Tropical Ecosystem Hub research in the Wet Tropics rainforests will greatly assist the management of the unique outstanding values of this World Heritage listed area in Far North Queensland. Getting research findings to key researcher users in a synthesized and clearly applicable form is critical to realizing the assistance. The Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA) is on the front foot to ensure that this occurs.

The Tropical Ecosystems Hub provided funds for WTMA to assist with communication of research to the Queensland Government with the aim of maximising policy and management uptake.

NERP funded studies into the dynamics of habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change and altered fire regimes are highlighting some of the serious challenges facing the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area over the coming decades.

WTMA identified five projects from the Tropical Ecosystems Hub program to extend to senior staff from Queensland government agencies and Government Owned Corporations that have policy, planning and operational responsibilities for formulating and implementing decisions relating to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. These are:

  • 'Rainforest Biodiversity', which maps present and future biodiversity patterns and drivers in Wet Tropics rainforests under a range of climate change scenarios.
  • ‘Identifying Rainforest Refugia and Hotspots of Plant Genetic Diversity’, which investigates the distribution of plant and fungal taxonomic richness, endemism, and genetic diversity across the Wet Tropics bioregion.
  • ‘Monitoring of Key Vertebrate Species’, which monitors the abundance and distribution of cassowaries and spectacled flying foxes in north Queensland.
  • ‘Fire and Rainforests’, which increases understanding of the rainforest and fire dynamic, its impact on key species, and informs fire management in the Wet Tropics region.
  • ‘Harnessing Natural Regeneration for Cost-effective Rainforest Restoration’, which measures the rate and pattern of vegetation development in replanted sites and re-growth sites to determine most appropriate restoration method for any scenario.

WTMA is bringing together Queensland Government officials from Brisbane and Cairns to learn about the research outcomes from these NERP projects, identify the management implications, and discuss how the new knowledge can be translated into practice.

Activities currently proposed include a government workshop in Cairns in May and a public seminar at the Boggo Road Ecosciences Precinct in Brisbane later in the year.

The ultimate aim of the project is to encourage high-level government support for managing current and emerging threats to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, as informed by NERP research. A key output will be a report that will be used by WTMA to brief Queensland Government Ministers later in the year.

Contact Project Coordinator, Kerryn O’Conor ( for more information.



An Outlook Consensus workshop was organised and convened by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) in Townsville on 14–16 October 2013 supported by ‘Contestable Funds’ from the Tropical Ecosystems Hub. The objective of the workshop was to secure an independent set of expert judgments about condition, trends and risks in the Great Barrier Reef Region that could be used to inform GBRMPA’s preparation of the 2014 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report.

The workshop involved eliciting information and consensus from 31 subject experts selected by GBRMPA. The workshop was convened and moderated an external facilitator with extensive experience in the conduct of similar elicitation exercises.

The three-day workshop process involved anonymous voting on the condition, trends and risks relating to the Great Barrier Reef Region. The voting procedures were conducted using a pre-set decision structure derived from the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2009, and within a specified set of assumptions and guidance.

The workshop outcomes confirm the extent and breadth of opinion held in the scientific community about a number of issues in the Region. A key outcome is confirmation that the condition of a substantial number of habitats and species in the Region is considered to be substantially degraded compared to their expected condition if there had been no human influence on the ecosystem.

Human influence and hence impacts are continuing, and are considered to be resulting in a broad trend of continuing but variable declines in biodiversity and ecosystem health in the region. The trend of current decline is evidenced by the much larger number of both biodiversity and ecosystem health condition components considered to be deteriorating compared to the number that are improving. This relates to the dominant current risks: impacts of climate change, human activities and development in the coastal areas and rivers discharging to the region, and the direct extraction of resources, including fishing. The findings provide a strong basis for the development of a robust 2014 Outlook Report.

The full report has been submitted to Government and can be accessed at

For more information, contact Dr Fergus Molloy from GBRMPA at




Coral trout (Plectropomus spp.) are iconic coral reef fishes that occur throughout the Indo-Pacific, and are important species for recreational and commercial fisheries, including those within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Larval coral trout settle out of the plankton onto the reef during a critical life phase known as “recruitment” Successful recruitment requires specific conditions of food and shelter, with some places on the reef preferred to others. On the Keppel Is group such “hotspots” have been found in back reef, lagoon and reef slope habitats and typically have a mix of live coral patches dispersed among coral and sand.

But what does this mean for reef management? Are hotspots important when considering zoning and sustainability?  Drs David Williamson and Colin Wen of JCU have just released a policy brief which provides detail on their work on hotspots within Project 8.2 and discusses the importance of such areas for management of the GBR.

