Big, Bold and Blue

Big, bold and blue is exactly how I would describe the marine environment. Such simple words profoundly convey the ocean’s expanse, its unexplored depths and soothing aesthetics. Yet, as this book title suggests, they also allude to the aspirations and depths of courage required to address an expanse of environmental challenges our oceans – and our world for that matter – face.

Having recently completed my PhD studies investigating the effects of commercial fishing on shark and ray populations, marine conservation is very dear to my heart. Putting conservation measures into practice is by no means an easy task though. It requires combinations of extensive ecological research, consultation with stakeholders ranging from the recreational fisher next door to multi-billion dollar oil companies, and importantly, sufficient funding and adequate legislation.

Nearly 36% of Australia’s waters fall within a marine protected area (MPA) and increased awareness for the conservation of biodiversity has resulted in a rapid, five-fold expansion of MPAs over the last 15 years. Big, Bold and Blue explores the history of MPAs in Australia and, by examining specific examples such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP), highlights our past mistakes and our triumphs, offering possible solutions to carry forward for the enhancement of marine conservation in Australia. Importantly, the book incorporates a breadth of perspectives crucial to the development of successful MPAs, which include opinions from those in science, law, government, industry, indigenous affairs and the general public.

Structurally, the components of this text are sound and follow a logical and intuitive layout. Divided into five parts, each comprising several chapters (with exception to part five), the book begins in part one by exploring the history of MPAs in Australia and placing them in a global context. Part two delves deeper and investigates MPAs at both regional and national levels, noting the influence of differing socio-political climates, government policies and legislation. A notable case study in part two is the GBRMP, which aside from being one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is also one of the largest and oldest marine national park systems on earth – justifiably earning it the status of ‘the grandfather of modern day MPAs.’ Part three highlights and explains key elements such as ecological theory, legislation and economics to consider when designing, implementing and managing MPAs. Part four is perhaps one of the more interesting sections, as it provides insight into varying perspectives and interpretations of the value of MPAs from experts in academia, indigenous communities, industry and the general public. Finally, part five concludes the book and neatly wraps up what policies and measures work and haven’t worked, as well as the challenges ahead when refining and improving the creation and management of MPAs.

Marine parks are a great source of enjoyment for recreational divers.  Image: Evatt Chirgwin

Marine parks are a great source of enjoyment for recreational divers. Image: Evatt Chirgwin

For me, a stand-out feature of Big, Bold and Blue is the chapter ‘Protecting sea country: Indigenous Peoples and marine protected areas in Australia.’ This chapter is emblematic of a broader, positive, socio-cultural shift whereby traditional ownership and cultural rights of First Peoples are being formally recognised. Rather than focusing on the ecological benefits of incorporating indigenous management practices, the chapter is more concerned with recognition of native title and promoting collaborative efforts between indigenous communities and government. Quite poignantly, the chapter concludes, ‘Government responses in this policy area… [are] yielding multiple benefits both in terms of environmental management and indigenous wellbeing.’

I’ll admit, my strengths lie in animal biology and physiology rather than conservation, but that is precisely why this book is so appealing – it offers the perfect opportunity to understand the real-world, practical foundations behind enacting marine conservation and the development of MPAs. Fortunately, you don’t need a PhD or any university degree to understand the beautifully detailed concepts this books proposes. Graphs, detailed maps and tables are strategically placed throughout to communicate complex management concepts and systems occurring on global, national and regional scales. The diversity of perspectives and expertise by contributing authors also offers solid foundations for any further exploration, whether it be legislation, economics or ecological theory. In essence, the book’s structure, the topics covered, and the use of succinct and simple language make this book accessible to all.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you’re interested in conservation management and/or want insight into socio-political influences driving conservation policies.

Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy. 

Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.

Banner image courtesy of Evatt Chirgwin.

The Art of Conservation: Endangered Species of the Otways

Looking into the large enclosure, I hold my breath, my eyes darting around for signs of movement. Next to me, my guide Karlijn points to a rattling bush. I barely have time to glance over there before a beautiful spotted creature darts out, scurrying onto a fallen branch, where it pauses, watching us. It’s perfectly posed, its pink nose twitching and its spots bright and white against its dark fur. I gasp, because, quite frankly, it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Karlijn explains next to me, as I stare at it, awestruck, that this gorgeous marsupial is the Tiger Quoll, a species thought to be extinct in the Otways until it was rediscovered in 2012. Since then, the Conservation Ecology Centre has used it as a focal point for their mission –  a safer future for Tiger Quolls and other endangered wildlife in the Otways, created through research, understanding and working with our community to bring about informed and effective management actions. 

A tiger quoll. (Image: Wikimedia Commons: Michael J Fromholtz)

A tiger quoll. (Image: Wikimedia Commons: Michael J Fromholtz)

The Conservation Ecology Centre is tucked alongside the Great Otway National Park, just outside of Apollo Bay. The Centre is dedicated to protecting and understanding native environments, particularly that of the Otways, through research and engagement. Some particularly interesting research projects are underway, such as the Otways Conservation Dogs and the Otway Threatened Species Research Network. For the founders of the CEC, Lizzie Corke and Shayne Neal, community engagement has always been a key part of their mission for conservation. All of their research projects have a component related to community engagement, with a hotline set up for the public to report sightings of native animals, and public events run to encourage planting of native trees in the area. One of the most exciting avenues for engagement is the Great Ocean Ecolodge: an ecoretreat run by Karlijn Sas and Stephan Ras, with all funds raised from the lodge going back into the research programs run by the CEC. More recently, the CEC has looked at another way to engage the community – through art.

Art and Ecology: Endangered Species of the Otways is an initiative started by the CEC to promote engagement through the creation of art. The CEC encouraged people to send in their art for a gallery exhibition, with the funds raised supporting the programs run by the CEC. The only criteria was that at least one of the 40 threatened or endangered species in the Otways had to be featured in the artwork. There was a great response, with both national and international artists contributing, and the community surrounding the Otways jumping at the chance to have their work displayed. As well as schools sending in artwork, a famous American print-maker and several highly regarded national artists such as ADi have submitted their work. Currently, it looks like a second venue will have to be sought out to accommodate all of the amazing artwork presented to the CEC - that’s an exciting example of community engagement done right.

Image: Mary Shuttleworth

Image: Mary Shuttleworth

Sitting down and chatting with Karlijn and Mark Le Pla, a research assistant for the Centre, I picked their brains about what made them come up with this particular method of engagement.

Karlijn explains the general premise for the inclusion of art in community engagement: “Most native animals are only seen from a distance, and art allows characteristic features of those animals to become more apparent.” In encouraging the local communities to create their own art, the communities become more aware of the key attributes of the native animals in their area.

“Maybe you draw a long-nosed potoroo and its nose is too long in the picture, but it means if you’re driving along and see a small hopping creature with a long nose, you’ve got a good idea of what it could be.”

As well as making communities more aware of the amazing diversity at their doorstep, it helps researchers create a more solid idea of the landscape. If people start to look for and identify rare species, they’re more likely to report their findings to the hotline or website provided by the CEC.

“We have limited resources to monitor the area,” Mark explains, which makes it difficult to create solid statistics of the prevalence of endangered animals; “So simple information helps a lot.” Researchers are often limited by time and funding, and conservation goals are going to be met much faster if scientists and communities work together to ensure a future for endangered species. Mark is adamant that the key to ensuring a long-term future for species such as the Tiger Quoll is communication with the communities. “Half the battle is engagement,” Mark tells me, “Getting people on side is the important part.”

This is definitely true. Victoria, and indeed Australia, is in a biodiversity crisis. Our native species are threatened by climate change, development, invasive species and disease. Dozens of Victorian species are threatened or endangered, and face regional and national extinction if we don’t try to ease the pressures they face. While we all know that action must be taken, what’s less clear is the best way to go about it. While scientific research into conservation will give us some answers, alone it may not be enough. Our native species are often fond of areas that people also like to frequent, and this means that conflicts are inevitable. In the face of so much adversity, apathy and disengagement from the public can be the final nails in the coffin for many of our species.

Luckily, there are organisations like the CEC doing their best to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Art and Ecology: Endangered Species of the Otways will be held from the 29th until the 30th of July at Art Inc. Gallery Apollo Bay, and the CEC gallery at Cape Otway from August 2016 - Janurary 2017. For more information, visit the Conservation Ecology Centre website.

Mary Shuttleworth

Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.

Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.

