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Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry
20/08/2012
Role of science for the future of fisheries and aquaculture

HUTCHINGS, Dr Patricia Ann, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Australian Museum

LEIS, Dr Jeffrey Martin, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Australian Museum

[09:57]

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Hello and welcome, Jeffrey; do we also have Patricia?

Dr Leis : She is not here yet—she was being interviewed for promotion this morning—but she should be joining us shortly.

CHAIR: Fair enough. Thanks very much for being with us. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a formal proceeding of the parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. There will be a brief time for you to speak; Patricia is not here yet but I think we can work that out.

Dr Leis : Patricia has just entered the room, so you have us both now.

CHAIR: Okay. Is there anything you would like to add about the capacity in which you appear today?

Dr Leis : My specialty is fishes.

Dr Hutchings : My specialty is polychaetes—sea worms.

CHAIR: Thank you. I will just repeat for you: although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a formal proceeding of the parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House. Giving false and misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament.

We have received your submission No. 5. You might like to make some introductory remarks and then we will have some questions.

Dr Leis : I might just give you some background on the Australian Museum. The state and territory museums are the distributed national natural history museum of Australia because there is no national museum of natural history. Our research concerns the natural history of animals and in particular their taxonomy. The kind of research that we do is based very much around collections that we have in our museums and also a fair whack of fieldwork. What we do is not duplicated by universities or the CSIRO or other organisations.

The Australian Museum is the oldest natural history museum in the country and we have a very large number of marine scientists on our staff. We have five research scientists, ranging from research scientist rank to senior principal. We have four or five junior postdoctoral staff. Four of our collection managers are specialised in marine animals and we have a large collection staff, plus we are lucky enough to have a number of retired active marine researchers who contribute greatly to what we do. So there is a very large amount of expertise in the museum in marine science and it is one of the major clusters of marine science expertise in New South Wales.

Dr Hutchings : I would like to expand on Jeff's points. First of all, the Australian Museum also runs the Lizard Island Research Station on the northern Great Barrier Reef, one of the premier research stations on the Great Barrier Reef and certainly one of the best coral reef stations in the world. We also now are an associate member of the Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences, which is a consortium of the five universities in Sydney plus other government agencies. So we do play quite a major role in in the marine science community.

I can see you are wondering why somebody who works on sea worms would be giving evidence at this inquiry. Sea worms really are at the bottom of the food chain. They are very similar to a lot of the worms that you find in your compost heaps that break down the plant matter in your compost bins in the garden. Without a healthy sea worm community, we would not have good functioning marine ecosystems. So while I do not actually work on fish per se, I am working to some extent—I hate to say it—on fish food. That gives you some explanation as to why I have been involved in this submission and why I am giving evidence here. I have also been very involved with introduced marine pests that have come into Australian waters, either through hull fouling or through ballast water.

Both Jeff and I have also been very involved in providing the data on which marine parks can be established or zoned. I was very involved in developing the bioregions for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which led to the recent complete rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Leis : One of the points we want to make about fisheries in Australia is that, unlike Northern Hemisphere fisheries, there is a very wide variety of species that are fished commercially and recreationally here in Australia. Our fish fauna is one of the largest in the world, with approaching 5,000 species of fishes known in Australian waters. And we are finding species new to Australia at the rate of about one per week.

So we are far from knowing the full fauna. Some of those that are coming up as new are commercial or potentially commercial species. In order for the fisheries biologists to do their work there has to be a proper understanding of what species they are working with. Otherwise they risk lumping species and not getting the fisheries management plans right.

Further, many fisheries agencies have carriage for biodiversity in their regions, and by and large they do not have the taxonomic expertise to help them look at the impact of fisheries, trawling, and whatnot on the biodiversity that they are responsible for. So the museums of the country—and, in particular, ours—have a big role to play there, as well.

Dr Hutchings : Just following on from Jeff's comments about the importance of knowing the species, it has recently been shown that the fisheries related to the Moreton Bay bug, the mud crab and the blue swimmer crab, were in fact targeting more than one species. That is really critical when you are trying to look at management strategies, because each of those species will probably have a different reproductive strategy and a different life history. So it is really important to know what you are actually dealing with out there—whether you are dealing with one species, two, half a dozen or whatever.

