AIMS has a strong publications record within its fields of expertise, particularly the impacts of climate change, and ocean acidification, declining water quality and other pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems, marine biodiversity, including threatened and endangered species, oceanography, ecosystem processes, ecosystem status and trends, water quality genetics and marine microbiology. During 2019, AIMS published 195 peer reviewed journal articles, 42 reports for a variety of clients including the Commonwealth Government through programs such as the National Environmental Science Program (NESP) and 11 book chapters. While AIMS did not quite reach its own annual institutional target of 200 journal publications during 2019, the quality of publications produced by AIMS continues to increase (measured by the average Impact Factor of the journals in which AIMS publishes). In addition, with the completion of the substantial Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program and the North West Shoals to Shore Program, the publication output by AIMS is likely to increase again in 2020.
The main types of publications produced by our research staff are peer reviewed journal articles and reviews, followed by client reports (see Figure 2). AIMS full bibliography for 2019 is included in Appendix A: Science publications.
In the field of marine and freshwater biology, AIMS was the top-ranked research institution both in Australia (Figure 3) and globally (Figure 4) over the period 2015–19.
James Cook University remains AIMS’ most frequent collaborator on publications (Figure 5); in part due to the strong strategic partnership between the two organisations for research student training (AIMS@JCU). Similarly, the numerous co-authorships with the University of Western Australia (second) and CSIRO (fourth) are facilitated in part by the co-location of all three organisations in the Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre, Perth. External collaborations with the University of Queensland, and the University of Tasmania and the University of Melbourne have steadily increased over the past 10 years.
Research Highlight: Microfibres prevalent on the Great Barrier Reef
Marine plastic pollution is pervasive around the world, and reducing plastic waste is receiving increasing attention, including from Australian governments.
At the Council of Australian Governments meeting in 2019 in Cairns, the leaders of Commonwealth and State governments agreed to develop a strategy to reduce waste, especially plastics.
In a recent study, AIMS and the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) found microdebris (human-made debris less than 5 mm long) is widespread on the Great Barrier Reef.
From 22 surface water tows, 547 items of microdebris were recorded.
The study also examined 60 Lemon damselfish (Pomacentrus moluccensis) collected at inshore and offshore reefs near Townsville and found 455 items of microdebris, with 57 of the 60 fish containing at least one piece of microdebris. Among the 1002 items collected, fibres (86%) were much more common than particles (14%).
Spectroscopy was used to determine the polymers in all items of microdebris collected in order to identify potential sources. Plastic polymers, including polyester, nylon and polyethylene, were found in 60% of those items found in surface waters and 25% of those items recovered from Lemon damselfish. Polyester and nylon likely originate from the industrial textile sector, while polyethylene is likely sourced from the industrial packaging sector.
Hydrodynamic modelling determined that the geographic origin of microdebris contamination in surface waters was not distributed equally across sampling locations. Specifically, riverine discharge was a potential source for microdebris collected at inshore reefs, but not offshore reefs.
The AIMS-UCPH joint study was the subject of a video produced by the Australian Academy of Science. The team is currently undertaking further research to examine the potential ecological risks of marine microdebris contamination to the Great Barrier Reef.
This research contributes to AIMS strategic target of delivering science that underpins a net improvement in the health of marine ecosystems in northern Australia (AIMS Strategy 2025 Impact Target 2).
Research Highlight: A new Indigenous partnership brings western science together with traditional knowledge
AIMS and the Woppaburra Traditional Owners of the Keppel Islands have embarked on a unique partnership, beginning in December 2019 with a five day on-country workshop at Konomie (North Keppel Island).
AIMS scientists and GBRMPA collaborators came together with 45 Woppaburra people to discuss AIMS’ past research in the area, add Woppaburra knowledge to scientific habitat maps, and use this new joint knowledge to discuss plans for future research in the region. The workshop, at the North Keppel Island Environmental Education Centre also provided opportunities for two-way knowledge sharing, and the joint brainstorming of ideas for future project proposal development. The participatory mapping sessions documented important cultural sites and stories and provided information about cultural restrictions. This led to the co-design and selection of study sites. Another significant outcome was the provision of Traditional Owner consent for a 5-year, multi-million dollar research project that will investigate how corals grow and survive in the first year of life on the reef, to inform new reef management options under climate change. As part of this joint industry-funded project, two Indigenous aquaculture technicians will be employed within the project to help propagate the corals, and will be supported to obtain a Certificate III in aquaculture (coral aquaculture). While the diverse reefs around the Keppel Islands will serve as the natural laboratory for this study, the results have broader application to help reefs world-wide recover and adapt to the effects of warming oceans.
The workshop was a historic and emotional return to country for many Woppaburra participants. For some it was their first opportunity to be on country since the last of their resident ancestors were moved from the islands in 1902. After learning about coral life cycles, annual mass spawning and processes involved in dispersal, adaptation and survival of coral reefs, some participants drew analogies to the history, removal, adaptation and survival of their own people. This parallel was captured in a new Woppaburra coral dance which mimicked coral spawning, dispersal and settlement into diverse morphological forms. The dance was performed for the first time on the last day of the workshop and is an exceptional example of western science woven together with traditional knowledge and perspectives.
The Woppaburra-AIMS collaboration is part of AIMS’ commitment to establish genuine partnerships with Traditional Owners and custodians of sea country, to identify mutual interests and priorities and working together to realise them. This workshop was a key project milestone designed to establish an authentic relationship between AIMS and Woppaburra people based on honesty, trust, respect and mutual understanding. Participants reflected on this during the closing ceremony, when a grove of sapling poplar gums was planted on a hill overlooking the workshop venue. These trees will grow together to create shade and shelter for future on-country workshops and provide a tangible symbol of the growing Woppaburra-AIMS partnership.
Research Highlight: Improving oil and gas risk assessments
AIMS is combining experiments and modelling to improve risk assessments for oil spills in tropical waters.
In conjunction with Shell and INPEX, AIMS’ Ecotoxicology and Risk Assessment team conducted a detailed review of all information on the effects of hydrocarbons on tropical marine invertebrates typical of Australia’s North West Shelf, which includes some of Australia’s highest prospective oil and gas areas. The review also examined the toxicity thresholds used, and how they are applied within Australia’s regulatory framework.
One of the key findings was a lack of published studies for the effects of the oils that could be spilled in north-west Australia on the tropical species found there. Instead, there is heavy reliance on information from freshwater studies, as well as temperate and cold-water studies from the Northern Hemisphere. The thresholds derived from these studies often do not consider important co-factors such as high levels of UV radiation, which are typical of clear tropical waters and can increase oil toxicity (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969720309979? via%3Dihub).
The review found there was a need to determine whether the toxicity thresholds from these studies would protect corals, sponges and other keystone reef species in the event of a spill on the North West Shelf.
The best way to do this was to incorporate tropical species into ‘oil toxicity modelling’, a technique to predict toxicity to organisms from a knowledge of the oil chemistry alone.
This research contributes to delivering environmental, social and economic net benefits for tropical Australia, and was presented to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) as well as the environmental working group within the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA), the peak national body representing the upstream oil and gas exploration and production industry.
