Saving the Oceans

SeaSim, the National Sea Simulator

The ramifications of damage to the world’s seas will affect not just fisheries and the tourism business – and those readers operating tourism ventures based on visiting the Great Barrier Reef, for example, would be right to take issue with that “just” – but we do not yet know just how widespread the effects will be and what must be done to mitigate the problems. The National Sea Simulator, a world-class experimental research facility, was officially opened on the first of August at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, with the goal of studying these issues.

There is, perhaps belatedly, a great deal of concern about the state of our oceans. It has come to our notice that the damage already done, and continuing to be done, to them must not be ignored any more.

According to the Global Ocean Commission, there is evidence to show that much of the global ocean has been fished to dangerously low levels. About a third of commercial fisheries are over-exploited and a further half fully exploited. Ninety per cent of many stocks of the world’s large fish (such as tuna and swordfish) have disappeared. “Some stocks are at a tipping point, and may never recover. Across the oceans, fleets are devoting ever more effort to catching fish, yet catches are declining; the ocean simply has no more capacity to give.”

Industrial fishing now takes place throughout the global ocean on a scale that has expanded substantially over the last few decades. Each year, fishing fleets that now include more than 1.3 million commercial vessels remove about eighty million tonnes of fish and invertebrates from the global ocean. This catch contributes roughly sixteen per cent of the animal protein consumed around the globe, “and provides essential nutrition for billions of people.” Illegal and unregulated fishing accounts for something like twenty per cent of the total catch.

Acidification of the water is a major concern, making the task of replenishing fish stocks even more difficult. Acidification also affects coral reefs, and a declining reef goes beyond tourism issues. Potential ramifications and solutions are to be studied at a new $35 million facility opened recently in Townsville.

SeaSim, the National Sea Simulator, has begun work at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). It is a research aquarium that can get closer to replicating the conditions of the open ocean; a reef lagoon; or flooding rivers, that any other facility in the world.

SeaSim will be able to model the impact of sediment, pollution, dredging and other water quality factors on marine life. The aquarium aims to develop a ‘model’ coral that will do for marine science what the worm C.elegans, the fruit fly, the mouse and other model organisms have done for understanding of human biology.

“SeaSim is a national and international resource for all marine researchers,” says AIMS chief executive John Gunn. “It will consolidate Townsville’s growing reputation as a global hub for tropical marine research and transform our capacity to provide the science that government, industry and the community need to make informed decisions about how we use and protect the oceans.” Capital for the construction of the $35 million SeaSim was provided by AIMS’ own resources and funding from the Australian Government under the Super Science Marine and Climate initiative.

AIMS marine researcher Mike Hall describes some of the new facility’s features. “When we started planning SeaSim we visited over forty marine aquariums around the world to identify key attributes of the perfect research facility. What we’ve built takes the best in the world and adds new technologies and an incredible level of automation and control.”

“In each tank we can automatically control many parameters – from water temperature to ocean acidification to salinity to lighting to nutrients and water quality etc. SeaSim will allow marine scientists the world over to test observations, assumptions and models. It will allow the development of technologies to assist aquaculture and fisheries management. It’s not the be-all – it still has walls unlike the open ocean. But it will fast track marine discovery.”

Some of the issues to be examined by the SeaSim facility include gauging how well the Great Barrier Reef can adapt to a changing climate with the accompanying increase in ocean acidity and whether bacteria and viruses will become more dominant as these changes take effect.

Fighting the crown-of-thorns starfish is one of the highest priorities for SeaSim, according to Mr Gunn. Reaching sizes of up to a metre across, crown-of-thorns are one of the few natural predators of hard corals. Normally, they exist in low density populations however, under certain circumstances, populations can explode. As each starfish can eat a square foot of coral per day, outbreaks can consume reefs far faster than they can regenerate. “We need to understand why starfish populations periodically boom leading to massive reef destruction. Is it due to nutrients in flood waters or are more complex factors at play?” This is a totally alien world. “Crown-of-thorns talk to each other with chemicals – they gather in groups and they ‘run away’ when predators such as the Giant Triton move in to feed on them.”

Gunn hopes that research using SeaSim can lead to the development of technologies to control crown-of thorns and give the reef time to adapt to changes in climate. “Could we use those chemical signals to trick starfish into congregating or dispersing – making physical removal easier? We hope to answer these and many other questions about the starfish with the help of SeaSim.”

Studying coral presents challenges as the synchronised annual spawning of many coral species makes them hard to study. Many experiments can only be done once a year. SeaSim will be able to create small reef communities in which scientists can induce spawning on demand, accelerating research.

Coral bleaching is a growing threat to coral reefs worldwide. It has been associated with rising sea temperatures, but some coral communities can survive very high temperatures – for example, in lagoons. AIMS wants to understand what factors contribute to reef survivability and build those into its computer models. Is coral bleaching simply a reaction to hot oceans or is something more complex happening? Can coral be persuaded to spawn out of season?

The global ocean has potential, of that there is no doubt. Several years ago, Craig Venter – who made headlines for sequencing the human genome – described a simple experiment carried out by his team. “We just take seawater and we filter it, and we collect different size organisms on different filters, and then take their DNA back to our lab in Rockville, where we can sequence a hundred million letter of the genetic code every twenty-four hours. From one site, from one barrel of seawater, we discovered 1.3 million new genes and as many as 50,000 new species.”

While there is (potentially unfounded) concern about what seabed mining might do, ‘geo-engineering’ could become a technical band-aid for climate change, with projects under consideration such as using flotillas of giant tubes across the tropics to increase water mixing and thus carbon dioxide uptake; or deliberately increasing cloud cover; or using iron to fertilise plankton growth, which increases carbon uptake from the atmosphere. We just need to ensure that what is done now, and soon, in the name of science will not add to the damage already done.

In terms of combating climate change, a whole-of-ecosystem understanding requires experiments with numerous species throughout their different life history stages and under numerous scenarios. There is a pressing need for experimental systems like SeaSim – able to house multiple species for long duration, while at the same time manipulating variables such as temperature and pH in a realistic manner. With the sophisticated control systems and instrumentation of SeaSim, adding daily and seasonal variations to environmental variables becomes possible, vastly improving scientific outputs.

The AIMS SeaSim will provide scientists the world over with valuable help in analysing and advising on how to proceed.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:15 AM AEDT