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Drones, AI and e-DNA keeping tabs on Great Barrier Reef and animal health

Drones, AI and e-DNA keeping tabs on Great Barrier Reef and animal health

Eleven innovation-driven programs have been launched to keep close tabs on the health of the Great Barrier Reef and the animals that depend on it through a suite of critical Reef monitoring projects that combine new technologies with on-ground and in-water action.

Dolphins, fish, sea cucumbers, seabirds, corals, and even rats and ants are in the sights of this new wave of science projects funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden said the Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program is developing more and better ways to manage Reef health.

“Our Reef is the size of Japan, or Italy, or 70 million football fields, so the task of monitoring an ecosystem that size is enormous,” Ms Marsden said.

“Leveraging innovative technologies like underwater drones, artificial intelligence and environmental DNA techniques, these 11 new critical monitoring projects will help close some big knowledge gaps that currently exist on the Great Barrier Reef.

“Importantly, the program will integrate a range of different Reef health indicators so that Reef managers and researchers can access the best possible information to proactively manage and support our Reef and its marine life.

“The condition and behaviour of individual marine species can tell us a lot about ecosystem health as a whole, so we’ll be looking to these projects to expand the early warning signs of ecological change for better reporting and decision making, with a clear line of sight to the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program led by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.”

Priority monitoring projects starting up include:

  • the first Reef-wide sea cucumber distribution assessment,
  • monitoring inshore dolphin species,
  • a large-scale integrated fish monitoring program from nurseries to deep water,
  • developing the first standardised indicators of coral health and recovery, and
  • supercharging biosecurity surveillance on invasive pest species of ants and rats on Reef islands.

Sea cucumbers: The first assessment of a sea cucumber distribution across the entire Great Barrier Reef will use underwater drones, remote-sensing and machine learning techniques to understand more about the short-term and long-term sustainability of commercial fisheries on these sea cucumbers, including protected and threatened species.

Dolphins: By studying three key species of inshore dolphins in the wild – Australian snubfin, Australian humpback and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins – researchers will better understand their distribution and numbers, as well as assessing the threats they’re facing to protect them and contribute to Reef 2050 Plan priorities.

Corals: The first standardised indicators to monitor the condition and recovery capacity of the Reef’s corals will be developed – a massive endeavour that will synthesise existing coral reef data streams to report on the condition of corals.

Seabirds: Using aerial drones and acoustic recording devices, citizen scientists and Traditional Owners will help researchers collect vital information about the Reef’s globally and nationally significant seabirds including the little tern, bridle tern, crested tern and brown booby.

Reef fish: With the Reef hosting more than 1,600 species of fish, developing the first ever Integrated Reef Fish Monitoring Program will reveal important insights about different fish habitats, including fish nurseries for priority species such as coral trout, stripey snapper, damselfish and butterflyfish. Reef Traditional Owners will play a key role in co-designing the fish nursery monitoring program.

Cryptic pests: The native flora and fauna of Great Barrier Reef Islands are under increasing threat from invasive species, so innovative technologies including environmental DNA (eDNA and artificial intelligence will be used to supercharge biosecurity surveillance to get the jump on high-risk ant and invasive rodent species. Detecting these pests early is the key that will enable managers to intervene to protect the islands’ native animals and plants. Yellow crazy ants, electric ants, tropical fire ants and red imported fire ants are in this project’s sights, as are black and brown rats.

Reef islands: Three important gaps in island protection will be closed by developing more efficient survey methods and tools, including opportunities for First Nations people and citizen scientists to help gather much-needed information about changes in island habitats from climate change, severe weather events and biosecurity risks.

A future addition to the program is also being planned, with the Reef’s vulnerable dugong population likely to be next due to their in-shore seagrass nurseries and feeding grounds being highly susceptible to climate change impacts.

In addition to tracking key animal and environmental indicators, researchers will also seek to uncover new insights and measures that take into account the diverse social, economic and cultural values the Reef brings to people and communities.

“Our research partners from CSIRO, Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University, University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, Southern Cross University, Macquarie University and Queensland Parks and Wildlife are leaders in their fields, and the Foundation is thrilled to be part of this collaborative effort to bring the latest insights to Reef protection in this critical decade,” Ms Marsden said.

The monitoring projects align with and support the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program (RIMREP), which is a key initiative of the joint Australian and Queensland Government Reef 2050 Plan to manage the Great Barrier Reef.

RIMREP brings together monitoring information about the Reef, how people access and use the Reef, and the pressures affecting it, all in one place. This partnership, led by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, involves the Australian and Queensland governments, Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), CSIRO and Traditional Owners.

Find out more about the projects addressing the most critical knowledge needs on Reef species and habitats here

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