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National Environmental Science Program
February 2021 update
Welcome to the latest edition of NESP News. This month we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. This edition showcases the diverse work that the National Environmental Science Program (NESP) research teams have been doing on-ground to support the wise use and management of wetlands. These projects highlight important wetland values, services and benefits. You can read more about research that is improving our understanding and management of wetlands in the recent anniversary publication of Wetlands Australia.
Threatened Species Recovery Hub
Floodplain-dependent yellow rosella. Photo: Rowan Mott
The most important Murray Darling Basin floodplain areas for terrestrial birds
Woodland bird communities in south-eastern Australia have suffered major declines since European arrival. The floodplains and wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin provide important areas of habitat and drought refuge for terrestrial birds. As the frequency and severity of droughts increase, the importance of these regions to terrestrial birds will also increase. The region is vast, so conservation planners and managers sought guidance on where actions will have the most benefit.
In response, a Threatened Species Recovery Hub project has undertaken a spatial prioritisation of the region, considering the habitat needs of 108 terrestrial bird species under a range of drought and non-drought scenarios. The results are presented in the Threatened bird conservation in Murray-Darling Basin wetland and floodplain habitat: Final Report and inform managers on where actions towards environmental protection and enhancing habitat quality will provide the most benefit for floodplain-associated terrestrial birds. The study identified that when all terrestrial birds are considered, the highest priority floodplains are those north of the basin to the east of Cunnamulla and Lightning Ridge. The floodplains along the western reaches of the Murray River are the highest priority for the 3 threatened terrestrial bird species in that region.
Marine Biodiversity Hub
The Green Sawfish sampling team. Photo: Thomas Tothill
Cobourg Peninsula: a global ‘lifeboat’ for Green Sawfish
In 1974, Australia designated Cobourg Peninsula, north-east of Darwin, as the world’s first Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. This remote and unspoilt wilderness area overlaps the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park.
In 2018, drone footage of Green Sawfish (Pristis zijsron) aggregating in the park’s shallow waters suggested the area may be nationally and internationally significant for this highly threatened species. As part of the hub project Threatened and migratory marine species in Australia’s northern seascape, surveys in Port Essington further investigated sawfish aggregation sites in the park. Despite windy and turbid conditions, drone surveys of tidal habitats recorded immature sawfish ranging in size from about 60 to 100 cm, with the highest numbers seen at Lidarnardi East. These surveys confirmed this area as a nursery site and recorded the highest densities of sawfish documented anywhere in the world. The research team also recorded another 7 inshore shark and ray species, several of which are globally threatened. Further drone surveys are recommended for Port Essington sites including Lidarnardi, Knocker Bay and Kennedy Bay; and further afield at Gul Gul and Nudaway.
Ongoing protection of the biologically and culturally important waters of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park is considered critical to the survival of the green sawfish, which is now extinct from much of its former global range. The new information is relevant to the national Sawfish and river sharks multispecies recovery plan and the Cobourg management plan
Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub
Deployment of mangrove pods for coastal defence and blue carbon benefits at Grantville, Vic. Photo: Ben Fest, University of Melbourne
Australian wetlands provide valuable climate-change mitigation and adaptation services
Wetlands provide a variety of important ecological functions, including habitats for animals and plants, improved water quality and protection of shores against waves and flooding. Wetlands can also play an important role in Australia’s response to climate change. This includes capturing and storing carbon to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases (mitigation) and providing resilience to climate hazards such as flooding, storm surge and coastal inundation (adaptation).
The hub is exploring the potential of living shorelines, such as oyster reefs, mangroves and saltmarshes, for carbon sequestration and coastal protection. The hub is also building evidence to support the inclusion of blue-carbon ecosystems in emissions-trading schemes, and is improving methods for measuring carbon stocks and accumulation rates to help manage these systems for mitigation.
The hub’s research into Australia’s changing coastal and climate hazards and the development of science-based datasets and tools provides important underpinning information to enable wetland and coastal managers to understand and act on current and future climate risks to wetlands.