The team is currently finalising a series of ecotoxicity tests, conducted for Shell and the Ichthys Project, exposing a suite of tropical marine species (corals, sponges, barnacles, algae, dogwhelks, sea urchins) to gas condensate from the North West Shelf. The derived toxicity thresholds will be compared with modelled thresholds to assess whether tropical species are more or less sensitive than those from temperate ecosystems.
This toxicity modelling was also the subject of a workshop in March 2020 supported by AIMS’ Capability Development Fund. The workshop—held online amid COVID-19 restrictions—featured global leaders in the field, including spill modellers, chemists and ecotoxicologists heavily involved in analysing the Macondo Deepwater Horizon event. The workshop addressed key considerations for applying the modelling to tropical coral reef conditions, as well as the needs of national stakeholders.
The team is also conducting experiments to investigate the influence of UV on the toxicity of condensate to coral. These studies will permit the modelling of toxicity to coral for any type of spilled oil.
Defining the Environment that May Be Affected (EMBA) by an oil spill
The Montara blowout in the Timor Sea off north Western Australia in 2009 and the Macondo Deepwater Horizon event in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 highlighted the risks posed to the environment by oil spills and blowouts in offshore tropical and subtropical environments.
The Montara event led to sweeping changes in the regulatory landscape and the formation of a new regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA). One of the key changes was a requirement for oil and gas companies to predict, in advance, the Environment that May Be Affected by a spill—the EMBA. This provides a spatial context for future spills, and also guides the content and scale of the companies’ preparedness for a future spill.
Defining the EMBA is a complex task. It requires numerical modelling of the movement of spilled oil and understanding how the oil chemistry changes over time to provide an estimate of what the likely hydrocarbon concentrations could be. Then the concentrations must be translated into biological consequences using ‘toxicity thresholds’, which predict concentration-dependent mortality and sublethal effects. Toxicity thresholds must therefore be developed for important habitat-forming species such as corals and sponges, but also for a whole suite of different tropical organisms.
AIMS plays several important marine science leadership roles, including setting research agendas through strategic workshops on key issues, giving keynote presentations at international symposia and contributing to issues of national importance through input to government committees and policy projects. Here we outline some key leadership roles that AIMS has played during the year.
Contributing to issues of national importance
National Marine Science Committee (NMSC)
The National Marine Science Committee, which comprises 29 representatives of research institutions, universities, industries and government departments with a stake in marine science (including the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources; Geoscience Australia; and CSIRO) is responsible for implementing Australia’s National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025, which was released in August 2015 and is currently undergoing a mid-term update that will soon be released. The plan addresses the challenges identified in the Marine Nation 2025 position paper. It operates in tandem with the Science and Research Priorities set by the Australian Government, and with a number of other national and international efforts to prioritise ocean, earth system and climate science. The plan highlights areas where national collaborations can strengthen both science and end-user communities and recommends investment in research infrastructure and high-priority science programs to maximise the marine sector’s contribution to the growth of Australia’s $68 billion blue economy.
AIMS provided strong leadership during the development of the National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025 and continues to make significant contributions to the NMSC and to the subsidiary working groups established to help implement the plan. AIMS’ CEO, Dr Paul Hardisty represents AIMS on the NMSC, and Dr David Souter is Chairman of the NMSC’s National Marine Baselines and Monitoring Working Group.
Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan
The Reef 2050 Plan is a 35-year plan developed jointly by the Australian and Queensland governments to assist management of the GBR and the GBR World Heritage Area. It aims to maintain and enhance the health and resilience of the reef while allowing ecologically sustainable development. The vision is to ensure that the outstanding universal values of the GBR continue to improve each decade between now and 2050, guaranteeing that the reef remains a natural wonder for successive generations. The Plan, which sets out objectives, outcomes, targets and actions, was developed in partnership with government, key industry organisations, Traditional Owners, environment groups, researchers and the community.
AIMS continued to provide strong leadership in the implementation of the Reef 2050 Plan through the direct involvement of the following personnel:
The Hon. Penelope Wensley AC – Chairman of the AIMS Council and Chairman of the Reef Advisory Committee (RAC),
Dr Paul Hardisty – AIMS CEO, member of the RAC and member of the RIMReP (Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program) Steering Committee
Dr Britta Schaffelke - member of both the Commonwealth and state Independent Expert Panels and member of the RIMReP Interim Operations Committee
Contributing to issues of international importance
Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program
The Great Barrier Reef is indisputably one of the world’s most important natural assets. AIMS, in partnership with several other organizations, works to protect and restore the reef, which is under severe pressure from climate change and other stressors. Cumulative impacts include rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, declining water quality and outbreaks of the destructive crown-of-thorns starfish (CoTS).
In late 2017 the Australian Government funded a $6m feasibility study to scope R&D into new technologies to help build reef resilience. Called the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP), the concept feasibility study was delivered by a consortium of partners led by AIMS in December 2019.
The RRAP feasibility study findings were publicly announced by Government in April 2020, and found:
potential economic, social and environmental net benefits of intervening successfully on the reef valued at tens of billions of dollars
interventions are possible, but significant R&D is needed to develop the interventions, and make them affordable, safe, and acceptable to the public and regulators. Detailed R&D program and governance framework recommendations to progressively deliver the required interventions ready for deployment over a ten-year period were made.
intervention measures will work best in combination, and should be designed to work together and reinforce each other over time
inaction will pose a significant risk which increases with time.
In parallel to the concept feasibility study, the Government announced further funding of $100 million to ‘harness the best science to implement reef restoration and support reef resilience and adaptation’ (as part of a broader $443 million package for the GBR provided to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation). Since late 2019, a set of core partners has been developing an Unincorporated Joint Venture and associated governance and R&D program to commence a 4 year $150m R&D program. The GBRF will be the principal funder and AIMS, with its particular expertise in reef science, is the Managing Entity of this program. During this period, the partners will be seeking to raise additional third-party funding to grow the R&D program.
AIMS contributes to the International Coral Reef Initiative
Since July 2018, Australia has chaired the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) Secretariat in partnership with Monaco and Indonesia. The ICRI is an informal partnership between nations and organisations that strives to preserve coral reefs and related ecosystems around the world. The actions of ICRI have been pivotal in continuing to highlight globally the importance of coral reefs and related ecosystems to environmental sustainability, food security and social and cultural wellbeing. In particular, ICRI encourages the adoption of best practice in sustainable management of coral reefs and associated ecosystems, builds capacity, and raises awareness at all levels of the state of coral reefs around the world. The work of ICRI is regularly acknowledged by the United Nations, highlighting the Initiative’s important cooperation, collaboration and advocacy role within the international arena.
AIMS has made significant contributions to Australia’s co-chairmanship through the collaborative development of the ICRI Plan of Action, and as a member of Australia’s internal ICRI Steering Committee. In addition, under the auspices of ICRI, AIMS established and, in collaboration with JCU, is leading the ICRI Ad Hoc Committee on Reef Restoration, which aims to assess and document global needs and priorities for current and future reef restoration, identify R&D priorities and improve coordination, and jointly plan and deliver R&D activities. Initial recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee were presented to ICRI members at the 34th General Meeting held in Townsville in December 2019. The work of the Ad Hoc Committee has continued during 2020. Additional recommendations will be presented to ICRI members at the 35th General Meeting.
