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Wetland system repair research alliance - Greening Australia and James Cook University (TropWATER)

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Dr Niall Connolly (Greening Australia) and Prof. Norm Duke (TropWATER, JCU)
A research alliance between Greening Australia and James Cook University’s TropWATER (Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystems Research) has formed to tackle and expand restoration of wetland systems within Great Barrier Reef Catchments.

Dr Nathan Waltham (Principal Research Scientist, TropWATER) said that “A recent audit of Australia’s freshwater and estuarine wetland systems revealed that most are moderately to severely modified, suffer poor water quality, are overtaken with invasive species, and generally provide reduced habitat for aquatic species. In response, government (state and federal) agencies have invested considerable funding into on-ground system repair projects, coordinated through NRM bodies and extension partners.  While these on-ground system repair projects have been delivered with the intention of achieving biodiversity and water quality outcomes, little scientific data is available to actually evaluate and validate these outcomes.”

Greening Australia (GA) is a national non-for-profit organisation striving towards the vision of healthy and productive landscapes where people and nature thrive.  GA (QLD) has committed to undertake a technical program to design and evaluate wetland system repair projects that will be delivered through the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and GA QLD’s GBR Reef Aid funding.  Brendan Foran (CEO Greening Australia) said “the research alliance was important in supporting restoration efforts administered through Reef Aid funding, but was also necessary to support plans to expand the program to new project sites”.

We have two restoration sites are underway: 1) West Haughton, Crooked waterhole complex, Burdekin; and 2) Mungalla wetland, Ingham, and its early days before we can reveal results” said Mr Foran.   

Prof Norm Duke (TropWATER) recently visited Mungalla to inspect the extent of mangrove and saltmarsh wetland habitat adjacent to recent restoration efforts, which involved an earth bund wall removal to allow tidal flushing to help control invasive aquatic plants.  Prof Duke said “the mangrove and saltmarsh habitat adjacent to Mungalla station show signs of stress, whether because of impact from feral pigs, erosion, aquatic weeds or sea level rise, the mangroves are as risk without intervention”.

Dr Waltham said “field studies were underway covering water quality, habitat surveys, fish and turtles, and hydrology.  More data is expected over the coming months before the wet season.

For more information contact Dr Nathan Waltham (TropWATER, James Cook University -Nathan.waltham@jcu.edu.au or Dr Niall Connolly (Great Barrier Reef Rivers and Wetlands Program Manager – Nconnolly@greeningaustralia.org.au)

Greening Australia acknowledges the funding support for this project by the Australian Government’s Department of Environment through the Reef Trust Program.

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Fencing feral pigs out of a nationally significant coastal wetland

Coastal wetlands provide critical habitat for aquatic flora and fauna species, and cultural values for local communities in Australia. The ability for wetlands to continue providing these same ecosystem services in the future is threatened owing to a range of pressures such as agriculture, overfishing, hunting, recreation, water extraction and pollution of water. In addition to these, and increasingly so, are the introduction of feral animals which while also provide a use for humans in some instances (i.e., food substance), introduced populations can easily increase and contribute to wide scale destruction and long term consequences, including loss of sensitive species and habitat.

The Burnett Mary Regional Group for Natural Resource Management funded the installation of an exclusion fence around a large coastal wetland near Agnes Waters, Queensland.  The fence is approximately 3km long, and designed to keep out feral pigs and cattle from accessing the wetland.   The fenced wetland area is part of the Bustard Bay Wetlands Directory of Important Wetlands Area (under the EPBC Act), in recognition of the unique flora and fauna that exist in the area.  Recently a Masters of Philosophy student from University of Queensland recorded the endangered water mouse (Xeromys myoides) in the wetland.  The wetland is also home to a number of migratory birds, fish and freshwater turtles. 

Kirsten Wortel (Burnet Mary Regional Group) said “the fence was completed in November 2016 following many years of noticeable impact from feral animals in the reserve.  We are looking forward to seeing how the wetland responds to these efforts, but more work is still necessary”.

Dr Nathan Waltham (TropWATER, James Cook University) is completing research on the health and condition of the wetland.  Dr Waltham said “we’ve seen the impact of feral animals, particularly pigs, on coastal wetlands all the way along the northern Queensland coastline, including the Gulf of Carpentaria.  The damage caused by pigs not only contributes to local impact, but often sediment from damaged wetland areas is washed during rainfall to downstream areas

Dr Waltham said “we have secured federal government funding through the National Environment Science Program – Tropical Water Quality Hub, which will assist in forming a partnership between Burnet Mary Management Group, Queensland Government and local community, to examine how the wetland condition responds to the fencing.  For me, I am also interested in how the conditions in the downstream estuary, in the fish habitat area, also responds to these efforts”.