For further information contact:

Project: 8.2 Do no-take marine reserves contribute to biodiversity and fishery sustainability? Assessing the effects of management zoning on inshore reefs of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park




Seagrass meadows occur in estuarine, reef and deepwater habitats, and cover approximately 13% of the GBRWHA: 6,000 square kilometres of shallow seagrass habitat and a further 40,000 square kilometres of deepwater seagrass habitat3. They are the only flowering plants (angiosperms) to colonise the sea, have internal veins, true roots, and produce flowers and seeds, and are more closely related to lilies and gingers than to true grasses1. They are found in the coastal waters around every continent except Antarctica, are the main diet of dugongs and turtles and provide habitat and nursery grounds for many marine animals, such as fish, lobsters and prawns, species of which are commercially exploited1.

Seagrass meadows also have a significant role as substrate stabilisers and nutrient sinks, buffering or filtering nutrient and chemical inputs to the marine environment. Their uptake of phosphorous and nitrogen from coastal run-off is fundamental to the maintenance of marine water quality1,2. The difficulty is that seagrasses are in decline, due to poor water quality and a succession of extreme weather years; a trend has significant ramifications for our coastal environment. Seagrasses are naturally dynamic – it is the time frames of recovery that is potentially changing and the current recovery rate is relatively slow.

A group led by Dr Catherine Collier of JCU presented on this issue; trends and risks, and current NERP research. Dr Collier told the meeting that reductions in light associated with flood plumes were more likely to cause seagrass loss than the associated reductions in salinity. Field studies showed that change in seagrass abundance was most pronounced at more turbid sites, and threshold light levels for such declines were established. This evidence was in line with that reported during the drafting of the Scientific Consensus Statement: increases in dissolved nutrients leading to algal blooms, or chronic or pulsed increases in suspended sediments leading to increased turbidity, both of which serve to reduce the amount of light reaching the seagrass4. As well as establishing threshold light levels Dr Collier has been investigating early warning indicators for seagrass decline, with carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratios showing the most promise, and is assessing impacts of ocean acidification and pesticide exposure.

Chin, A., March 2005, ‘Seagrasses’ in Chin. A (ed) State of the Great Barrier Reef On-line, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville.
4  Brodie, J., Waterhouse, J., Schaffelke, B., Johnson, J.E., Kroon, F., Thorburn, P., Rolfe, J., Lewis, S., Warne, M., Fabricius, K., McKenzie, L., Devlin, M., 2013. Reef Water Quality Scientific Consensus Statement 2013. Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Queensland Government, Brisbane.

BACK to Canberra article

CSIRO and JCU researchers from the Social and Economic Long Term Monitoring Program (SELTMP) have recently been engaging with Reef managers, stakeholders and industry representatives, to develop a monitoring framework for the social and economic aspects of ports and shipping in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

SELTMP’s large scale social surveys over 2013 found that shipping was perceived as one of the top three threats to the Reef by coastal residents in the GBR region, Australian residents and commercial fishers, despite the industry’s strict management and careful monitoring by REEFVTS.

In March 2014 a workshop was held in Townsville to establish a working group that will provide SELTMP with technical and expert advice to assist with developing a reporting template by December 2014. Working group participants so far include representatives from GBRMPA, AMSA, Maritime Safety Queensland, REEFVTS, Port of Townsville Ltd., Townsville City Council, North Queensland Conservation Council and North Queensland Bulk Ports Ltd. Further consultation with other industry representatives and stakeholders is planned as the reporting template is developed.

At the March workshop, participants helped to identify key questions, information needs and gaps that SELTMP can help to address, as well as existing secondary data relevant to social and economic monitoring of ports and shipping in the GBR. Workshop discussions highlighted how the social dimension of ports and shipping is not typically researched; however, there is an increasing need to better understand how the public and other user groups of the GBR perceive ports and shipping, including perceptions of threats, as well as benefits provided to communities through the efficient and safe delivery of goods.

Researchers in SELTMP have been exploring linkages between media trends and community perceptions, recognising that there has been extensive media coverage associated with recent approvals for port expansions and concerns for impacts to surrounding habitats and communities. The first technical report on social and economic aspects of ports and shipping in the GBR is expected to become available on the Tropical Ecosystems Hub website in early 2015.

For more information about the SELTMP ports and shipping working group, please contact Dr Matt Curnock (working group leader, CSIRO: or Dr Nadine Marshall (SELTMP project leader, CSIRO:




A CSIRO-led project “Design and implementation of Management Strategy Evaluation for the Great Barrier Reef inshore”, funded as part of the NERP Tropical Ecosystems Hub, has been working closely with a community group in the Mackay region to look at what they value most, and what local solutions can be found to manage the biodiversity in the Mackay coast.

A small sub-committee of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Mackay Local Marine Advisory Committee (LMAC) has met almost every month for the past year to workshop coastal biodiversity management goals, and help develop possible solutions to their perceived issues.

