The CSIRO is developing the environmental equivalent of the stockmarket index to track the health of Australia’s oceans.
For the first time, researchers are mapping and measuring the species and characteristics of the marine ecosystems around Australia’s coastline.
And just as the ASX 200 index shows the state of the stockmarket, the CSIRO hopes its ‘key indicators’ will provide a better understanding of how climate change and fishing are affecting marine life.
Dr Keith Hayes, one of the leaders of the project, says the need to effectively monitor the oceans is greater than ever.
“We don’t have a coherent picture of what’s happening to the nation’s oceans,” he said.
“We get snapshots every so often either from a particular fishery which we know is not doing very well or from the decline in the abundance of a threatened species.
“But we don’t have any coherent picture, we can’t really tell a story or paint a picture of the health or the state of Australia’s oceans yet, and that’s what we’re really hoping to do.”
In a pilot project last year, researchers studied five key marine areas off Western Australia, including the Perth Canyon.
Now the CSIRO is taking two years to build a comprehensive picture of the marine ecosystems along the entire Australian coastline.
Dr Hayes says they have developed a list of indicators to measure the health of each marine environment.
“They’re usually sites that are highly productive, so they generally support a large food web, and that food web might have important fisheries in it,” he said.
“The food web might also support threatened and endangered species, and also biodiversity is a key underlying theme.
“Generally we’re restricted to a suite of indicators. The important ones [are] in the order of about five or 10, no more than that – it’s certainly not 200, let’s put it that way.”
The indicators vary but include things like the number of sea birds or the size of plankton.
Professor Nic Bax from the University of Tasmania is also working on the project.
He says the indicators were chosen on their long-term consistency.
“Some of the indicators which are selected are because they’re so consistent in showing the state of the system,” he said.
“It might be things like particular kind of sea birds in the system. One of the most sensitive components of that system is sea birds, so if we measure sea birds then we have a good idea that the system itself is changing and that we need to do something.”
He says he hopes the project will improve the way oceans are currently managed.
“There are a lot of short-term pressures, things like oil spills, but the really long-term drivers are the things which are really causing change, things like climate change, endangered species, long-term fishing which changes the ecosystem to some degree – we don’t know how that’s changing the system’s ability to cope with other threats,” he said.
“Continued pollution and sediment runoff from the land are affecting things like the Great Barrier Reef.
“It’s really these continuous kind of threats to the marine environment which are really affecting things.
“We have to be concerned more about the cancer in the marine environment that we do about the occasional road kill.”