Oceans passion for researchers, volunteers, billionaires

14/08/2020 - 08:30

Using seaweed products to replace plastic is just one of many Western Australian ideas under exploration to improve ocean health.

Paul Hardisty says the Australian Institute of Marine Science has been studying the impact of seismic work by industry on aquatic life. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Reducing plastic in oceans is a passion for Western Australian researchers, volunteers and billionaires alike.

For Tangaroa Blue local coordinator Maureen Maher, one memory of her time working in the Cocos Keeling Islands and Christmas Island has stuck.

The islands are near South-East Asia, and plastic waste washes across on to the beaches.

“I saw a turtle nesting on a beach up there … burying her eggs,” Ms Maher said.

“As she’s trying to dig a hole I could hear the squelch, I could hear the squelch of polystyrene.

“It was disturbing.

“I’m passionate about stopping (plastic pollution).

“The whole world is drowning in plastic.

“When it starts washing up on Cottesloe Beach, that’s when people will know it.”

(click to view a PDF version of the full 12-page special report)

Tangaroa Blue is a not-for-profit organisation devoted to cleaning up beaches in Australia and tracking plastics back to their sources.

It was founded in WA by Heidi Tait, although it is now based in Brisbane.

Ms Maher said Tangaroa had compiled an online database of plastic sources, called the Australian Marine Debris Initiative.

Members worked with organisations responsible for pollution to reduce their impact.

An example was in Geraldton, where plastic packaging tape was washing ashore.

“The fishermen were going out with these full polystyrene boxes of bait … pulling (tape) off and throwing them in the ocean,” Ms Maher said.

“They’re the kind of thing a seal can swim through.”

But that had changed thanks to Tangaroa’s engagement, she said.

Another example was in Cottesloe, where the council had banned balloons to improve the coastline.

Iron ore magnate Andrew Forrest has been ambitious about reducing plastic ocean pollution, launching a $US 300 million initiative last year after completing a PhD in marine science.

Dr Forrest launched Sea the Future intending plastic manufacturers voluntarily contribute to a program to fund circular economy projects and encourage a move to recycled plastics.

The cash would be used towards ‘circular-economy’ initiatives.

His Minderoo Foundation is developing a Global Fishing Index to compare fishery protection policies internationally, invest in new ocean research facilities and advocate for technological change to eliminate plastic pollution.

About 220 million tonnes of plastic waste is dumped in the water every year, Minderoo has said.

Oceanographer Julia Reisser has an interest in multiple projects.

Dr Reisser is a co-founder of Uluu, a WA-based startup hoping to replace plastic with a polymer created from seaweed.

“We need to start developing new polymers,” she told Business News.

“We need to move towards clean energy and clean materials.”

Seaweed polymers had a number of benefits, she said.

One was that they were organic, and decomposed into non-toxic materials.

By comparison, some plastics take hundreds of years to break down and release toxic chemicals.

Seaweed was fast-growing, did not require fertiliser, and could draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Dr Reisser said.

“They’re carbon negative … and they are compostable … like wood,” she said.

“It’s not enough to decrease carbon emissions.

“We have to come up with production processes which use carbon.”

A solution is not imminent, however, because the startup is less than a year old and still in proof-of-concept stage.

Dr Reisser’s other works through the University of Western Australia have included finding microscopic lifeforms on small plastics in Australian oceans, and studying connectivity between plastic recycling exports and waste appearing in WA.

The latter research was recently published in the journal, Frontiers.

“We released virtual ocean plastics … and saw where the overseas plastics that reach our shores are coming from,” she said.

The research found more than 70 per cent of plastics washing up on WA’s coast were from Indonesia, Dr Reisser said.

While that might not seem a locally caused problem, 20 per cent of Australian plastic waste exports go to Indonesia, she said. 

“(There’s) a strong connectivity between the Indonesian plastic crisis and the Australian plastic crisis,” Dr Reisser said.

It’s intended the plastics will be recycled, but because of poor standards in the industry, much of the less valuable waste is simply discarded.

Dr Reisser said part of the problem was a lack of sorting before the plastic was shipped overseas, leading to contamination.

While there have been proposals for an immediate ban on plastic waste exports, Dr Reisser believes there’s more to it.

“For us to really progress to a cleaner environment … it might be interesting to create a global convention to look at plastics,” she said.

“Some policymakers think the solution is to stop (plastic waste) exports altogether … I think we should consider a slower transition.”

Dr Reisser said a better solution would be working to improve processes in developing countries and creating a bilateral recycling system that worked for both places.

WA’s ocean expertise extends beyond plastics.

For Blue founder Andrew Outhwaite said WA was the marine science and industry hub of the Indian Ocean region.

Academics at The University of Western Australia were working on global fishing forecasts, Mr Outhwaite said, while the Indian Ocean branch of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s oceanographic commission was in West Perth.

“We have an enormous amount of coastline,” Mr Outhwaite said.

“In Australia, 70 per cent of our territory is underwater.

“Western Australia has the largest coastline in the Indian Ocean (and) ecologically it’s very diverse.

“A lot of (our success) is down to our national assets.

“We have an advantage in our marine environment no one can compete with.

“It’s diverse, it’s pristine, it’s sustainably managed.”

Julia Reisser is hoping to use seaweed polymers to replace plastic. Photo; Gabriel Oliveira

Biodiversity

UWA lecturer Tim Langlois said another important subject in ocean health was biodiversity, protecting a variety of plant and animal life in a habitat.