AIMS coordinates the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN)
With the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, AIMS has responded to UN Environment Assembly Resolution 2/12 on coral reefs which called on UN Environment to “support further development of coral reef indicators, regional coral reef assessments, and preparation of a global report through GCRMN”, and the ICRI Resolution requesting the ICRI Secretariat and UN Environment to “develop and initiate implementation of a roadmap for strengthening GCRMN”. The GCRMN is an operational network of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI). The GCRMN supports ICRI by working through a global network of coral reef scientists and managers, institutions and organisations to provide the best available scientific information on, and communication of, the status and trends of coral reef ecosystems for their conservation and management. The GCRMN produces periodic Status of Coral Reefs of the World reports, which have had significant impact within the global scientific, NGO, government and United Nations communities, with the UN recognising that the GCRMN is the primary vehicle for monitoring progress toward coral reef-related Sustainable Development Goals (13 & 14) and Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (Target 10). Under AIMS leadership, and in conjunction with a global network of contributors, the GCRMN will produce the next Status of Coral Reefs of the World report in 2020.
AIMS leads Australia’s technical input into the Commonwealth Blue Charter Coral Reef Protection and Restoration Action Group. Recognizing that oceans are immensely important, and that Commonwealth member countries have the capacity to effect change across continents, all 53 member countries of the Commonwealth unanimously adopted the Commonwealth Blue Charter in 2018. The Commonwealth Blue Charter is an active program of work to improve marine ecosystem health and address emerging issues. The Blue Charter is implemented through 10 different Actions Groups that are focussed on specific aspects of ocean health and sustainable use. Each Action Group is championed by one or more member countries. Australia, in partnership with Belize and Mauritius, leads the Coral Reef Protection and Restoration Action Group which aims to catalyse action for the protection, conservation and restoration of coral reefs. AIMS, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, provides technical and diplomatic leadership for Australia.
AIMS hosted the inaugural meeting of the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group for Coral Reef Protection and Restoration at its facility in Townsville in July 2019. The workshop produced a draft Plan of Action and a Terms of Reference for the Action Group that would contribute to the overall objectives of the Commonwealth Blue Charter and align with the objectives of other related Action Groups.
Coral Reef Innovation Project addressed global challenges associated with coral reef monitoring
In 2019–20, AIMS continued to develop technologies to monitor coral reefs in Australia and the Pacific. Working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Queensland University of Technology and Pacific Island partners, the Coral Reef Innovation Project, otherwise known as Reef Cloud, will provide an end-to-end cloud-based solution that will use artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to generate automatically reports for image-based coral reef monitoring programs describing changes in the condition of coral reefs. Reef Cloud will help reef managers to make more timely and accurate decisions to improve the long-term resilience of coral reefs worldwide.
In 2019–2020, AIMS provided expert analysis and advice and contributed to the following reviews and papers:
Select Committee on the effectiveness of the Australian Government’s Northern Australia agenda
Inquiry into the identification of leading practices in ensuring evidence-based regulation of farm practices that impact water quality outcomes in the Great Barrier Reef
Inquiry into the impact of seismic testing on fisheries and the marine environment
Inquiry into the Opportunities and Challenges of the Engagement of Traditional Owners in the Economic Development of Northern Australia
Inquiry into the opportunities for strengthening Australia’s relations with the Republic of France
Inquiry into strengthening Australia’s relationships with countries in the Pacific region
Independent review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act
Inquiry into the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for Australia’s foreign affairs, defence and trade
In addition, AIMS staff contributed in many committees and groups:
Dr Paul Hardisty is a member of the National Marine Science Committee and the NESP Tropical Water Quality Hub Steering Committee.
Dr Richard Brinkman is a member of the Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership (GHHP) Independent Science Panel.
Dr David Souter is a member of the National Marine Science Committee, the steering committee for the Australian Secretariat for the International Coral Reef Initiative, the NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub Steering Committee, Chairman of the NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub Partners Committee, and the NMSC National Marine Baselines and Monitoring Working Group, and Australian Technical Lead on the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group on Reef Protection and Restoration.
Ms Traceylee Forester was a member of the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation Indigenous Reference Group.
AIMS has created and participated in multiple joint ventures, strategic alliances and significant collaborations that maximise its ability to deliver high quality science. These arrangements increase the critical mass and diversify the skills base that can be applied to answer complex questions about the sustainable use, management and protection of marine resources. During the year, many of our scientific tasks received external co-investment involving stakeholders and partners who participated actively in research design, implementation and dissemination of knowledge.
AIMS is, or has been, a member of the following partnerships:
Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies
Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program
Reef 2050 Plan Marine Monitoring Program
National Environmental Science Programme (NESP) – Tropical Water Quality Hub
NESP – Marine Biodiversity Hub
Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS)
Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI)
Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre
ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers of Big Data, Big Models, New Insights.
A synopsis of each of these partnerships is given below.
The ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) was established in 2005. In 2013, the Coral CoE received an additional $28 million of ARC funding to continue for a further seven years. The Coral CoE researches ecosystem goods and services of the world’s coral reefs, building bridges between the natural and social sciences, strengthening capacity, and informing and supporting transformative changes in coral reef governance and management. The centre involves national and international partner institutions – AIMS, the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University (COS, USA), Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS, France), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, Switzerland) and WorldFish (Malaysia). AIMS’ Chief Research Officer Dr David Souter was a member of the Coral CoE’s advisory board, and Dr Janice Lough is a partner investigator. AIMS and the Coral CoE have jointly supported several postdoctoral fellowships over the life of the centre.
The Reef 2050 Plan Marine Monitoring Program (MMP) was designed and developed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in collaboration with science agencies to monitor the inshore health of the reef. The program is funded under the Reef 2050 Plan. Managing water quality remains a strategic priority for the Authority, to ensure the long-term protection of the coastal and inshore ecosystems of the reef. A key management tool is the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan, a joint commitment of the Australian and Queensland governments that seeks to improve the quality of water flowing from the catchments adjacent to the GBR. To evaluate the effectiveness of catchment management and report on progress in improving the quality of coastal marine waters, the marine monitoring program has assessed status and trends in reef water quality and ecosystem condition since 2005.
We have continued to contribute data from monitoring inshore water quality and the condition of inshore coral reefs to the MMP. In collaboration with James Cook University, AIMS has been monitoring water quality several times a year at 58 fixed sites along more than 700 km of coastline from Mackay to Lockhart River. In addition, we survey the condition of 32 coastal and inshore coral reefs from the Fitzroy Region to the Wet Tropics on a two-yearly schedule.
The National Environmental Science Program (NESP) Tropical Water Quality Hub is a collaboration of researchers from AIMS, CSIRO and four Queensland universities (Central Queensland University, Griffith University, James Cook University and University of Queensland), administered by the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre in Cairns. The Hub is supported by the Australian Government’s NESP, which is administered by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. The Hub is focused on improving the water quality of the Torres Strait and the GBR and its associated catchments, and funds research within three broad themes:
improve the understanding of the impacts (including cumulative impacts) and pressures on high-priority freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems and species
maximise the resilience of vulnerable species to the impacts of climate change and climate variability by reducing other pressures, including poor water quality
identify natural resource management improvements based on sound understanding of the status and long-term trends of high-priority species and systems.