CHAIR: So this is the inaccurate identification of species.

Dr Hutchings : Yes.

Dr Leis : The other thing that is important to understand about marine fisheries is that almost every important fishery species has a larval stage that is cast off into open water and spends from a few weeks to a few months out in open water before coming to find the appropriate habitat to settle on. This makes the management of fisheries challenging, because we need to understand the spatial scale over which those larvae can be distributed in numbers that are meaningful enough to restock fisheries and provide the new babies—the new recruitment—that keeps those fisheries going.

It also opens up the possibility that marine parks can help replenish the fisheries outside their borders by the export of these small larval stages. This is an area where I am particularly active with my research effort: looking at larval stages, where they are going and how they are managing to survive and find the right kind of habitats—be they reef, estuary or whatever—at the end of that larval stage, and then complete their life cycle.

Most of these marine species have a chain of habitats that they live in in different stages of their life history. The larvae live, say, out in open water. The young may recruit into seagrass beds in estuaries and then move as juveniles out onto reefs, where the adults complete their life cycle and spawn again. So each one of those habitats has to be in good condition, otherwise the species cannot complete their life cycle and we will not have sustainable fisheries.

Dr Hutchings : I think with increasing evidence of climate change we are seeing changes in oceanographic patterns, changes in water temperature, which are going to affect where those larval fish or larval crustaceans end up. They need to end up in an area which is suitable for them to complete metamorphosis and become adults, and are therefore fishable.

CHAIR: And complete their life cycle?

Dr Hutchings : Yes, exactly.

CHAIR: We have had some evidence about inaccurate species identification over the years, which means that research gets flawed, in the sense that somebody has done a lot of work but the species has been misidentified. I suppose it is not all lost and some of it can be used. How big an issue is that in research in Australia?

Dr Leis : It becomes a greater issue as fisheries expand into deeper waters. As you can well imagine, we know the most about shallow water and the least about deeper water. It also appears superficially that many of the deeper water species have wider distributions than the shallow-water species. That means that management plans have to be done over different scales. But if you are confusing more than one species—say there is something that occurs right around the southern half of Australia but in fact the Western Australian one is different from the one that occurs off the east coast—you are then looking at things in the wrong scale and chances are there are differences in some of their major biological characteristics that would lead you to manage the species differently if you knew that.

Dr Hutchings : We have increasingly seen across the board in marine biology that species even in the same genus—so they are very closely related—may exhibit very different reproductive and life histories. So, as Dr Leis says, if you are managing it as one unit whereas in fact you should be managing it as two or three units it can lead to major problems.

CHAIR: Can you give us some stats on that?

Dr Leis : Not off the top of our head. Sorry.

CHAIR: Any references.

Dr Hutchings : An example that I always give—I might be able to find some references—is that if you go down to the Sydney Fish Market you have several undescribed species of octopus in the catch. Some are identified and some are not. Yet it is all managed as one fishery.

CHAIR: Is anybody doing any work on that?

Dr Hutchings : Not at the moment. The other thing that will come out of our submission is that the number of people here in Australia able to actually do this taxonomic systematic work is declining. Dr Leis will give you some data on the number of active fish taxonomists.

Dr Leis : When I was appointed at the Australian Museum in the mid-1980s at the state and territory museums there were 11 curators, as they were then called, whose specialty was fish. There are currently four. That sort of decrease in capacity is common in all marine animal groups.

Dr Hutchings : For example, at the Australian Museum we no longer have a marine malacologist. We have an active retiree but—

Dr Leis : Malacologists are people who study molluscs.

Dr Hutchings : Or snails. So, when you asked about the octopus, we do not have an octopus expert. This is reflected in all the other state museums in Australia. And remember, as Dr Leis said at the beginning, there is no federal museum as such. We have the National Museum of Australia but it does not have natural history collections and it really does not duplicate one of the state museums.

CHAIR: How efficient or effective is Australian scientific research into fisheries? Does it have a direction? Does it have that capacity to look at species we are already catching? What you are saying is that there are a lot of gaps in this research.

Dr Leis : One of the challenges of trying to manage fisheries in Australia is that there is a large number of species that are fished both commercially and recreationally. In most cases the value of the individual species fishery is not huge. The research input based on some sort of ratio of research to the value of the fishery is out of whack.

Dr Hutchings : I think we should also comment that, while we are saying that the number of taxonomists is declining at the state museums, state fisheries, at least in New South Wales and Queensland, are also suffering from declining funds and are losing staff.

CHAIR: That seems to be happening all over the country. Also, you mentioned the recreational fishing. We are finding that there is not very much science on the actual take by the recreational fishers. There are some surveys and applications applied, but we really do not know what recreational fishers actually take. Do you have any relationship with the recreational fishers? Do they send things to museums for identification?

Dr Leis : Quite often they do. We all have our own networks of contacts, whether they be divers who photograph things or recreational fishermen or indeed commercial fishermen, who provide us with unusual specimens from time to time. That is often the first inkling we know about a particular species. So those things exist, but getting back to your point about recreational fishing, it is difficult to get a handle on just what they are catching, because there is no central reporting and there are no fish markets and so forth that can be monitored. It is basically a matter of sending someone out to boat ramps and interviewing the people when they come back with their catch. As you can imagine that is very labour intensive. But the work that has been done indicates that the catch of recreational fishermen is in the same order as the catch of commercial fishers.

CHAIR: We are getting evidence to that effect. So you would say that it would be good if we could find mechanisms and processes where we could get the recreational fishers, and most of them would I am sure be interested in giving the information—

Dr Hutchings : That would be excellent. I know that one of the projects for SIMS, the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, is instigating a Sydney Harbour survey. One of the things we have allocated as a high priority is to actually try to document the levels of recreational fishing in Sydney Harbour. This is very important because commercial fishing has been closed in Sydney Harbour because of the contaminants of dioxin from the Upper Parramatta River. So, it is of some concern as to how much recreational fishing is occurring and whether people really are eating all the fish they catch. Just to reinforce it would be critical. I think there has been some attempt on the Great Barrier Reef to try to get a handle on recreational fishers, but it is no easy task.

ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Schultz ): Following on from the chair's questions in relation to the evidence you have of what recreational fishermen are catching. I am a recreational fisherman, for your information. I have a boat down on the coast that I use from time to time. As a recreational fisherman, one of the things I do a lot of is reading fishing magazines. There are a number of fishing magazines, including two or three well known ones, circulating around the country that are in close touch with recreational fishermen. Has any move been taken by any organisation, including the Australian Museum to seek some cooperation from the fishing magazines to talk to the fishermen about what they are catching, and taking photographs of it, and forwarding on details or specimens of anything unusual or of new species? Has anybody undertaken an exercise like that? I would have thought that that would have been a practical and very cheap way of getting information.

Dr Leis : There have been various fish curators at museums who have had columns in fishing magazines from time to time, but most of those people have now retired. So, I take your point, but I also want to make the point that we do not actually assess or manage fisheries. We provide the biological underpinnings so the fisheries managers and fisheries biologists can do that sort of thing.

ACTING CHAIR: The states and territories could undertake an exercise in relation to that. How closely do you work with the states and territories on these issues?

Dr Leis : We are a state organisation and we have worked quite closely with New South Wales Fisheries in the past, although that is about to become more difficult because they are closing down the Cronulla lab and dispersing their staff to other locations.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes, I might add that that was a bad decision.

Dr Leis : We are not commenting on that.

ACTING CHAIR: I do not expect you to comment, but I can comment on it. Given your 180 years of considerable records, is there is your view any justifiable evidence, scientific or otherwise, that our wild fish stock is facing serious depletion? Also, do we react and adapt positively to pressures such as trawler bykill? Once the warning is out there that we are creating a problem, do we react as positively and quickly to it as we should?

Dr Hutchings : We perhaps should just clarify that while our fish collections are very extensive, as are our other collections of commercially important species, they are not necessarily collected for the purpose of fisheries management. I think it would be quite difficult to look at our collections and ascertain whether there have been changes over time. We certainly have recently pulled together all the species that have been recorded from Sydney Harbour as part of a project for SIMS, and the number of species of fish within the harbour is amazing. If we can get a little bit more funding we potentially could look at when those fish were collected, since 1860, and see whether we can see changes. But our collections are not really collected for management options. Perhaps Dr Leis could make some more comments on that.