Tropical Water Quality Hub
Mungalla Wetlands. Photo: Nathan Waltham
Coastal wetlands provide many important services
The wetlands along the Great Barrier Reef coastline are picturesque and diverse landscapes. They provide many cultural, environmental social and economic services, although these continue to be modified and altered to accommodate urbanisation and agriculture. Science evaluation of coastal wetland systems repair projects across the reef catchments used 3 wetland sites to assess approaches to restoring back some of the benefits that go beyond appearance alone.
One case study at the Mungalla Wetland (Qld) looked at removing bund walls, originally used to retain freshwater for livestock in drier seasons. This approach of re-introducing saltwater tides resulted in measurable declines in freshwater aquatic weeds and improved fish diversity.
Vegetation and animal diversity increased at the second site at Round Hill, following the installation of feral pig fences. The third site at Babinda showed what’s required to better measure the reduction of nitrogen nutrients in wetland systems. It also demonstrated novel ways to reduce nutrients from reaching the reef’s lagoon using existing drainage gates on farmland.
The recommendations from this project join an ever-increasing toolkit of techniques to restore and protect invaluable services provided by coastal wetlands.
Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub
A neglected drainage ditch in central Melbourne was converted into a chain of biodiversity-friendly wetlands. The image shows the ditch after restoration. Photo: Westgate Biodiversity Bili Nursery and Landcare
Urban wetlands: promoting their conservation and cultural value
Wetlands are important features in our urban landscapes. Urban wetlands can act as pollutant traps and provide cooling benefits and recreation opportunities for city-dwellers. They are also critical to the conservation and recovery of many species found in cities, including threatened species.
Many cities in Australia were founded on wetlands and waterways that are integral to Indigenous history and culture. These wetlands and waterways are Indigenous places of immense cultural value and meaning, including those that may have ‘disappeared’ or run channelled under our streets.
Wetlands have featured in several of the hub’s research investigations because of their significance in urban systems. A new report summarises the hub’s research covering the role of urban wetlands in threatened-species conservation, the threats that affect urban wetland habitats, possible actions to restore and enhance wetlands in cities and towns, and the importance of urban wetlands as Indigenous places.
Research highlights included interviews with urban land managers. These found several examples of local government and community groups working together to convert under-used urban spaces into biodiversity-friendly wetlands. These projects are an excellent illustration of how new wetland spaces can be created within heavily urbanised areas.
Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub
A turtle hatchling heads to the sea, and a brighter future. Photo: Aak Puul Ngantam archive
Teaming up for baby turtles
The remote beaches of western Cape York Peninsula – on the Gulf of Carpentaria – are home to nesting populations of Flatback, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill turtles, which are culturally important for the Cape’s Indigenous peoples. Feral pigs dig up and eat the eggs in these nests, sometimes with zero survival of the developing baby turtles. Ground-breaking hub research is using artificial intelligence and cloud computing to automatically analyse tens of thousands of aerial images for pig tracks, turtle tracks and turtle nests. This helps Indigenous rangers know – in near real-time – when and where to focus their predator-management activities.
The research was led by Dr Justin Perry of CSIRO, in collaboration with Microsoft and Aak Puul Ngantam Cape York. It was developed in response to Traditional Owners’ and Indigenous rangers’ concerns about the devastating impact that predation was having on the survival of turtle hatchlings. The remoteness and seasonal inaccessibility of Cape York beaches meant that by the time rangers arrived to do their surveys, the nests were already dug up and the eggs eaten by pigs. Now, aerial imagery from helicopters and drones can be uploaded to the cloud for automated analysis, which feeds into a dashboard on the rangers’ tablets. This helps them know exactly where to go to protect the turtle eggs.
The code that underpins this approach will be freely available and has the potential to be used at turtle nesting sites all around the world.
In another example of a successful collaboration between Indigenous custodians, the Kakadu Healthy Country project (run by CSIRO and Microsoft under the hub) was singled out by Microsoft in their first-ever Environmental sustainability report. Project leader Dr Cathy Robinson also presented findings to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment staff on 2 February 2021 to commemorate World Wetlands Day.
Stay in touch and find out more about the interesting work happening across the Australian Government’s agriculture, water and environment portfolios: