A Voyage of Discovery: Revealing Western Australia's Deep Seabed Ecosytems

By Potts, Lucy | Ecos, October-November 2005 | Go to article overview

A Voyage of Discovery: Revealing Western Australia's Deep Seabed Ecosytems


Potts, Lucy, Ecos


The oceans are our last unexplored frontier. Although Australia is the world's largest island nation, its surrounding seas make up almost twice the size of the country's landmass. Most of what lies within and beneath them still awaits discovery.

An ambitious sea-going project run by CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, the marine survey--dubbed a modern 'Voyage of Discovery'--set out to take another step forward in revealing the deep secrets of our oceans. Its primary aim was to characterise the unknown seabed (benthic) ecosystems of the continental shelf and slope, over a wide range of water depths from 100 to 1500 metres, off Western Australia's spectacular coast.

The expedition was part of a major initiative by the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship, supported by the National Oceans Office. Outputs from the project will support the implementation of the Southwest Regional Marine Plan--which includes developing Commonwealth Marine Protected Areas--by providing a scientific backdrop of the deep seabed landscape in the form of detailed maps, and baseline information on its sea life.

Researching the ocean's potential

Understanding how to best manage the multiple uses of our marine environment is a key objective of CSIRO's Wealth from Ocean's Flagship programme. Flagship Director, Craig Roy, recognised the proposed project and its ocean-going voyages as a critical step in achieving this goal, and took a lead role in commissioning the project.

'To understand how ecosystems are going to respond to different uses and management strategies, we obviously have to know what's there in the first place, said Roy. 'It's clear that the actions we take, as a nation, over the next decade, regarding the management of our marine environment, will shape our relationship with the oceans over the course of the next century.'

'To a large extent, our ability to manage the sustainable use of natural resources, at a national scale, relies on the sort of broad-scale marine ecosystem research being undertaken by these voyages. Over 70 per cent of the nation's potential wealth lies beneath its ocean territory, but we don't know much, yet, about where it is or how to make responsible use of it. Recording the characteristics of both the physical features and the animals of our deep ocean regions greatly helps us to recognise their value, and how best to manage their use.'

Already Australia's oceans drive 8 to 10 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That's more than our agriculture, more than our mining, and about 75 per cent of all our building and construction income. Yet we've only mapped about 10 per cent of our marine territory. It's easy to imagine how important that marine territory will be to Australia once we know what is there.

The Southern Surveyor's WA expedition was planned to widen that understanding by carefully targeting observations at special places on the seabed landscape that are either predicted to be high priorities for management, or where biodiversity hot-spots are believed to exist. CSIRO aims for the field programme to deliver new information that will have immediate uptake as scientific models and management strategies are developed. The focus on Western Australia is linked to the progressive rollout, region by region, of a national, integrated marine planning initiative, the Regional Marine Planning Process, directed by Australia's Department of Environment and Heritage.

A two-phase field campaign

The first of two scientific voyages planned for this year took a 15-person research team and 14 crew on a two-leg voyage from Dampier, on the north-west Pilbara coast, south past Ningaloo Reef, all the way to Albany. It then returned north to Fremantle.

Ropes were cast off for the first leg on 21 July, and finally re-secured at the end of Leg 2 on 17 August. For the 28 days in-between, the 13 researchers from CSIRO and two from Geoscience Australia, worked in two teams on opposite 12-hour shifts, seven-days-a-week, to complete a relentless sampling programme. …

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