Dr Leis : To answer the kind of question you are asking you need to have quantitative data. For example: we went to a particular place in the 1950 and collected X square metres of area and got 100 of this particular species and then we went back this year and found something different. Museum collections by and large are not quantitative. We are after records and things like that, but in recent years we have been trying to move to make the data more quantitative. So, we are able to answer questions about species occurrence but not changes in species numbers, by and large.

Dr Hutchings : We certainly have been able to show some evidence of species distribution patterns changing, associated with climate change. But, as Dr Leis said, our collections are collected primarily to document the biodiversity of an area rather than changes in composition over time. It is a function of the number of staff we have and also just the sheer volume of space we have to store collections in.

Dr Leis : Having said all that, we do have some historical collections of fish larvae and we mentioned in our submission that going out and surveying fish larvae by towing plankton nets is one of the more effective fisheries-independent ways of assessing the size of marine populations. A few years ago, with funding from FRDC, we were able to collect into the museum a number of larval fish samples from various studies that had been done, for example, to study the sewer outfalls we were putting in off Sydney in the 1980s, and those collections are quantitative.

So there is the potential there for looking at how the numbers of fish larvae have changed in particular places over time, and that could lead you to some inferences on the changes in adult populations.

ACTING CHAIR: Can I ask about the comment made about climate change—I call it climate variability. Has the water temperature change not occurred in the past? What evidence, if any, do you have on this in your 80 years of records—or doesn't it exist?

Dr Hutchings : We have some evidence on selected species, but again the data was not collected to look at climate change, although the department of climate and heritage or DEH or whatever it is now called here in New South Wales is looking, perhaps, to set up some fixed sites along the coast where certain species will be monitored annually over 10, 20 or 30 years. Certainly in the past, in geological time, we have had dramatic changes in temperature, but it is the speed of change that is now occurring that is the danger. If you think about it, the majority of Australia's population lives along the coast, so there are other tremendous anthropogenic impacts along the coastal waters in addition to warming temperatures. So one wonders how the populations are going to cope not only with increasing water temperature but with declining water quality and increased loss of habitats along the coast—loss of mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass beds. So it is not a level playing field anymore out there.

Dr Leis : It is also worth pointing out that in addition to the temperature changes—which we do not have information on but other organisations do—we are seeing changes in the acidity of sea water. I have just come back from a conference in the States, where new evidence is coming out of the detrimental effects of increased acidity of sea water, particularly on the larval stages of animals that have to secrete shells and draw the calcium carbonate from sea water. Such things as clams, echinoderms and crustaceans are really going to be having a hard time in the next little while, due solely to the additional carbon dioxide that is going from the atmosphere into the ocean and lowering the pH, quite apart from the temperature effects.

ACTING CHAIR: I have one more question. Does the Sydney Harbour authority make any contribution to the scientific—

Dr Hutchings : I am sorry. I do not know what the Sydney Harbour authority is.

ACTING CHAIR: Sorry?

Dr Hutchings : I am unaware of an authority—

ACTING CHAIR: The Sydney Harbour authority manages the harbour.

Dr Hutchings : There is not a single agency that manages the harbour. That is part of the problem. We have a variety of state government bodies. We have a variety—

ACTING CHAIR: That is educational to me. Can I say to you that it is even more of a reason why I should ask the question. Should all of the authorities that make up the management of Sydney Harbour be making some sort of contribution to scientifically studying the harbour for the different species that are in the harbour.

Dr Hutchings : That would be excellent, because those agencies go from the Commonwealth—with regard to quarantine—to state agencies like fisheries, the Australian Museum and the police, together with local governments. So it actually straddles the three tiers of government here in Australia.

ACTING CHAIR: So what are you saying? It is too difficult?

Dr Hutchings : No, I do not think that, just because it is too difficult, it should not be attempted. I think it would be an excellent recommendation that this is what is needed.