The project, with its partners from the Federal and Queensland State Government, and James Cook University, has undertaken a review of all stated objectives from organisations and NGOs within Mackay. These were then reviewed by the Mackay group and turned into a tree of objectives, with branches ranging from high level aims such as “Protect and restore inshore environmental assets”, Improve governance systems” and Improve regional economic and social well-being” to more localised ones such as “Ensure community equity” and “Minimise conflicts between stakeholders”.

In order to get a broader community view of the importance of these different objectives, Mackay residents have been asked to undertake a survey that closes in November (see

While the survey has been undertaken, the local group has created an issues register and possible solutions. Topics covered so far are seagrass, mangroves and inshore corals. For each topic, a local or outside expert in the field has presented Mackay-specific information such as their biology, where the species occurs and what affects their sustainability. The group then workshops over a Mackay map what they perceive as being issues affecting the species and how best to approach these. They are always asked to think of both standard and non-standard management approaches. Ideas such as education videos on specific topics have been suggested. Given that most of the key management bodies are embedded in the project, thoughts on how to start moving these ideas forward has already begun.

Is it possible for the local community to raise and develop local management ideas for their own coastal space that effects change? This project is trying to help this process.

Dr. Cathy Dichmont, CSIRO

For more information, contact Cathy Dichmont at:


Five TE Hub researchers, Reef Rescue R&D staff and Science Leader, Dr Peter Doherty, recently travelled to Canberra to discuss their water quality, pesticides and seagrass research and its impact on government policy.

Workshops were held over two days (21st to the 22nd of May 2013), hosted by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPaC). The audience included representatives from GBRMPA, DAFF, and many sections within SEWPaC, including NERP, GBR Strategic Assessment, Water Quality Policy, Chemical Assessment and Wetlands.

Recent findings were outlined, with discussion between managers and researchers exploring the implications of the results and how these might affect broader guidelines, standards and State of Environment processes.

Key water quality issues were summarised in an overview presentation given by Michelle Devlin (RRRC Ltd) and in Reef Plan Scientific Consensus statement and crown of thorns starfish (COTS) updates presented by Jon Brodie (TropWATER). All presentations discussed current water quality threats, including changing pollutant loads, increased sedimentation and links between degraded water quality and crown of thorn outbreaks. Relationships were also examined between changing inshore reefs, seagrass ecosystems and extreme weather, where increasing intensity of weather events are an additional stress on GBR ecosystems.

The need for synthesis of findings across research projects was also discussed, as was engagement in a range of targeted communication approaches for transferring and applying new knowledge.


Links to each of the e-Newsletter workshop highlights articles can be found below:

Update on Scientific Consensus Statement and GBR Risk Assessment - Jon Brodie, Jane Waterhouse

Herbicides in the GBR: Research Overview - Andrew Negri, Stephen Lewis

Seagrass Overview - Catherine Collier, Michelle Waycott, Len McKenzie, Michelle Devlin

Freshwater and mangrove habitats: issues in GBR catchments and the Torres Strait - Damien Burrows

NERP researchers from James Cook University have undertaken the first study to track the migratory movements of non-breeding wedge-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus pacificus) from the Great Barrier Reef.

In April 2012 the team from Tropical Ecosystems Hub Project 6.3 deployed miniature ambient light sensitive geolocation devices and tracked 15 adult wedge-tailed shearwaters from the population that breeds on Heron Island in the southern GBR. Each bird was tracked for between 8-12 months.

Adults departed the breeding colony in mid to late May and migrated rapidly in a north-easterly direction, crossing the equator and travelling into the region around the Federated States of Micronesia. Individuals travelled up to 6,000 kilometres in about two weeks, at an average of speed of about 428km/day.

During the next 3-5 months, many individuals spent time foraging over and around the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest point in the world’s oceans. While there was variation among the foraging locations used by individuals, all birds spent the winter in an area spanning about 2,000 x 1,500kms with a high degree of overlap in core foraging locations.

Much of this region encompassed the Western Pacific Warm Pool, which is known globally for consistently exhibiting the warmest sea-surface temperatures. Other tube-nosed seabirds (Procellariiformes) such as Streaked shearwaters that breed in Japan also migrate to this area in their non-breeding season.

Importantly, both wedge-tailed shearwater migration routes and over-winter foraging grounds overlapped considerably with globally significant commercial purse-seine and long-line tuna fishing activity, as this region hosts part of the world’s largest tuna fishery (the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Fishery) and is an area providing some of the highest commercial catch rates.

