Reef modelling teaches new lessons

While the Great Barrier Reef has long monopolised the world’s attention, in years to come another Australian reef may be equally celebrated, especially by marine scientists.

Ningaloo Reef is Australia’s largest fringing coral reef. It extends along 300 kilometres of the Western Australian coastline and provides the habitat for more than 500 fish, 250 coral and 600 mollusc species, as well as an array of sharks, whale sharks, humpback whales, dolphins, manta rays, turtles and dugongs.

Located away from major population centres, Ningaloo Reef remained largely untouched for many years but by the turn of the millennium pressure was mounting on the Western Australian Government from resource companies keen to drill for oil and gas near the reef, tourism operators keen to build resorts on the coast, and conservationists determined to preserve the World Heritage–listed marine park’s stunning biodiversity.

Keen to gather data to construct a management strategy for the region, CSIRO (Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) approached Murdoch University’s Professor Neil Loneragan to develop and coordinate a multidisciplinary research study on the environment, tourism and multiple-use management of Ningaloo Reef.

This CSIRO study, and the research funded by the Western Australian Government through the Western Australian Marine Science Institution, jointly known as the Ningaloo Research Program, blossomed into a five-year, $35 million collaboration involving 75 researchers, six Australian universities, the Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre and the Australian Institute of Marine Science. While surveys of marine areas had typically focused on isolated parts of an ecosystem, the researchers in the Ningaloo Research Program took an holistic approach, undertaking an intensive level of research across a breadth of topics, including the biophysical sciences, social sciences, ecosystem modelling and the evaluation of human activities through models.

“It’s the largest program on a fringing coral reef that we know of,” Professor Loneragan says. “For example, one of the things we did, which was unprecedented at this scale, was use remote sensing to define and map the marine habitats at a three-metre by three-metre resolution.”

Marine, social and economic researchers studied the Ningaloo Reef region from 2006 to 2011, working to understand both its human and natural systems, and the interaction between the two. Crucial to the integration of the research and developing an understanding of how people use the system was a project led by CSIRO’s Dr Beth Fulton, who created ‘flight simulator’ type models that allowed non-scientists to observe the effects of such things as, say, building a 100-bed resort near Ningaloo Reef.

“Dr Fulton’s work on modelling multi-use management is acknowledged worldwide and her application of it to Ningaloo Reef has been groundbreaking,” says Professor Loneragan.

“We used five different models, all at different levels of complexity, at Ningaloo,” explains Dr Fulton. “You start with qualitative models, which can be drawn on a piece of paper. These are turned into mathematical models, which were the basis of the ‘flight simulator’ game, where people could get feedback on how their role in the system could affect it.”

Behind the ‘flight simulator’ model, there are three more models of increasing complexity. The final one, co-developed by Dr Fulton and called InVitro, is almost a one-to-one representation of a region that allows for simultaneous consideration of multiple uses, such as oil and gas extraction, transport, tourism, and commercial and recreational fishing.

“You create a virtual world, which informs the science of what the consequences are, what the trade-offs are, of allowing activities on the reef,” says Dr Fulton. “Modelling isn’t new, but what hadn’t been done before is bringing very complex, whole-of-ecosystem models together for different components of the ecosystem such as models of currents, primary production and fishing.”

It was always intended that the research done on Ningaloo Reef be widely used and it has been. “It provides a framework for people to use worldwide,” says Professor Loneragan. “Obviously the data unique to a particular region has to be gathered, but the technology, the systems and the models for the different components are readily transferable.”

“Local councils in the region and the state government are now using the models as part of their tool kit,” notes Dr Fulton. “They’re using it to help determine what kind of developments to approve and what the long-term consequences might look like when making large-scale decisions about things such as fisheries management and coastal development.

“The European Union is using the modelling tools to look at integrated management of the Mediterranean and the North Sea, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US is using the tools for studies in Guam and Hawaii.”

Dr Fulton argues it’s Australia’s combination of magnificent reef systems and limited financial resources that make it a world leader in marine science. “Unlike the US or European Union, we can’t throw money at large-scale surveys to get the raw data to use to solve problems. We’ve had to be more light-footed and develop modelling tools and other packages to use what information we do have to get sustainable management across all of the different sectors.”