Plight of the Orange-Bellied Parrot

This is a guest post by Lauren Hall

Did you know that one of the rarest parrots in the world can be found right here in Victoria? The orange-bellied parrot (OBP) is a small, beautifully coloured ground-feeding parrot slightly larger than a budgerigar. Named for the characteristic bright orange patch on their bellies, these rare parrots are endemic to south-eastern Australia. They are also particularly unique, being one of only two parrot species in the world known to migrate long distances over open ocean.

A captive orange-bellied parrot from Healesville Sanctuary. Photo: Lauren Hall

A captive orange-bellied parrot from Healesville Sanctuary. Photo: Lauren Hall

Wild populations of OBPs breed in Tasmania during the summer seasons (November to March) and fly hundreds of kilometres across rough seas to spend the winter months in the coastal saltmarsh habitats of Victoria and South Australia (April to October). During their northward migration they are also known to visit the saltmarsh coast of King Island.

Although populations are considered stable despite low numbers in Tasmania, they are listed as critically endangered in Victoria, with populations experiencing a severe decline between 2000 and 2008. There is estimated to be as few as 40 to 50 birds left in the wild, with captive breeding programs being the only back-up plan to bolster numbers. The captive breeding populations are estimated to number approximately 320 birds, with the largest located in Taroona, Tasmania and in Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria.

The major cause of their decline is still largely unknown; however, the extreme difficulty of crossing Bass Straight and the major drought of 2007 are thought to be key contributors. Additionally, degradation and loss of saltmarsh winter habitat, and higher prevalence of predators on the mainland are further decreasing wild populations. The birds prefer to stay well away from human disturbances, and are losing more and more habitat due to urban expansion, farming, and grazing by invasive species, such as rabbits. Higher concentrations of feral cats and foxes on the mainland also mean that the non-breeding winter populations are particularly vulnerable to predation. As they are ground-feeding, the birds can be easily targeted whilst feeding on open grassland, seeds and low-lying shrubs.

The stunning array of colours present on the orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

The stunning array of colours present on the orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

Although wild populations are continuing to decline, there is still hope for the orange-bellied parrot. The Captive Management Group for the OBP has released captive birds into the wild for the last three years in a row, once every year. The last release of 13 birds occurred in November 2015, just in time for the southward migration back to Tasmania for the breeding season. The biggest challenge of re-stocking the wild population is a loss of genetic diversity and risk of inbreeding. Currently there are geneticists from the Zoo and Aquarium Association keeping records of all captive bird genomes to help determine which birds are to be released.

What can you do to help?

Daniel Gowland, Chairman of the Captive Breeding Management Group, urges the public of Victoria to keep a vigilant eye out for orange-bellied parrots. He emphasises the importance of regular sightings for the success of the Captive Breeding Management Program. As we are now approaching April, the birds should be completing their treacherous journey across Bass Straight and will be currently landing in locations surrounding Melbourne. Now up until November is therefore the prime time for everyone in Victoria to search for these small, elusive parrots.

The orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

The orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

The blue-winged parrot. Photo: Jan Wegener

The blue-winged parrot. Photo: Jan Wegener

The places that they are most likely to be sighted seem to be at the Water Treatment Plant just outside of Melbourne, or other coastal Victorian saltmarsh and farmland habitats, particularly around Gippsland. Gowland also advises that blue-winged parrots are often seen in conjunction with the orange-bellied parrots, so sightings of these birds may be an indication that the OBP is in the area. For more information on how you can help sight the OBP and report your findings, please visit Birdlife Australia's website or contact your local National Park Authority. You can also help by keeping your dogs and cats indoors during winter, especially if you live in coastal country areas.

To lose such a rare and beautiful parrot species would be devastating. On many levels, the current plight of this species unfortunately seems to be a consequence of human expansion and urban development. If we want to continue to enjoy the variety of wildlife within and surrounding the city of Melbourne, we must work together as a community to do anything we can to help save the orange-bellied parrot from the brink of extinction.

Will you be lucky enough to spot one this winter? 