In early 2020, the Hub distributed the final, sixth, round of funding.
The $23.88 million NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub is a partnership of AIMS, the University of Tasmania (UTAS), Charles Darwin University, CSIRO, Geoscience Australia, IMOS, Museum Victoria, the NSW Department of Primary Industries, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, and UWA. The Hub focuses its research efforts on Australian oceans and marine environments, including temperate coastal water quality and marine species, and is administered through the UTAS.
Research within the Hub targets four themes:
improving the management of marine threatened and migratory species
supporting management decision making
improving our understanding of pressures on the marine environment
improving our understanding of the marine environment, including biophysical, economic and social aspects.
Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) is a national research infrastructure capability that delivers a comprehensive, integrated, national system of ocean observations covering physical, chemical, biological and ecological variables. IMOS is supported by the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and is operated by a consortium of institutions, led by the University of Tasmania, and including publicly funded research agencies, State research agencies and Universities. AIMS has been a foundation member of the IMOS partnership since it was established in 2006 and has continued to play a leadership role as the primary operator of IMOS infrastructure across northern Australia. We contribute strategic guidance through memberships of the board, leadership of and contribution to IMOS’ regional Nodes and through membership of the IMOS Science and Technology Advisory Committee to provide advice on the scientific priorities, rationale and future direction of the observing system and operational implementation of a national marine observing vision.
The delivery of IMOS is distributed across partner organisations and operators that are responsible for capability-based facilities. AIMS has responsibility for the operation of ocean moorings, national reference stations, marine-microbial community observing, reef-based sensor networks, acoustic animal tracking, reception of satellite-derived observations and underway observation systems from our large research vessels across a geographic domain spanning tropical Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.
The National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025 highlights the value of sustained ocean observation to Australia’s blue economy and has recommended sustaining and expanding marine observation and modelling capability. For more than a decade, AIMS and IMOS have made high quality ocean observations accessible to the marine and climate science community, international collaborators, users and other stakeholders to underpin our need for deeper understanding of the status and trends of our oceans and their ecosystems. IMOS investment is leveraged by marine industries to support growth in the blue economy across multiple sectors including offshore resource extraction, fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, ports and shipping. AIMS continues to play a key role in partnerships with marine industries, port operators and state governments to promote uptake of IMOS data and to deliver environmental and economic benefit. (see www.imos.org.au)
The Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) was established to facilitate WA’s integrated and coordinated approach to complex research issues to inform management and industry. WAMSI is a partnership of four WA universities (UWA, Murdoch University, Edith Cowan University and Curtin University), a major resource company (Woodside Energy Ltd), two Commonwealth organisations (CSIRO and AIMS), four WA Government departments (Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions; Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation; Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development; Department of Water and Environmental Regulation); the Western Australian Museum, the WA ChemCentre and a regional ocean observing network for the Indian Ocean (WA Global Ocean Observing System).
The Institution was launched in May 2007 with an initial investment from the WA Government of $21 million over five years with $71.85 million co-invested by the partners to deliver a research program that included Ningaloo and sustainable fisheries. In 2011–12, the state government invested $12 million over six years, augmented with an additional $18 million from the partners, for WAMSI to deliver the Kimberley Marine Research Program. The report on this comprehensive and collaborative research effort was released by the WA Minister for Science, the Hon. Dave Kelly MLA, in May 2019.
WAMSI’s capacity to deliver programs, such as the $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program, stems from its ability to bring together 200 scientists from 25 organisations, including 11 partners. All projects collaborated with Traditional Owners and marine rangers to ensure the integration of science with traditional knowledge.
In each case, the government funds generated investments from WAMSI research partners, providing substantial leverage to target high priority marine science needs in WA.
In 2019, WAMSI finalised the results of an industry partnership program to deliver the $18 million Dredging Science Node (DSN). The Node is an example of the strategic use of environmental offsets and is funded from requirements associated with Woodside’s Pluto Project, Chevron’s Wheatstone Project and BHP’s Outer Harbour Project. It was established in 2011–12 to understand and mitigate the impacts of coastal dredging on the environment.
Ground-breaking insights from the program are now being translated into improved dredging guidelines. These will streamline monitoring by focusing on the relevant and most sensitive aspects and help to improve the effectiveness of management approaches to minimise hazards from dredging. The DSN has set a new industry standard, with impacts beyond WA. Early adoption of its key findings are being implemented in dredging programs in Queensland and the Northern Territory. Internationally, there is uptake of the findings in environmental impact assessment studies, dredging management plans and technical consultancy advice on dredging projects.
The Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre (IOMRC) is a joint venture that unites the four leading Australian research organisations working in and around the Indian Ocean—AIMS, CSIRO, UWA and the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development. This collaboration has helped create new multidisciplinary research teams and a graduate training environment that will significantly advance WA’s marine science capacity, capability and profile. In 2018, the IOMRC Partnership continued to support innovative and ambitious marine research. By investing more than $2 million over three years, the partnership will reveal the least understood of the world’s ocean basins. New sensing and modelling capability that covers genes through to ecosystems will allow better management of WA resources and provide early warning of future environmental risks.
AIMS@JCU is a strategic alliance that takes advantage of AIMS and James Cook University’s co-location in Townsville and collective expertise and infrastructure. It currently supports collaborations through jointly supervised higher degree research candidates, and recently graduated its 108th PhD awardee. The partnership also facilitates AIMS-based internships and work-integrated learning for students of marine science enrolled at JCU.
By facilitating the link between JCU’s higher degree research program and our own research program, AIMS@JCU delivers significant value beyond the dollar investment. This includes a higher PhD completion rate (compared to the JCU average in similar fields of research), more research outputs with higher impact, and cohorts of work-ready graduates with skills and expertise in national marine science and experience within a publicly funded research agency. Such industry exposure, integrated with higher degree research training, continues to address key recommendations of the Australian Council of Learned Academies review of Australia’s research training scheme.
To help bridge the growing skills gap in quantitative marine science (as identified in the National Marine Science Plan), AIMS@JCU has restructured its scholarships to four years (instead of three), with the extra year available for professional development in quantitative methods customised for each student and their advisory team. AIMS@JCU members also benefit from being well positioned within the combined peer networks of AIMS and JCU, and they can access special competitive funding awards for project costs, travel and science communication, and professional development opportunities.
AIMS@JCU supports the pipeline of marine science Higher Degree Research candidates through fostering work-integrated learning placements including internships, and links with science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) programs for high schools. The high school programs include those focused on Indigenous participation—Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Marine Science (ATSIMS) and the Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science (ASSETS).
AIMS@JCU currently has 316 members, of which 45 are PhD candidates and 72 are other students (MSc, undergraduate or interns). Further details are available at www.aims.jcu.edu.au
The ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers of Big Data, Big Models, New Insights (ACEMS) successfully attracted seven years of funding from the Australian Government in December 2013 and commenced operation in 2016–17.
ACEMS concentrates on the massive amounts of data collected daily in a variety of forms and from many sources. Many of the resulting datasets have the potential to make vital contributions to society, business and government but are so large or complex that they are difficult to process and analyse using traditional tools.