Ms Wortel said “this wetland has steadily become impacted over the years, but it’s great to see the fence finally in placeIts early days, but we are excited to track the condition in the wetland over the coming years.  We hope that data from this project site will assist other NRM groups challenged with feral animal management.

For more information contact Kirsten Wortel (Burnet Mary Regional Group) Kirsten.Wortel@bmrg.org.au or Maree Prior, BMRG Biodiversity Team. Maree.Prior@bmrg.org.au. Ph 0417 554 905

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Asian Green Mussel: Surveillance underway in Weipa waters


Avoiding crocodiles and hunting mussel DNA are two priorities as the surveillance effort continues in the hunt for Asian green mussels around Weipa, following the discovery of a single mussel south of the town in May 2017.

Biosecurity Queensland officers have spent time working with local businesses and the community to check areas where the mussels may take up residence, including wharves, moorings and old pieces of nets and ropes.

"We have received great support from the local community, and our officers have been working with North Queensland Bulk Ports, Maritime Safety Queensland, the federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and Rio Tinto to look for signs of the marine pest," Biosecurity Queensland Invasive Plants and Animals general manager Dr John Robertson said.

"Biosecurity Queensland officers met with local stakeholders last week to discuss the investigation and establish an Industry Reference Group to keep partners up-to-date with activities," he said.

"We are implementing a range of surveillance techniques, including partnering with CSIRO to use a Remotely Operated Vehicle funded by the federal government, to investigate underwater infrastructure.

"We're now reviewing the footage taken from a range of sites, including Evans Landing, Hey Point, Hey River, Boyd Bay, Humbug, Hey River Terminal, Weipa Harbour, and Cora Bank."

Biosecurity Queensland have also contracted James Cook University's Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, who commenced a plankton tow survey in the area this week, hunting for Asian green mussel DNA.

"The plankton tows target the traces of the mussel like eggs and larvae in the water, which float around and disperse after spawning," JCU principal research scientist Dr Rob Coles said.

"In other Asian green mussel surveys we have also used divers to survey the bottom of moored vessels – but that is not practical in Weipa due to the presence of crocodiles."

Dr Robertson called on the community to keep a lookout for Asian green mussel on boat hulls and anchors that had been moored for a period of time.

"Other places where Asian green mussels can be found are on floating objects that wash up on beaches," Dr Robertson said.

Asian green mussels are an invasive marine pest that out-compete native species. The single Asian green mussel was discovered on a settlement plate array south of Rio Tinto's Amrun Project port development site.

Asian green mussels are identified by the following characteristics:
· mussels can be between 8 and 16cm long
· juvenile shell is bright green
· adult shell is dark green to brown
· shell exterior is smooth with concentric growth rings and finely pitted ridge for ligament attachment
· shell interior is smooth, iridescent pale blue to green
· shell beak has interlocking teeth (1 in right valve, 2 in left)
· posterior is wavy, adductor muscle is large and kidney-shaped.

To report marine pests or for more information, contact Biosecurity Queensland on 13 25 23 or visit www.daf.qld.gov.au
Subscribe to the DAF aquatic pest e-alert at www.daf.qld.gov.au and go to 'About us', then 'eNewsletters' and 'Subscribe to our eNewsletters' and select the aquatic pests alert.

Follow Biosecurity Queensland on Facebook and Twitter (@BiosecurityQld).

Media: Andrea Corby, 3330 4551

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Seeing a ghost for the first time

A gradual increase in the detection of these stunning little fish called cling gobies has been occurring in the Australian Wet Tropics over the past decade as a function of TropWATER fish ecologists snooping around in rainforest streams. Ebb and James Donaldson have encountered a ninth species in Australia based on glimpses of this fish grazing on rocks immediately beneath a waterfall just south of Cairns. On one trip they even roped in fish guru, Dr Gerry Allen, to help out with things since he has encountered cling gobies more widely in streams of the Pacific region. Ebb commented that ‘it was a pretty exciting day when observing two giant cling gobies at a whopping 18 cm and 20 cm in length. Most adult cling gobies are more typically around the three to ten centimetre mark.’

A second trip involved using a network of ten video cameras to record the behaviour of this secretive species. The species has a red eye, and the ladies are little and brown whereas, the male is brown with black and gold patterns on the upper body. However, in the lead up to courtship the bucks display an overall luminescent white sheen with two thick black stripes resembling chop sticks on each pectoral fin, and some aqua-blue touches at the base of the tail. This male masquerade stands-out vividly in the darkened rainforest streams, hence it appears like a ghost. The identification was confirmed by the world expert on stream cling gobies, Professor Philippe Keith from the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, in Paris. Professor Keith commented that ‘this species is found elsewhere on tropical Pacific Islands, but is usually much smaller in body size than what has been seen in the case of the range extension to the Cairns region’.

For further information the relevant short paper has just been published in the French ichthyology journal, Cybium:

Ebner, B. C., Donaldson, J. D., Allen, G., and Keith, P. (2017). Testing an underwater video network and first record of Sicyopterus cynocephalus in Australia. Cybium 41, 117–125

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‘Perfect storm’ led to 2016 GBR bleaching

Researchers from James Cook University and the Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgiumsay unprecedented oceanographic conditions in 2016 produced the perfect storm of factors that lead to a mass coral bleaching.

JCU’s Professor Eric Wolanski said even in very warm years with a summer el Nino event, such as 1998, there was no massive coral bleaching in the Torres Strait and only small to moderate bleaching in the northern Great Barrier Reef.

“So, the extensive coral bleaching in these areas during the summer of 2016 was an unwelcome surprise,” he said.

A 2016 aerial survey of the northern Great Barrier Reef lead by Professor Terry Hughes from JCU’s Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies showed that 90 per cent of reefs in some of these areas were severely bleached.

Professor Wolanski said satellite data showed the 2016 El Nino heating started in the Gulf of Carpentaria, with patches of water reaching an exceptionally high 34 oC.

The water then flowed east onto the Torres Strait reefs and south to the Great Barrier Reef. The ‘residence time’ of the very warm water in the Torres Strait and the Northern Great Barrier Reef was exceptionally long, which increased the thermal stress on the coral.

All of these factors enabled local solar heating to proceed unrestricted.

“Examining surface currents suggests that the North Queensland Coastal Current in the Coral Sea, which would normally flush and cool the Northern Great Barrier Reef, actually did the opposite. It reversed course and brought very warm water to the Northern Great Barrier Reef.”

Professor Wolanski said these processes together made it the perfect thermal storm.

He said the study employed oceanography models used extensively to study water flow in the region, which were then calibrated with real oceanographic data.

Professor Wolanski said the study was subjective to the extent that there was a lack of oceanographic field data in the Great Barrier Reef itself for the 2016 el Nino event. By contrast, the amount of oceanographic field data in the Torres Strait and the northern Coral Sea was very good.

“What we presented is our best-informed attempt to reveal the mechanisms involved in causing the event, based on the available oceanographic data combined with the existing body of knowledge on the water circulation in and around the Torres Strait/Northern Great Barrier Reef region.”

The study has been published in the scientific journal Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science.

Contacts

Professor Eric Wolanski, FTSE
E:eric.wolanski@jcu.edu.au
P: 07-47815453

Richard Davis
Head of Media and Communications, JCU
richard.davis@jcu.edu.au
0413 451 475

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Turtle go-slow zone extensions needed

23 June 2017

James Cook University marine scientists are calling for an extension of go-slow zones in turtle habitats to reduce boat strikes on the threatened creatures.

JCU’s Dr Takahiro Shimada was part of a joint team from JCU and the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection that created and implemented the study. They tracked 18 green and 20 loggerhead turtles, in some cases for more than two-and-a-half years.  

He said the team concentrated on the Moreton Bay area of Brisbane, as this is where most turtle strikes happen in Queensland. Dr Shimada said that many shallow and all deeper areas in the bay are not go- slow zones.

“At the time the regulations were brought into effect, it wasn’t possible to track turtle habitats as accurately as we can now. So we set out to document where the turtles actually are,” he said.

The scientists found the turtles they tracked were present throughout the bay, and stayed mostly in water less than five metres deep.

“On the east side of the bay, most of their habitat is covered by go-slow zones, but almost none of their habitats in the rest of the bay are covered,” said Dr Shimada.

He said turtles are at risk when they surface to breathe, rest or when basking at or near the surface. They can also be struck when there is not enough depth for a hull or motor to pass over them safely. Dr Shimada said the animals were not agile enough to get out of the way of a fast-approaching vessel.

“We know that reducing the speed of boats significantly decreases the risk of collisions with turtles and dugongs and other air breathing animals,” he said.