Cover image taken by Lauren Hall

Eye in the sky: drones as tools for conservation biologists

Monitoring wildlife populations is not a straightforward task. Individuals can be dispersed over wide areas of inaccessible terrain and can move across the landscape and avoid detection. However, a new era in wildlife biology appears to be dawning as research scientists are increasingly turning to small, un-manned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) to aid data collection. These devices can be fitted with an array of sensors including cameras for capturing images or video, thermal imaging devices and multispectral sensors that are able to measure the health of vegetation. By flying lower and slower than conventional aircraft, UAVs allow the collection of data at very fine spatial scales. This makes monitoring achievable for many species that would be impossible to monitor using aeroplanes or satellites. These advantages have seen UAVs used for a range of conservation applications including surveying for orangutan nests (see video footage here), as a rhinoceros anti-poaching tool in Africa, and marine applications such as counting sea turtles in waters surrounding nesting beaches.

Some of the seabirds monitored by UAVs. Photo: Rowan Mott

Some of the seabirds monitored by UAVs. Photo: Rowan Mott

The remarkable footage obtained by UAVs and the relative ease with which data are obtained has led many to predict big things to come for the use of UAVs for research and conservation. These predictions are based on the assumptions that data quality from UAV surveys is higher than traditional methods or that benefits to cost effectiveness and collection efficiency outweigh any drawbacks. Despite rapidly increasing use, the quality of UAV-collected data compared to data from traditional methods remained un-tested.

Our research group is involved in the monitoring of several large seabird colonies. This typically involves a team of counters making twice-a-year boat voyages to remote islands where upwards of 100, 000 seabirds breed. Using binoculars, spotting scopes, and a notepad and pencil we undertake the daunting task of counting every last bird. But this could be about to change. On recent visits to these breeding colonies we took along a new tool – a small, remote controlled quadcopter. We flew this UAV over a number of colonies collecting aerial images of the seabirds below. At the same time we had ground counters count the seabirds as we normally would. Back in the laboratory a dedicated team of volunteers counted the birds in the images and then we compared the counts made from UAV-imagery with those made by our team of expert ground counters.

An image of the seabird colony taken by the team's UAVs. Image: Jarrod Hodgson

An image of the seabird colony taken by the team's UAVs. Image: Jarrod Hodgson

The results were astounding. Counts of the imaged birds made by volunteers were consistently closer to each other than those made by ground counters. What is even more remarkable is that some of the volunteers that counted UAV-imagery had never seen the species they were counting, whereas the team of ground counters each had years of bird-counting experience. We don’t know for certain which count method resulted in an estimate of colony size closest to the true number of birds in each colony. For all we know both methods could be under- or over-estimating how many birds were breeding. So why then is this result important?

When monitoring a wildlife population, biologists are hoping to be able to detect population trends that could indicate the population is at risk of being wiped out or is recovering if a threat has been alleviated. If, when the same colony is counted by two different people, the different counts vary widely from each other there can be little certainty as to what the true number of individuals is. By minimising the variance between separate counts the confidence in those estimates increases and population fluctuations of smaller magnitude are more likely to be recognised. This will have a big advantage in situations where early intervention can achieve the desired conservation outcome more easily than if action is delayed.

Our research shows that the predictions of big things to come for UAV technology are not unfounded. The quality of data collected using UAVs can be higher than that collected using traditional methods. Yet there remain many important questions relating to the use of UAVs in wildlife monitoring. Not least of these is the question of how close counts made from UAV-imagery are to the true number and we hope to have an answer to this in the near future.

Photo: Rowan Mott

Photo: Rowan Mott

Also, there are ethical considerations that need to be addressed. Do UAVs result in greater disturbance levels to the wildlife populations that are being monitored than traditional methods? Although seabirds rarely fall victim to aerial predators, the same cannot be said for many ducks and shorebirds that otherwise seem ideal candidates to be monitored using UAVs. If the unfamiliar silhouette of an UAV is perceived to pose a threat similar to a fast-approaching falcon or eagle then the use of UAVs in the survey of these species is likely to be inappropriate. Currently, in the United States, it is illegal to fly UAVs over protected species, so until issues relating to the ethics of UAV use are fully explored, their full potential will not be met. These factors aside, the surge in uptake of UAVs for conservation looks set to continue and biologists across the world will be finding new ways in which this exciting new tool can further their research.

Check out the latest paper by Rowan and his colleagues here, and at the citation below. 

Hodgson, J., Baylis, S.M., Mott, R.M., Herrod, A. and Clarke, R.H. (2016). Precision wildlife monitoring using unmanned aerial vehicles. Scientific Reports doi:10.1038/srep22574

Cover image taken by Shane Baylis