The centre, led by the University of Melbourne, brings AIMS scientists together with world class collaborators and partner organisations, including Monash University, Queensland University of Technology, University of Adelaide, University of Technology Sydney, CSIRO, Australian Bureau of Statistics, University of New South Wales, University of Queensland, Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems, Vic Roads, Sax Institute and AT&T Labs–Research.
ACEMS aims to create innovative mathematical and statistical models that can uncover the knowledge concealed by the size and complexity of these big datasets. From a marine science perspective, the collaboration will enable AIMS (and others) to add value to the data collected on the GBR to increase our knowledge of the reef and its processes, and to improve reef management.
Over the years AIMS scientists have been involved in multiple collaborations with other ACEMS partners. A highlight for 2019 is the start of a new collaboration focussing on improving AIMS ability to report on GBR reef condition. The project aims to expand the existing modelling approach and incorporating the ability to explore recovery delay explicitly in the framework. The output of this collaboration is expected in February 2021, but preliminary results show significant improvements in comparison to the existing framework.
As a publicly funded research agency, AIMS does not confer degrees upon students and postgraduates. Nevertheless, AIMS is committed to early career researcher training to help develop the research and innovation capacity needed to meet the opportunities and challenges facing the marine environment, and to keep Australia globally competitive. AIMS maximises its impact by providing opportunities to develop a research career including:
scholarship funding for postgraduates
exposing Indigenous high school students to marine science.
During 2019-20, AIMS co-funded or fully supported 25 postdoctoral fellows (Table 3) under agreements with:
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (2)
ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers of Big Data, Big Models, New Insights (1)
AIMS–QUT Memorandum of Understanding (2)
Charles Darwin University (2)
Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre Partnership (4)
Bertarelli Foundation (1)
NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub (1)
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Saudi Arabia) (1)
Australia–China Strategic Research Fund (ACSRF) Program (1) – funded by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science
Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (1)
AIMS also supported an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award Fellow based at The University of Western Australia.
Postgraduate students and occupational trainees
During 2019–20, AIMS staff co-supervised 62 postgraduate students from 11 universities within Australia, of whom 38 are part of the AIMS@JCU program (see above), and six are international students. Of the total, 44 are primarily based at AIMS, and 24 are primarily located at partner universities.
AIMS’ involvement in early career researcher training is reflected in 26 staff members holding adjunct academic appointments at Australian or international institutions, including:
James Cook University, primarily within the Coral CoE, the College of Science and Engineering, and the Division of Research and Innovation (through the AIMS@JCU partnership)
University of Queensland
University of Western Australia
Charles Darwin University
Queensland University of Technology
University of Melbourne
Many of these adjunct positions reflect a large personal contribution to postgraduate supervision.
Table 3: Number of Postdoctoral Fellows, postgraduates and occupational trainees, 2015–16 to 2019–20
Postgraduates working at AIMS supervised by AIMS staff
Postgraduates working externally supervised by AIMS staff
Occupational trainees and interns
Exposing Indigenous high school students to marine science
The Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Marine Science (ATSIMS) Scholars’ Initiative was established in 2013 by AIMS@JCU postgraduate student Joe Pollock. The initiative was designed to engage Indigenous high school students in field-based science programs to bolster the interest, experience and hands-on skills needed to initiate, and succeed in, tertiary studies in marine science. The program fosters links between western marine science and traditional ecological knowledge.
In addition to the support the program receives from AIMS, the scholars’ initiative is currently supported by JCU, AIMS@JCU, World Wildlife Fund, Gudjuda Reference Group Aboriginal Corporation, Girringun Aboriginal Corporation, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Townsville Catholic Education, the US Department of State, SeaLink, Oregon State University, Reef HQ Aquarium, and the Museum of Tropical Queensland.
Unfortunately, ATSIMS did not proceed in its usual form this year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, and AIMS was not able to offer the usual interactive workshops with the students under the guidance of marine researchers and Indigenous leaders. Instead, this year ATSIMS has convened a virtual panel and interactive Q&A session for students as part of World Ocean Day celebrations. AIMS Indigenous Partnerships Coordinator Traceylee Forester was a panelist along with Indigenous rangers and marine scientists.
Ms Forester attended and participated in the BROLGA Junior Ranger Program in Rockhampton during September. This was the first time AIMS participated in this 5-day residential program conducted at Central Queensland University with Darumbal elder Malcolm Mann. This program targets Indigenous school students in the Rockhampton region and provides them with hands-on experience in a range of career opportunities in natural resource management from a Traditional Owner perspective. This program includes careers that can be accessed through school, vocational and university training pathways. Besides STEM and natural resource management issues, the BROLGA program has a significant cultural component. In future, AIMS plans to have a more active involvement in this program, and include the experiences and learnings from our growing research portfolio in the Capricornia/Fitzroy region, including the Keppel Islands Coral Project.
AIMS is working with the Registered Training Organisation LMC Training to adapt the Certificate III Aquaculture training package for coral aquaculture/propagation for reef restoration research. AIMS will employ the first two Indigenous identified trainees in a proposed ongoing pipeline of Indigenous vocational training in this marine-science related discipline, during the next reporting period.
Collaboration is a core value of AIMS. Collaboration with domestic and international partners enables AIMS to draw on complementary skills to deliver practical research results and to share knowledge more broadly. During 2019–20, AIMS was involved in 148 collaborative projects conducted in 81 countries. These projects involved 268 Australian scientists from 48 Australian organisations and 293 international colleagues from 160 overseas organisations.
Collaborative research accounts for a high proportion of AIMS scientific publications (see Figure 7). Of the 192 journal articles published by AIMS scientists, 71 (37%) had co-authors from other Australian research organisations and 109 (57%) involved international colleagues. Only 12 articles (6%) were authored solely by AIMS staff.
In addition to these research collaborations, in 2019–20 we:
renewed our membership with Plymouth Marine Laboratory – in the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO), a forum to promote and advance the observation of the global ocean
extended our Strategic Alliance Agreement with JCU with a view to finalising a new agreement during 2020.
Science Quality Assurance
1The AIMS Quality Management Policy, approved by the AIMS Council, establishes the expectations for the delivery of quality scientific research and services. It forms an integral part of our governance framework and promotes ethical research behaviour, providing a foundation for high-quality research, credibility and stakeholder trust.
Rigorous quality assurance and quality control procedures ensure we deliver high quality and timely research to stakeholders. Our research is peer reviewed at multiple stages through the research pipeline using internal and external reviewers. At inception, all projects are reviewed by the relevant Research Program Directors, the Chief Research Officer and, if the magnitude of the project warrants, the CEO to ensure that they align with AIMS Strategy 2025, that they use public funds and resources appropriately, and that they will deliver tangible benefits to one or more of AIMS’ stakeholders.
Individual projects are managed by Project Leaders who are supported by staff of a dedicated Project Management Office that was established during 2019-20. The subsequent release of project outputs involves rigorous internal review and is governed by several policies and procedures, including Intellectual Property, Data Access and External Document Control policies.