Wedge-tailed shearwaters have strong associations with sub-surface predators such as tuna as these predators drive prey to the surface where they are accessible to foraging birds. This implies that the presence of high sub-surface predator numbers in these areas is important for over-winter survival. Therefore, the overlap of wedge-tailed shearwater migration and wintering grounds with this major global fishery raises previously unidentified conservation concerns for this GBR breeding species

Fiona McDuie & Dr. Brad Congdon, JCU

For more information, contact Brad Congdon at:

Project 6.3: Critical seabird foraging locations and trophic relationships for the Great Barrier Reef



After three years of applied public good research to guide and assist policy, management and decision-making in the tropical ecosystems of northeastern Australia, Hub participants will meet in Cairns in November to present their work to a diverse audience.

The Hub addresses issues of concern for the management, conservation and sustainable use of the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef and its catchments, tropical rainforests including the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and the terrestrial and marine assets underpinning resilient communities in the Torres Strait, through the generation and transfer of world-class research and shared knowledge. The Hub has over 240 researchers undertaking 38 projects across northern Queensland and the Torres Strait.

The total Hub investment is $61.9m, including $28.5m from National Environmental Research Program and a further institutional co-investment of $33.4m.

The key feature of the NERP research in the Tropical Ecosystems Hub is the integration of identified research users into the research projects to maximise the relevance of the research and the application of new knowledge.

Research users identified by the Tropical Ecosystems Hub include the Australian and Queensland governments through relevant Departments and also through statutory agencies such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Wet Tropics Management Authority, and the Torres Strait Regional Authority. Non-government research users include regional natural resource management (NRM) bodies, regional industry groups, conservation organisations, Indigenous communities, and the public. A wide range of these research users will participate in the conference.

The Hub conference will feature presentations in plenary to open the event followed by concurrent 90 minute sessions covering the entire Tropical Ecosystems research program in a logical sequence. Each session will be convened by a research user who has been involved in the program since its inception, and who will set the tone for a conversation with the audience after the relevant presentations.

The final day of the conference will feature topical sessions designed to look ahead and highlight knowledge gaps requiring the application of the collaborative research model. Final sessions will include crown-of-thorns starfish, Indigenous participatory models, NRM priorities, and regional tourism futures.

The emphasis of the conference will be on the application of research in meeting the immediate and ongoing challenges to environmental management in the three geographical nodes covered by the NERP. The sessions will each follow a predetermined narrative and will provide a relevant snapshot of the research undertaken. The full range of resources produced by the program will continue to build on the Tropical Ecosystems Hub website at

Keep an eye out for registration details and Conference Handbook coming in September. For more information, contact Ryan Donnelly or Johanna Johnson of the RRRC.




Dr. Tara Clark (UQ)

Researchers from NERP Project 1.3 are well on their way to uncovering many of the Great Barrier Reef’s secrets by studying fossil and dead coral remains.

Their results have documented long term changes on coral reef ecosystems spanning thousands of years, as well as more recent change that coincides with human settlement on the Queensland coastline.

Using cores taken through the reef using a percussion coring technique (put simply, aluminium tubing hammered into the reef similar to a star picket for a fence), the researchers are able to examine how coral communities have changed through time. By dating coral fragments within the cores using the highly precise uranium-series dating method, they are able to determine the timing of significant changes in community structure, storm events, as well as reef accretion rates.

So far, more than 140 reef matrix cores have been collected over the entire length of the inshore region of the Great Barrier Reef, including the far north, central and southern regions.

Cores taken through reefs in the southern Great Barrier Reef have revealed a long history of reef development for several millennia. However, close examination of the corals present in the cores suggest that at some locations there have been reef turn on/turn-off events throughout the reefs history that coincide with the rise and fall of past sea-level. At other sites, changes in coral community composition occurred several centuries ago - well before European settlement - suggesting that other non-anthropogenic factors (e.g. climate) were the major drivers of abrupt change in coral communities in the past.

More recent changes in coral community structure have been seen within cores taken from reefs adjacent to the Wet Tropics region. Preliminary evidence suggests that these changes coincide with the timing of a shift in coral community structure observed in cores taken from Pelorus Island, central Great Barrier Reef. These results imply that significant changes on inshore reef ecosystems may have occurred over a much broader spatial scale. At Pelorus Island, coral communities were found to have switched from an Acropora dominated community to that characterised by corals typical of turbid water environments between 1950-1970 AD. While the exact cause of this change is unknown, the researchers speculate that the lack of Acropora recovery is due to the chronic increase in sediment and nutrient delivery to the region since European settlement.

These case studies are just an example of the many exciting discoveries emerging from this research, and demonstrate the need to understand both long (centennial, millennial) and short-term (decadal) changes in coral reef communities, as well as local (e.g. water quality) and global scale (e.g. El Niño Southern Oscillation) drivers of change in order to appropriately assess the current state of the Great Barrier Reef as well as the effects of existing management strategies.

For more information, contact Prof. John Pandolfi (, Prof. Jian-xi Zhao ( or Dr. Tara Clark (





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