A Murdoch University marine scientist has just commenced an aerial survey of the western Kimberley coast.
It will comprise one of the studies intended to inform the management of the new marine parks network.
Professor Lynnath Beckley is taking high-resolution photographs of the coast from a light aircraft before analysing them for the physical presence of humans and their likely activities.
She says people counts are frequently neglected in ecological surveys.
“Generally we find out where the fish are, we find out where the whales are, [but] we actually don’t look where the people are,” she says.
She says the technique has been extensively used in fisheries surveys.
“We generally use 500 meters from the high tide mark as a cut off for our surveys.
“We cover that interface between the land and the sea, and we usually monitor vessels and what they’re doing out to about five kilometres from the coast.
“When we fly we photograph every single activity we see.
“All our digital photos are date-stamped [and] time-stamped against the flight line.
“We’ve got a GPS logger running so we’ve got [the] actual flight line.
“And then we’ve got some crafty software that we’re using now to bring the photos into a database and we identify all the activities in the photos.
“So for example I shoot a photo of the coast line, I know exactly where I am and I see three four-wheel-drive vehicles, three people standing in the shore fishing, two people lying in the sun burning themselves, and three kids swimming, then we detail all of those activities and yes, we map all that sort of stuff.”
She says it takes 2-3 hours to survey 4-500km of coastline.
There are three flight lines; Port Hedland to Broome taking in the Eighty-Mile Beach and Roebuck Bay; Crab Creek to Point Torment including the Dampier Peninsula coastline; and north of Point Torment, taking in the Buccaneer Archipelago and the Camden Sound coast.
“You get an accurate snapshot of where everyone is at the same time,” she says.
“You have people using the coast for recreation and for tourism, for cultural pursuits, for traditional things.
“Mostly people value the biodiversity … but people use that coast all the time, from traditional use, cultural use, to recreation use by the locals, tourists that come in—I think it’s a misnomer to think the western Kimberley coast is pristine.”
THE RECENTLY announced marine park to be established at Horizontal Falls along with Kimberley marine parks at Camden Sound and Eighty Mile Beach, will involve joint management between the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) and Indigenous rangers.
Marine scientist Chris Simpson, who is DEC’s Marine Science Program leader, says indigenous rangers will be involved in management and data collection that will go towards research.
“For the next five years, there will be a major program of research and that’ll be where the science comes from to underpin the management of those marine parks,” Dr Simpson says.
“We don’t know how many dugongs are up there, we don’t know if they are … connected to the Shark Bay population or the Indonesian population”—Dr Simpson. Image: Earthrace Conservation
He says this will be funded by a $12million state government allocation, with the addition of about $18million from various institutions such as the CSIRO, Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and universities in the collaborative Western Australian Marine Science Institute (WAMSI).
“We’ve just gone through a 12-18 month planning period to work out what science we should do and where it should go,” he says.
“The major areas of marine species management are … turtles, coastal dolphins, hump back whales, and dugongs. We’ve got a small project on crocodiles and [another] on some of the migratory birds on Eighty Mile Beach.
“The process of planning these projects is to pick the gaps presented by the unique characteristics of the Kimberley.
“For example … the dugongs, turtles and coastal dolphins, there will be genetic work to work out if they are part of a wider population.
“We don’t know how many dugongs are up there, we don’t know if they are … connected to the Shark Bay population or the Indonesian population.
“There will be aerial surveys to work out the distribution and abundance of these species.”
“We’ve also got major studies looking at the oceanography of the area … we [are] looking at remote sensing as a monitoring tool.”
He says about a quarter of the funding is devoted to studying critical habitats such as corals, coastal mangroves, seagrass meadows, sponge beds, soft sediment communities and the like.
“We’ve got a major social program; the human use of the entire Kimberley, [and ] we’ve got an Indigenous program trying to look at Indigenous coastal knowledge,” he says.
Dr Simpson says the studies will include proposed marine parks at North Kimberley and Roebuck Bay.
Dr Simpson will be retiring from DEC in late April after more than 30 years of working in marine science and conservation.