The AIMS Research Data Centre manages and secures the Institute’s data making it globally discoverable and accessible via the internet. Our metadata and data holdings are also submitted to the Australian Ocean Data Network portal and the Research Data Australia data catalogue, increasing their accessibility and allowing integration into national datasets.
The following figures depict the types of data that AIMS collects and how it is managed.
Research Highlight: Oceanography helps understand regional climate change effects on the Great Barrier Reef
AIMS and CSIRO used data collection and sophisticated modelling to craft a three-dimensional picture of water temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef.
The work identified regions of the reef most at risk of coral bleaching, along with areas that are persistently cooler. The analysis took place during a marine heatwave early in 2020 which caused the most widespread coral bleaching event on record on the Great Barrier Reef. It followed the successive bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.
The research used the three-dimensional eReefs (https://research.csiro.au/ereefs/about-ereefs/) hydrodynamic model to identify regions of persistent cold-water upwelling and intrusions based on our understanding of ocean circulation within the reef. This upwelling and intrusions are caused by the interaction of tidal and ocean currents (such as the East Australian Current) with the topography of the reef and sea floor.
The regions with identified upwelling correlate well with areas where bleaching was not observed or much less severe, which validates the eReefs model.
In the central Great Barrier Reef temperature observations from Integrated Marine Observation System (IMOS) underwater gliders and fixed moorings revealed the layer of warm surface water was confined to the upper 25-30 metres of the ocean, with much cooler water below.
Identifying these persistently cooler regions can help us understand the mechanisms at play. It can also support targeted protection efforts, working with nature to create refuges in areas that are naturally cooler.
AIMS is also working with the Bureau of Meteorology to develop a marine heatwave forecast. While eReefs can forecast conditions a few days in advance, the new model under development could give several weeks warning. This advance warning system may one day support targeted interventions to reduce bleaching such as through the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program.
Crucial to much of this work are the high-tech IMOS platforms, which include satellite remote sensing fixed moorings, and roving ocean gliders. Two of the gliders were deployed off Cairns to the north east of Townsville and in the southern Great Barrier Reef during the marine heatwave in early 2020. Each IMOS glider mission sees the autonomous marine robot travel up to 1000 km, monitoring water quality, light and temperature throughout the water column. The data is relayed back to researchers in real-time.
The eReefs model is able to predict the changes in temperature from the ocean surface to the seafloor, at a horizontal resolution of 1 km. The model simulates the daily warming of reef waters, providing data every few minutes and can estimate the heat stress experienced at the seafloor where corals may experience cooler waters.
This is an advantage over satellite products that only provide a snapshot of the surface temperature at a coarser resolution, and at irregular times when they pass overhead. Satellite measurements can also be affected by cloud cover, which obscures the measurement of the ocean’s surface temperature.
These technologies to enhance automated data collection are part of AIMS’ Strategy to double its yearly information output at half the unit cost in half the time (AIMS Strategy 2025 Enhanced Capability Target 2).
The research was supported by the NESP Tropical Water Quality Hub and conducted in collaboration with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). eReefs is a collaboration between the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, CSIRO, AIMS, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Queensland Government.
Our research, internal and external relationships, and organisational ethos are guided by a set of operating principles that inform and underline our focus on supporting key stakeholders.
Our values are:
Our guiding principles are:
AIMS works closely with stakeholders to identify and meet their needs for high quality research over long and short timeframes. Specifically, we map how the research will be used, identify who will benefit and rigorously review the outcomes. Within this process, we take a ‘big picture’ view of Australia’s marine science challenges, asking the right questions, anticipating future needs and investing strategically in research designed to reduce future uncertainty.
Key stakeholders who benefited from AIMS’ activities during the year are shown in Table 4.
Table 4: Stakeholders benefiting from AIMS activities in 2019-20
Examples of AIMS’ support
North-west Australian oil and gas industry
developing environmental baselines that help industry plan and manage their environmental risks and regulatory compliance
providing a rapid response research capability to optimise management actions should a spill occur
providing guidance on minimising adverse environmental impacts of dredging operations as a member of industry expert panels
supporting the development of collaborative industry sharing of marine environmental data
Commodity ports/ Northern Territory Government, Darwin Ports Corporation, Port of Townsville, Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership
developing systems to improve the operational efficiency of Darwin Harbour and environmental research to inform development decisions
researching the impacts of dredging to develop better risk-based dredging protocols
researching inputs to monitoring programs for regulatory compliance
applying new technologies for in situ monitoring to manage dredging operations and environmental regulatory compliance more effectively
studying water quality to validate hydrodynamic modelling of effluent diffusion
developing ecotoxicological assays and assessments to guide water quality guidelines and standards
Government and public
Australian Government and public
developing a framework to assess the cumulative impact of natural and anthropogenic stressors on the Great Barrier Reef
developing a mapping system for presenting environmental research data in an accessible form that promotes greater information use
educating the public and stakeholders via the AIMS website and with site tours, increasing the state of environmental knowledge and identifying any gaps and risks
supporting postgraduate students as a means of enhancing the marine research workforce in tropical Australia
providing expert marine science advice and interpretation to Australian Government ministers and their science advisers on key marine science developments, such as the 2016 and 2017 coral bleaching events
supporting the education and future employment potential of northern Australia’s Indigenous youth through the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Marine Science (ATSIMS) and Aboriginal Summer School for Excellence in Technology and Science (ASSETS) programs
Great Barrier Reef Foundation
researching coral health in a variable and changing marine environment to assess coral reef resilience, and potential intervention and management options through the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program
researching ecosystem processes and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks to increase our understanding of outbreak impacts and improve our ability to forecast and manage outbreaks
Queensland Government and public
researching the impact of changed land use practices on water quality in the GBR Marine Park
Western Australian Government and public
identifying and characterising biodiversity patterns and underlying processes in the Kimberley to aid effective management
surveying sensitive seabed organisms to evaluate impacts of dredging operations
researching the impacts of dredging to inform guidelines for marine dredging programs
Managers and regulators
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
monitoring the health of the GBR in ongoing surveys
providing specialist advice to, and peer review of, development activity impacts
contributing to the planning for the development of RIMReP (Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program)
providing independent scientific advice on the implementation of the Reef 2050 Plan
AIMS communicates the role it plays in the communities in which we work. This involves publishing information on the website, leveraging exposure from social media channels, engaging with stakeholders, and using media outlets to foster community understanding of the issues.
Further afield AIMS engages with government and industry, demonstrates impact and value to the nation, and promotes expertise in reef science and integrity of quality standards in science to build positive sentiment and commentary amongst audiences and in the national media.
AIMS has incorporated narrative-style communication to help staff align to the AIMS Strategy 2025 and improve our ability to project our value coherently. The development of the narrative follows on from the launch of the Strategy and the completion of the AIMS communications plan. The narrative is a framework of products that will help staff project AIMS externally as a coordinated whole.
Part of this framework are impact stories which had their external debut at the AIMS Parliamentary Breakfast in Canberra in September to demonstrate AIMS’ value to our stakeholders.
The promotion of AIMS’ science was a particularly important function during the 2019/20 period. Communications had a significant role to play in the five-year $11 million “iconic project” in the Keppel Islands in Central Queensland. The project is trialling coral restoration and re-seeding methods and includes a partnership with the Woppaburra Traditional Owners that blends Traditional ecological knowledge with Western science.
