methods for enhancing recovery and survival of temperate seagrasses and giant kelp forests. This includes evaluating restoration practices and economics, working with traditional owners, and supporting platforms for knowledge sharing among policy makers, practitioners and communities.

Cutting across these research areas the Hub has progressively increased Indigenous engagement and partnerships to deliver a broad range of regionally focused projects to identify and advance Indigenous research interests and priorities. This work has contributed to empowering Indigenous people in land and sea research and management, including championing partnerships with Indigenous organisations and the Australian Marine Science Association (AMSA) to convene four annual Indigenous engagement workshops. These were designed to showcase collaborative projects and share information and perspectives on Indigenous Sea Country rights and aspirations, successful research partnerships, and the importance of culturally appropriate engagement based on accepted standards. The first part of a fifth Indigenous workshop was held at the AMSA 2021 annual conference in June, with the second part of the workshop delayed due to re-introduced COVID-19 restrictions prior to the conference. It is to be rescheduled for late 2021.

Other key Hub successes includes a substantial contribution to national environmental reporting within the 2016 and 2021 national State of the Environment (SoE) reports in relation to data quality and standards; providing datasets, case studies, analyses and better use of existing quantitative data. This continues to build confidence in the reporting process and product, and increases its influence and value to end-users, stakeholders and the broader community.

Effective collaboration and capacity development both within the existing Hub and across the broader science community in general, made possible by co-investment in NESP, has been a key factor in the success of the current Hub. This has enhanced the national capacity for marine science (meeting a number of National Marine Science Plan priorities), and also enabled cross-discipline collaborations to enhance regional capability by skill-sharing and postgraduate training opportunities. It has also enabled collaborative data analysis, storage and visualisation tools developed with significant Hub input (e.g. AusSeabed, AMP Science Atlas). Hub members have also had considerable, and growing, multidisciplinary expertise in collaborations with Indigenous communities.  All of these aspects are essential to maintain and further develop the capacity, investment and partnerships to ensure management of marine ecosystems and resulting community benefits are based on the best available science. The Marine Biodiversity Hub has made an important contribution to achieving this goal.

The Hub has effectively managed the financial aspects of the program, with research partner matching co-investment consistently meeting program requirements, and appropriate investment made across areas of communications, knowledge brokering and data management.  It is anticipated that there will be a small underspend, and specific details of this will be provided in the final financial statement. Overall, research conducted within Marine Biodiversity Hub programs has provided foundational scientific evidence for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use in Australia’s marine environment, and partnerships and processes established by the Hub will continue to serve the needs of end-users engaged in emerging initiatives and protecting conservation priorities.

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