Dr Shimada said that if all shallow zones in Moreton Bay were designated as go-slow zones, nearly half or more of the turtle habitats could be protected.

“If we did that and added a small buffer zone from shallow water extending into deeper water, up to 95 percent of the habitat would be covered.” 

Dr Shimada said the team were very mindful that human recreational and commercial use of Moreton Bay was valuable and that it was inevitable that compromises would have to be made.

“Effective management for recovery of a population doesn’t necessarily require the elimination of a particular source of mortality but rather that the mortality is low enough to allow the population to recover. Management agencies will need to balance the needs for reducing boat strikes with the use of the resource by the community,” he said.

Contact: Dr Takahiro Shimada

E: takahiro.shimada@jcu.edu.au

M: 0474 116 789

Images: Video of Dr Shimada demonstrating the ‘rodeo method’ of turtle capture here.

Dr Shimada  works at JCU’s Townsville campus. 

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Distant fish relatives share looks

14 June 2017

James Cook University scientists have found evidence that even distantly related Australian fish species have evolved to look and act like each other, which confirms a central tenet of evolutionary theory.

Dr Aaron Davis from the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER) at JCU said the phenomenon, known as convergent evolution, happens when different fish adopt similar lifestyles and evolve through time to look very similar.

Scientists used techniques such as scanning electron microscopy and x-ray imaging to investigate species’ bodies and feeding mechanisms.  

“The study highlighted some really striking similarities in characteristics like tooth and jaw structure and body shape between Australian freshwater grunters and several other marine fish families when they share feeding habits,” said Dr Davis.  

Convergent evolution is one of the fundamental predictions of evolutionary theory. The JCU research was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society Bjournal link (and highlighted on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website link).

It identified significant convergence in body form between Australian freshwater terapontid grunters and several distantly related marine fish families separated by 30-50 million years of evolution.

Dr Davis said Australia’s freshwater fish are quite unique.

“We don’t have lots of the freshwater fish families we see elsewhere because of our long geographic isolation from other continents. Most of our freshwater fish have actually evolved from marine fish groups that have invaded and adapted to Australian freshwaters over millions of years.”

He said this meant Australian freshwater fish provided a rare testing ground for theories about evolution and the role of factors such as habitat, diet and competition in shaping evolutionary processes.

“It matches our expectations regarding evolution, but we haven’t seen this process documented at such broad habitat and time scales all that frequently, so it’s quite exciting,” he said.

Contact: Dr Aaron Davis

M: 0457 300 195

E: aaron.davis@jcu.edu.au

Link to pics taken with a Scanning Electron Microscope.

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Research for an oil (palm) change

In recent research, scientists have developed a technique that shows great promise for helping oil palm growers optimise production and reduce environmental impacts. The research, carried out by doctoral candidate Lénaïc Pardon, focused on crop yield, nitrous oxide emissions and nitrogen leaching.

The findings are published in the latest edition of Field Crops Research.

Co-author Associate Professor Paul Nelson of James Cook University said oil palm is an important food crop, meeting about thirty per cent of the global demand for vegetable oil.

“This will be a valuable tool and can be used in on-farm decision making. It will give growers information that will help them make decisions that are good for both productivity and the environment.”

“Many of the oil palm growers we dealt with had an interest in doing the right thing environmentally, but until now it has been difficult for them to predict how changes in management might affect their productivity and environmental impact, and determine what trade-offs might be involved.’

Mr Pardon and his colleagues simulated the impacts of management and site conditions on nitrogen cycling, using data from three plantations. The simulation simultaneously predicted changes in productivity and environmental impacts associated with different cropping practices, such as fertiliser application and sowing of legume cover crops.

Dr Nelson said that oil palm is a highly productive source of vegetable oil that can be managed in an environmentally sound way.

“We need to keep in mind that producing the same amount of vegetable oil from an alternative crop requires approximately seven times the area of land that oil palm is currently grown on.

“Science has an important role to play in improving the productivity and sustainability of tropical agriculture. This research involved a team of scientists from Australia, France, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia who collected and analysed the large amounts of data required.

“The technique will be particularly useful for growers of environmentally certified palm oil, which is produced without clearing of primary forests, with transparent and fair agreements with landowners and good land management practices.”

The research was carried out in partnership between James Cook University, the French Agricultural Research and International Cooperation Organization (CIRAD), the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), AgroParisTech, SMART Research Institute and the Papua New Guinea Oil Palm Research Association, with funding from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the French National Research Agency (ANR).

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