AIMS’ research into coral spawning in the National Sea Simulator received widespread favourable coverage. Other major highlights during the period were:
The Government’s announcement of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program R&D phase
The release of the annual Long Term Monitoring Program report on the health of the Great Barrier Reef
The mapping of Groote Eylandt Traditional Owners to complete the largest research project of its kind
Dr Kate Quigley’s paper on Assisted Gene Flow for coral adaptation (The active spread of adaptive variation for reef resilience in Ecology and Evolution)
Coverage of a Nature Communications paper (supervising author - Dr Mark Meekan) on the use of sound to restore damaged parts of the GBR (in coordination with Exeter University)
The publication of research into the response of the Great Barrier Reef’s parrotfish population to coral bleaching (Dr Brett Taylor)
Dr Frederieke Kroon’s paper identifying crown-of-thorns starfish DNA in the faeces of predatory fish
A paper on the use of industry ROVs to increase marine science knowledge and provide AIMS with the opportunity to engage more with industry (Dr Dianne McLean and Dr Miles Parsons).
The innovative use of a miniaturised, ship borne Sea Simulator aquarium used to study coral on the west and east coasts
The development of coral that is more resistant to increased seawater temperatures (Dr Madeleine van Oppen)
A study that quantifies the way cyclones damage coral reefs (Dr Marji Puotinen).
Whale shark diving is an important part of the Western Australian tourism industry, delivering an estimated $12.5 million in economic activity for the Ningaloo Reef region. The viability of this industry rests on the protection of the species which is underpinned by marine science. AIMS strengthened its position as one of the nation’s experts in whale shark research through several public information opportunities including:
a paper on the prevalence of scarring and major lacerations due to vessel collisions
a landmark study on the use of Carbon-14 dating from Cold War atomic bomb tests to measure whale shark age. This paper received significant news coverage in Australia and globally and achieved the highest Altmetric score for a submission in Frontiers in Marine Science
video from a field trip of eDNA to monitor whale shark movements broadcast on commercial TV in September in what was the second highest rating programme for the evening in both Perth and nationally.
The use of video is an important capability to broaden audience reach. When linked with AIMS social media and digital channels it “brings” science from the field direct to the public without being filtered by any mediated source. This approach has supported AIMS’ positioning as a leader in reef restoration and tropical marine science. Nearly 20 videos using AIMS-supplied vision were produced to achieve this important communication objective, and the use of social media is becoming better integrated into AIMS communication to promote and protect the Institute’s reputation.
Additional areas of communication support included Reef Cloud, water quality, monitoring a assessing drilling on Rankin Bank, decommissioning of marine infrastructure, the 34th ICRI General Meeting and the visits to AIMS Townsville by the Minister for the Environment and the Science Minister and Reef Envoy.
Engagement and collaboration support opportunities relevant to AIMS’ strategy targets. Attendance at the Reef 2050 Communication Network in Mackay was a good opportunity to renew and build relationships with communication professionals in research organisations, government agencies and non-government organisations (NGOs).
A survey of our stakeholders was conducted in September 2019. This was the first stakeholder survey since 2015, the first to include a question that would enable AIMS to derive a Net Promoter Score (NPS) and is an important measure of AIMS’ relationship with its stakeholders. This first score provides a baseline with regard to Reputation Target R1 in Strategy 2025 – “a Net Promoter Score of 75 as trusted advisor among key stakeholders” by 2025.
The introduction of the Queensland Government Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 resulted in intense political and public scrutiny of the quality of science that underpins policy and management decisions affecting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. As an independent Commonwealth marine research institute with a particular focus on the Great Barrier Reef, AIMS actively contributed to the public discourse by focusing attention on the scientific evidence provided by its coral reef-related research and the rigour with which it was produced.
In March, the Great Barrier Reef experienced extensive and widespread coral bleaching following a marine heatwave. The events are another example of the stresses on the Great Barrier Reef from climatic and human causes and the importance of AIMS’ long term, large scale research of Australian coral reef systems in understanding cycles of decline and recovery.
Despite these increasingly frequent threats, there remains public confusion about the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef Snapshot 2019-20 was released in April as a short, easy to read, accurate summary of the Reef (specifically coral health) to provide a clear and concise evidence-based explanation of reef status. The inaugural publication is a collaboration between AIMS, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and CSIRO and intended for those who do not have a science background or any special knowledge of the Reef.
Like every other organisation in Australia, AIMS dealt with the unprecedented global effects of the Coronavirus pandemic. AIMS shifted communication efforts towards both the internal audience and informing the public and our stakeholders about continuing our key functions during the COVID-19 emergency whilst protecting our staff and the community from the virus. The communication focused on maintaining the confidence of our stakeholders, alleviating employee concerns, and shifting our employee focus from getting through the crisis to resuming “normal work” routine as soon as it becomes safe to do so. Despite the prolonged disruption, AIMS also maintained core science communication actions to demonstrate its enduring value to the nation and position AIMS to emerge strongly as the safety measures are eased.
Advances in Indigenous Partnerships
We recognise that Indigenous peoples are the traditional custodians of the sea country where AIMS works, and we are committed to putting Indigenous people’s interests and knowledge needs into our research priorities. We will do this by facilitating two-way knowledge sharing through a partnership approach for marine science, articulated in a new Indigenous Partnerships Plan developed during the year.
Indigenous Partnerships Plan
The plan sets out the way to achieve the ambitious Indigenous science partnership targets in our Strategy 2025. We recognise that greater research impact and value can be created, and new insights gained, if Indigenous knowledge, interests, capacity and capability can be joined with our science. The plan is particularly important because it recognises the aspirations of Traditional Owners for greater empowerment in sea country monitoring, research, decision-making and science. The plan is designed to:
build cultural competency and appropriate tools within our agency to facilitate stronger partnerships with Traditional Owners
strengthen existing relationships with Traditional Owners and establish new ones based on mutual trust, understanding, respect and two-way learning
establish AIMS as a leader in working with Traditional Owners by responding to Indigenous needs and raising the profile of the value of partnerships between leading science organisations and Indigenous groups.
Alliances in marine monitoring
AIMS is already working with several Traditional Owner ranger groups and Traditional Owners on marine monitoring projects. For example, work to map sea country habitats and establish a monitoring baseline with the Anindilyakwa rangers at Groote Eylandt has now moved to an ongoing monitoring program, and a similar project with Bardi Jawi rangers in the Cape Leveque region of the Kimberley is now entering its second year of monitoring data collection. These projects:
captured local and traditional knowledge about the area
co-designed and co-delivered the monitoring deployments to collect data
increased the capability of rangers to operate image-based seafloor technology
improved monitoring of benthos and fish
established monitoring methods suitable for safe manual handling from the rangers’ small vessel
co-authored and co-delivered the results, including a joint presentation at the Australian Marine Science Association annual conference in July
Results of the monitoring are provided to the community using customised, co-developed communication products, including posters and video.