Dr Langlois recently published a study on the population of sharks on coral reefs around the world in the journal, Nature.

It contributed to the Global FinPrint Project, which studies underwater life using remotely operated video systems fitted with bait.

Nearly 20 per cent of roughly 370 reefs studied had zero shark observations.

“Shark populations are a really important component of marine biodiversity,” Dr Langlois told Business News.

“My research is focused on how humans interact with the marine environment … and maximising socio-economic benefits.

“Globally, reef sharks on coral reefs are in a pretty poor state.

“But there are bright spots around the globe that correlate with societies with good levels of regulation … marine parks, etc.”

WA and Australia had performed well, although there was room for improvement

An example was no-take zones, areas in marine parks where fishing was banned.

There should be more zones, and existing zones should be larger, Dr Langlois said, partly to help benchmark biodiversity.

“There’s a lot of evidence that suggests we can do better,” he said.

“There’s a new set of marine parks being established … but they have to cover a wide range of habitats.”

They also needed to be easily accessible to people, Dr Langlois said.

He said balancing benefits of the ocean was a careful process, weighing up fishing against seeing fish in a marine park, for example.

Biodiversity was critical to maximise socio-economic benefit from the ocean, Dr Langlois said.

“If you think about the general benefits we as a society get from the ocean, they’re all linked to biodiversity,” he said.

“It’s like the national parks, they improve people’s states of mind, particularly in these times.”

A big project gathering oceanic data was the International Indian Ocean Expedition 2, of which Murdoch University academic chair (marine science) Lynnath Beckley was a key part.

Australia is one of 12 nations in the project, which is seeking to replicate the initial International Indian Ocean Expedition of the 1960s.

Professor Beckley said there had been a lower level of research interest in the Indian Ocean compared with other oceans.

A range of disciplines will use the expedition research, which can be compared with the original work 50 years ago, including for assessing the impact of climate change.

“If climate change is affecting things in the ocean, we’ll see it,” Professor Beckley said.

Australia’s contribution included the use of the RV Investigator, a marine science vessel.

Investigator tracked the route of Australia’s original part of the expedition, visiting a line of stations along the ocean and checked the results every six weeks.

That collected a huge amount of data, Professor Beckley said, at one-second intervals along a column down to the sea floor.

Nearly 30 researchers participated in the journey, while the boat costs about $130,000 a day to operate.

Professor Beckley said it was an interesting challenge to ensure data was comparable to the original expedition, with technology changing and resolution improving.

In addition to climate change analytics, researchers focused on food webs, which are the interconnection of food chains in a habitat.

That included analysing the genetics of the contents of fish guts to see what they are eating.

“If you find the food web is changing, the fisheries management plan has to change as well,” she said.

Professor Beckley said an example would be a shortage of plankton, small aquatic organisms, which would cause the population of southern bluefin tuna to crash and hit one of the world’s most valuable fishing stocks.

Discovering these shortages early would help alleviate a problem ahead of time.

The Indian Ocean was particularly interesting for assessing food chains, because it was thought of as a food ‘desert’.

“When you sample the water and look for nutrients, there’s nothing,” she said.

Following the expedition, however, scientists had found that nutrients were being produced by microbes, but were rapidly absorbed into the food chain leading to the appearance that little remained in the environment.

That explained why sampling would find low levels of nutrients in the water.

Seismic impact

At the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which operates out of Perth and Townsville, a focus has been assessing the impact of offshore seismic work by resources companies on aquatic life.

Oil and gas companies use seismology equipment to explore; creating and analysing sound waves to judge what is below the surface.

But the sound can have an impact on fish and other species.

AIMS chief executive Paul Hardisty said the institute had been part of a big, collaborative program assessing the impact of seismic work on pearl oysters and demersal fish.

Plankton studies will be next.

“There’s so much seismic done, it’s a global issue,” Dr Hardisty said.

“There have been earlier studies on a much smaller scale with very different types of equipment (compared with what was used in industry) ... and some of those suggested there were impacts on things like plankton.

“It’s a great example of WA being right on the forefront of marine research globally.”

However, the earlier results had not been easy to scale up to extrapolate to industrial-scale seismic projects.

AIMS took it up a level.

The organisation used a real seismic vessel, tagged hundreds of fish, and tracked tens of thousands of pearl oysters.

Findings will be published soon, Dr Hardisty said.

A second research topic was developing responses to the impact of climate change on reefs.

Existing techniques such as coral gardening, where coral is added to wire frames underwater, are labour intensive and not replicable at scale, he said.

“While the world has to get its emissions under control to prevent the damage … (we’re investigating if) there’s anything we can do locally,” Dr Hardisty said.

AIMS was granted about $150 million over five years for a reef restoration program, he said.

That is focused on the Great Barrier Reef, but techniques will be applicable for WA reefs, too, such as Ningaloo and Scott Reef.

Dr Hardisty said localised programs to cool or shade waters were one option under consideration.

“Corals are so sensitive that it only takes a few weeks of temperatures elevated a degree or more over normal, 10-12 weeks, you get bleaching,” he said.

Corals are symbiotic, with two different types of organisms living together.

The relationship breaks down quickly if water gets too hot, even briefly, although reefs can gradually return to life after bleaching events.

Dr Hardisty said releasing a fine mist of salt into the sky above a reef to temporarily reduce temperatures slightly would be one option to limit the impact of heat waves.

And, increasingly, technology was enabling detection of bleaching events in advance, he said.  

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