AIMS on a research kick

THE Australian Institute of Marine Sciences is set to take on more scientists in an effort to make it easier to measure what effect various industries are having on the “blue economy” – and it’s not just about environmental protection, but cost savings to industry.

James McGrath

The institute is attempting to cast a wide net in recruiting seven senior scientists, with research manager Lyndon Llewellyn telling ILN sister publication EnergyNews that the scientists would be taking institute data and whipping it up into something useable.

“These scientists will be working on the downstream end of our science. That’s taking a lot of our science that we do and putting into models and tools that will allow us translate our science into decision-making tools and models to help government decision-makers, industry, and other people,” he said from Townsville.

“These are the people who need to have the information to make the informed and robust decisions.”

What’s more, it was actually allocated extra funding at the last federal budget to do so.

It was recognition that the Australian marine environment would become an increasing part of Australia’s broader economy.

The institute estimates that by 2025, the value of the marine economy will be about $100 billion per year with much of the moolah coming from the oil and gas industry.

At the moment, the institute is planning to get a heap of data on the marine environments of northern Australia in anticipation of the rush.

For example, it has worked with Woodside to study the Scott Reef in the Browse Basin.

“We’ve done some recent work with Woodside understanding the processes around that particular reef,” Llewellyn said.

“That reef is above a very large gas basin and so understanding that reef was important to both the government and Browse joint venture partners to understand what would happen if they would start to drill and create infrastructure out there?

“What would the impacts be and how resilient is the reef against those changes?”

The reason the institute wants to undertake regional studies is because there’s a lack of baseline data on Australia’s marine environments at the best of times.

Given that the oil and gas industry has a penchant for exploring the frontiers, gathering good baseline data to develop things like predictive models is quite challenging.

“It is in the national interest to ensure the country’s ‘blue economy’ is supported by far-sighted, sustainable management strategies which will only eventuate if high quality scientific research exists and it delivers the knowledge base these strategies require,” AIMS’s research director Dr Jamie Oliver said.

Aside from being to be in an informed position to protect natural assets, in the event that the institute finds that drilling nearby would not have a negligible impact on the reef or its marine life, the industry would be able to stave off any community concern.

“If they make better decisions they’ll decrease their costs and risks for their developments, and at the same time it will increase their social license as well,” Llewellyn said.

“People will be more comfortable with the developments if they know there’s robust, independent science underpinning the decisions made.”

Llewellyn says that the institute’s reputation for giving frank and fearless advice to the industry holds it in good stead to set it up as an independent arbiter.

“Because we’re independent and have credibility, they can point to that and say this has been done by a credible authority. There’s no biases at work, or perceived potential for bias. That means the data can be the baseline for all the EISs and risk analyses can point to,” he said.

“We do operate independently, and we protect our reputation quite guardedly. We do interact with industry. Part of the modus operandi for how we interact with industry is to provide advice and commentary with fear nor favour.

“At times, they may not like the advice we give.”

Llewellyn said that if the institute was able to collect good quality baseline data, and form that into tools the industry and other stakeholders could apply to any given project, then it would stop supplication of process across a wide geographical area.

“Going back to the baseline example, if there is a large, single baseline development initiative off the north west shelf then what you can do is use the old adage of do once, use repeatedly,” he said.

“Once it’s been done, then multiple industries will not have to re-invest and re-do and repeat those sorts of endeavours again and again as they go through their approvals process.”

Interestingly, it is also looking into the effects of turbidity caused by dredging on marine life.

“Our research involves having a more sophisticated understanding of the effect of dredging spoil upon those animals,” Llewellyn said.

“So that involves moving beyond a simplistic understanding of ‘this amount of dredge spoil will have this effect’ to a far more sophisticated understanding of how the dredging will affect different species and different stages of their lifecycle, and also measuring different amounts of exposure.”

He says the problem with data taken to date is that it does not account for different species at different lifecycles, and that the problem in trying to measure turbidity is that it is not a constant.

“It [turbidity] waxes and wanes for different parts of the time cycle so understanding the responses of the marine species when they’re embedded with other marine species and how they respond to variable levels of turbidity is really quite important,” Llewellyn said.

“Then we can make a much more sophisticated understanding of what they having to tolerate, if they can deal with it, and if they can recover if they are impacted.”

Doesn’t that imply that is folly to go ahead with dredging off the Queensland coast, as the plan at the Abbott Point terminal?

Llewellyn is diplomatic on the subject.

“I think there’s inherent scientific concern around data. Too much data is never enough, I think,” he said.

“But we have to make some decisions now and we have to make those decisions on the knowledge available and understanding of the risks and how those risks play out.

“But of course we’re in desperate need to continuously improve how we do those things, so understanding those risks and understanding mitigation measures around those risks and better understanding of the complex responses you can get in a reef environment.”