AIMS is consulting widely with other rangers and Indigenous sea country groups across northern Australia, to gauge interest in their uptake of similar baseline and monitoring programs to establish an alliance of marine monitoring practitioners. To ensure that such a development adds value and avoids duplication of other pre-existing programs, AIMS is also consulting government agencies and other research organisations to ensure future monitoring remains fully coordinated.
Another joint project, this time with the Torres Strait Regional Authority Land and Sea Management Unit and rangers, has established a comprehensive ocean observing system, including fixed loggers and near-real-time weather stations, and is developing a towed video technique as a tool for diverless monitoring of seabed habitats and communities.
Mapping traditional ecological knowledge of sea country
In partnership with Thamarrurr rangers and with industry funding through energy company ENI, AIMS worked with over 30 Traditional Owners and rangers to create habitat maps of the Thamarrur region based on traditional ecological knowledge. The process involved participatory mapping techniques over several workshops, with small groups of Traditional Owners focusing on the area of country within their authority. Habitat descriptions incorporated labels and names in English and the three local traditional languages Murrinhpatha, Mari Amu and Marri Tjevin. The resulting multi-lingual habitat map identifies eight different benthic habitat types over 1000km2 of Thamarrur coastline, and incorporates important cultural information such as totem and dreaming sites and other features of cultural and historical importance. This map is now available digitally and in hard copy, and represents a valuable record of traditional knowledge presented in a modern map format to inform future research and management decisions. ENI, AIMS and the Thamurrur Rangers are now using the map to develop a field-based monitoring project.
Our research focuses on Australia’s tropical marine environments, from the southern end of the GBR on the east coast and across the north of the country to Shark Bay and the Abrolhos Islands in the west. Field activities are supported by laboratory and administrative facilities located at Townsville, Darwin, Perth and Canberra.
Our headquarters is at Cape Ferguson, about 50 km from Townsville in North Queensland, close to the centre of the GBR and surrounded by national park and marine reserve.
AIMS’ Arafura Timor Research Facility in Darwin is located on a satellite campus of the Australian National University, immediately adjacent to the Charles Darwin University campus.
In Western Australia, our facilities are co-located with The University of Western Australia and the CSIRO in the new Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre at the university’s Crawley campus in Perth.
Our major research infrastructure is subject to detailed capital planning and asset management to ensure our facilities and equipment are safe, reliable, available and functional. Delivery against preventive maintenance and capital investment plans is monitored throughout the year to ensure that targeted outcomes are met.
Our field activities are supported by a research fleet—two large, well-equipped research vessels, the RV Cape Ferguson and the RV Solander— and several smaller vessels, carrying researchers to diverse habitats in Australia’s tropical waters. About half of all trips on the RV Cape Ferguson and RV Solander involved researchers from collaborating organisations.
The AIMS field program provides essential science for Australia and lies at the core of who we are as an organisation. However, our field work typically requires close working conditions and is often conducted in remote locations. To ensure the safety of our field staff and scientists during the height of the COVID crisis, we suspended our field work program from late March to late April 2020. The resumption of the field work program was a result of lowered the rates of infection and rates of transmission in the community due to physical distancing measures put in place by the Australian Government and strict controls enacted by AIMS to minimise the potential for COVID-19 infection for those undertaking field activities. However, the controls put in place significantly limited our field-going capacity, reducing the number of scientists able to participate in each voyage and the number of days the vessels could be at sea.
This approach maintains the health and well-being of our people while keeping important scientific research functioning.
Summary of Field Operations Performance
National Sea Simulator
The SeaSim is a globally unique experimental aquarium facility that provides researchers with unprecedented experimental control of a range of parameters, allowing investigation of individual and combined effects of variables on tropical marine ecosystems and organisms.
The SeaSim provides a step change in capability compared with previous technologies and is essential for the success of many of our research programs.
Up to 30 per cent of the SeaSim’s capability is available to external scientists and research institutions from around the world for marine science projects. We work closely with national and international collaborators, with over 80 per cent of all experiments in the SeaSim involving external collaborators. In 2018–19, researchers have come from 12 national and 23 international organisations from 10 countries.
The National Sea Simulator remained fully operational during the COVID-19 crisis. It is a key facility that requires ongoing service and maintenance by technical staff and scientists to ensure the viability of long term experiments and survival of organisms. Revised working arrangements were put in place to ensure increased physical distancing between people and to protect the ongoing operations in the event of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Projects have attracted funding from a range of sources including industry partners, universities, the Australian Research Council, WAMSI, the National Environmental Science Programme, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Philanthropies.
Collaborating organisations include:
National – CSIRO, University of Wollongong, Southern Cross University, James Cook University, University of Melbourne and Queensland University of Technology.
International – University of Miami (US), King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Saudi Arabia), Victoria University (Wellington, NZ), Oregon State University (US), University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands), University of Barcelona (Spain), and the University of Copenhagen (Denmark).
The SeaSim boasts a number of unique capabilities developed by our staff to assist researchers:
full solar spectrum lighting with the ability to dynamically manipulate intensity and spectrum to model natural lighting conditions as found in the field (e.g. sediment plumes from dredging operations)
18 large, fully independent mesocosm systems with the ability to provide daily, monthly and seasonal patterns of light, temperature and pCO2
sophisticated climate change and ocean acidification systems with tightly controlled temperature (±0.1°C) and diel pCO2
large-scale systems for coral spawning, larval rearing, settlement and long-term grow out
flow-through contaminant dosing systems for ecotoxicology research on priority contaminants.
These capabilities have been applied to a range of high-priority research areas, including climate change and ocean acidification, reef restoration and adaptation, impacts of dredging, pest management and impacts of contaminants.
AIMS’ operations were supported by a mix of Australian Government appropriation funding and non-appropriation funding from state and territory governments, competitive research funds, environmental regulators and the private sector.
Total revenue for 2019-20 was $61.709 million, representing a decrease of 11.5 per cent on 2018–19 revenue (Figure 13). The $8.074 million decrease was due to a decrease in Australian Government appropriation revenue ($2.604 million) and a decrease in revenue from contracts with customers due to COVID-19 ($5.507 million).
External funding is critical for AIMS to maintain its present level of scientific research. The COVID-19 pandemic affected AIMS’ revenue earning capacity in two ways: i) projects under development, but not yet contracted did not proceed, and ii) COVID-related restrictions in our field program led to a reduced capability to undertake field work, reducing our ability to deliver contracted projects to schedule.
Prior to COVID-19 our forecast external revenue remained consistent with the approved budget.
In 2019–20, revenue from external sources was $15.291 million, which accounted for 25 per cent of total revenue (Figure 14).
In support of the refreshed Strategy 2025, during 2019-20 AIMS continued to build and maintain long term strategic alliances, working with our stakeholders to develop multi-year programs of work that provide solutions and address challenges at regional and national scales. This has enabled the leverage of our strategic science work with industry and philanthropy, broadening the external revenue opportunities and moving away from individual smaller discrete pieces of revenue earning work. This approach should assist to mitigate some of the impact of COVID-19 on our external revenue.
Sources of co-investment funding for 2019–20
Australian Government departments and agencies and Australian industry partners together provide 92 per cent of AIMS’ total external revenue (i.e. funds earned on top of AIMS’ appropriation allocation) through major grants and project contracts (Figure 15).