Dr Leis : Perhaps you are referring to the catchment management authority.

ACTING CHAIR: No.

Dr Leis : Okay. That is another group of organisations. Even though they are primarily concerned with fresh water in the rivers, rivers eventually come to estuaries and estuaries go to the sea, so they certainly have a role to play in understanding what goes on in our fisheries.

ACTING CHAIR: I know the catchment management authority. I deal with them. Whilst they do some good work, they also waste a lot of money which could be better spent doing what you people are doing. I will just ask my parliamentary colleague Rob Mitchell to make some comments and ask some questions now if you would not mind.

Dr Hutchings : Thank you very much.

Mr MITCHELL: I am curious about the priorities. Where is the next generation of the science workforce coming from—where are they being developed? Should we as a nation be collectively putting more emphasis on this? Also, what sort of contribution can these scientists make working for places like the Australian Museum? How can that have benefits for the expansion of the aquaculture industry across the country?

Dr Hutchings : I would like to raise that question. Over the years I have had a large number of graduate students who are very keen to pursue marine science. Some of my PhD students are doing straight systematics, but some are doing ecological work. I really do despair as to where they are going to get jobs when they finish. I am also mentoring a series of post-doctorate students from Europe. One of those students has finally found a job, but one is leaving the field. I think it is a real, real problem. There are plenty of people out there who want to study whole animal biology but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find jobs.

The museum has all the potential but not the funding at this stage. About two years ago we recruited something like five new positions, of which three were temporary three-year contracts. It is unlikely that we are going to able to continue to fund them when their three-year contracts are up, which is next year, so we are going to lose that expertise.

Dr Leis : To reinforce Pat's point, I think it is fair to say, that there are a lot more students who want to study marine science and who do complete advanced degrees than there are jobs for them. I have lost track of the number of young, bright very promising people I have been involved with who, at best, are able to get a short-term contract—one here, one there. They may have to move from one side of the country, or even overseas, and they ultimately get discouraged because there is no career path for them. They want to have families but they cannot do that sort of thing. Ultimately they drop out and go into another field.

Mr MITCHELL: Where do you find the funding to do it from? Is it something industry should co-fund? You said you have a lot of graduates coming through who want to do that for a living but there are no jobs available. Have a lot of positions been cut? Why has that happened?

Dr Leis : Yes, there are cuts in positions. One of the major employers of marine scientists in the past has been the state fisheries organisations. But, as you probably know, most of them have received large cuts in the last few years and are losing positions. Just to give you some background, our funding is from the New South Wales government but it only covers a fraction of what it costs to run the museum—looking after its collections and its research effort. We depend very much on external grants and contracts, some of which come through the Commonwealth government. We used to rely on the ARC, but the ARC, in its wisdom, decided in the last round that state museums would no longer be eligible for ARC discovery grants. So my current ARC discovery grant may well be the last one the museum ever has. The Australian Biological Resources Survey is another agency that provides us with funding. But they have a minuscule budget, so that is a very limited source of funding. We are constantly looking for outside sources of funding. We are even looking for endowments—getting people to write the museums into their wills, which a few people have done.

Dr Hutchings : I think it is a very sad indictment that Australia has supported various international conventions on biodiversity and yet when it comes down to documenting our biodiversity a lot of that money is devoted to the megacharismatic animals—the koalas, the whales, the dugongs—rather than understanding the bottom of the food chain and how that ecosystem is functioning. What are the animals down there in the soil or in the sediments? It has become increasingly difficult to find funding to undertake that work and therefore to be able to stand up and say, 'Australia is conserving its biodiversity.' Large parts of Australia are regarded as hot spots, as areas that have an incredible diversity of fauna, and yet we are not necessarily looking after them terribly well.

ACTING CHAIR: Unfortunately, we have run out of time. On behalf of the chair and the committee I would like to thank you for the very significant and constructive contribution that you have made. It is always interesting for us because you put a different slant on the process of what we are trying to achieve through this inquiry.

Thank you for your attendance here today. You will be sent a copy of the Hansard transcript of evidence when it has been prepared.

Dr Hutchings : We would also like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to present our points of view.