Let’s argue against the Shark Cull with science

There’s been a lot in the news recently about the implementation of the Shark Cull (or, as the Government put it, the “shark protection measures”) here in Western Australia.  Just as I am not a climate scientist, I am not a shark biologist, and cannot claim to be a shark expert.  However, as a marine ecologist who focuses on ecosystem scale research, I feel that I can give a relatively informed opinion!  Unsurprisingly, I am against the cull, but my arguments against it don’t completely align with those of the anti-cull protestors.

There is clearly a lot of emotion in this debate, from those for and against the cull.  This isn’t really surprising given the fact that there have been seven shark-related fatalities in Western Australia over the last 3 years.  This emotion has spilled into the argument around shark culling, and this is where I see a big problem.  The debate is being framed as an ethics debate, with external, undecided observers most likely seeing the debate as a “Shark rights vs. human rights” issue.  And guess what.  This plays right into the hands of the pro-cull side.  Although I definitely agree that animal ethics are important, human rights will always win in the battle for public hearts and minds (which ultimately, influences policy).  This emotive debate will always be won by the pro-cull side, who can conjure horrific images of people being eaten by a shark, ala Jaws.  Indeed, just this week a pro-cull commentator was arguing for the killing of sharks by raising the scenario of a child potentially being taken by a shark at a Perth beach (prizes for which logical fallacy that is!). I’m sorry, but there is no point in arguing against the shark cull based on shark rights when this is the type of argument that you face!  However, we have an ace up our sleeve on the anti-cull side; we are backed up by scientific data and logic, and scientific research can provide us with compelling evidence against the cull!  So I think we should primarily use rational arguments against the shark cull.  Plenty of actual shark experts (as well as renowned ecologist and the Eureka Prize winner, Euan Ritchie) have stated far more eloquently the detailed science against this cull, and potential alternatives, but here’s my attempt at a run down.

We’ve known for a very long time that when apex predators are removed from natural ecosystems, bad things start to happen.  We call this type of process trophic cascade, or more specifically in this case, top-down control.  The removal of the top predator allows it’s direct prey  to expand in number, and this expansion can be rapid when predation is the main controller of the prey population.  The expansion of these populations then leads increased predation or herbivory, and can potentially lead to a decimation in plants and animals lower in the food chain.  So, even though we only removed that top species (the apex predator), it had consequences for the whole food web, and can result in a distinct shift in the type of ecosystem we see.  This isn’t just a problem for the environment, these changes can lead to social and economic issues in certain circumstances.

About the most famous example of the severe impacts caused by the removal of apex predators comes from the complete destruction of the grey wolf population in Yellowstone.  Wolf populations were under severe threat in the area, and the introduction of a government-led predator control programmes (sound familiar???) led to the complete extinction of wolves in Yellowstone Park in the mid 1920s.  Over the subsequent decades, environmental conditions at Yellowstone declined severely.  This was driven by a rise in elk numbers, allowed to proliferate due to the removal of their main cause of mortality (being eaten by wolves!).  The increase in elk numbers led to huge overgrazing, in turn decimating plant populations, which led to impacts on other animals at Yellowstone.  The removal of the grey wolf caused this trophic cascade, threatening one of America’s most famous national parks at an environmental, cultural, and economic level.  The re-introduction of grey wolves into Yellowstone in the 1990s resulted in direct reduction in elk numbers to more sustainable levels, resulting in the recovery of many plant species, and also restructured populations of other animals in the ecosystem (showing the diverse and varied ecological connections and feedbacks).  In short, when we mess with the top predators, lots can go wrong, and this recipe for disaster is made worse when we factor in climate-driven changes to our environment!

The evidence for these trophic cascades after apex predator removal is widespread across lots of different ecosystems, including in the ocean, with sharks often present as apex predators.  Even in relatively pristine ecosystems with low levels of human impacts, it is clear that sharks can play a hugely important role in structuring the ecosystem.  Up in Shark Bay where I conduct most of my research, tiger sharks are the apex predator (and incidentally, are on the list of shark species to be culled as part of the policy).  The presence of large tiger sharks influences the feeding preferences of many of the herbivores like turtles and dugongs in Shark Bay, which in turn results in changes to spatial patterns of herbivory pressure on seagrass meadows (which impacts many other organisms – complex feedbacks in action!). Clearly, large sharks play a hugely important role in our ocean, and if we lose them, it will have knock on effects, that could extend to economic consequences such as negative impacts on fisheries – commercial and recreational.

So the science warns against instigating the cull, and previous attempts at using shark culls to prevent attacks on humans have not worked.  There is also no evidence of a significant increase in shark numbers or shark attacks (despite the 7 fatalities in 3 years).  It may sound like blame can be focussed solely on the state government for implementing the policies in spite of this, but the media has also played a role.  The ferocity and intensity of the language used in the West Australian media when describing sharks has left a lot to be desired, often perpetuating the fear mentality driven by films like Jaws.  Yes, shark attacks are tragedies, and tap into a primal fear that has evolved with us (the fear of being eaten!).  However, this does not justify stirring up this fear to critical levels by falsely describing sharks as ‘rogues’ and talking of ‘feeding frenzies’.  Much like in the climate debate, objective journalism seems to be missing from the shark debate.

Justified or not, there is fear within some sections of the public against sharks, which prompted the cull in the first place.  This fear does not justify the cull – imagine a world where we based all policy on emotion instead of reason!  If politicians do feel the need to be seen to be doing something about the attacks, there are plenty of other alternatives (some like tagging and increasing research funding are already being done) that are backed up by science.  Even under the current drum line policy, sharks could be towed out to sea, tagged and released away from our busy beaches, as done successfully in Brazil.

The debate over the cull has become polarising. Anti-cull protestors (with the best of intentions), have entered into a damaging debate with the pro-cull side following a narrative of ‘shark rights vs. human rights’, with the science taking largely a back seat.  Instead, let’s emphasize the science, and tell people what we all stand to lose by implementing policies such as this.  Let’s explain to people how their favourite swimming spot might change dramatically if we get rid of large sharks.  Let’s describe why catching fish might become even more difficult with large sharks gone.

And let’s not be afraid of leaving a little bit of risk and wilderness associated with our amazing natural playgrounds!


Marine science, the environment, and the 2013 Australian election

I’ve been a bit reluctant to write about the upcoming election in this blog; after all the point of this blog has never been about anything political!  However, for better or worse the state of our  environment (including our oceans) are inextricably linked to politics, so here goes…

So Saturday was federal Election Day here in Australia, ending a long campaign where both parties tried to out-negative each other!  But how much focus (or lack thereof) did the ocean, science and the environment receive in the build up to the election?

On the whole, issues related to marine science and conservation have received very little attention in the build up to the election.  The most notable announcement was probably the Coalition’s plan to suspend and review the recently implemented network of marine parks.  There main argument for this appears to be that there is a lack of scientific consensus on the issue, and that the parks unfair penalise recreational fishers.  I strongly disagree with this view. I’m not a fisheries scientist, and don’t claim to be an expert in the subject, but from all accounts marine reserves seem to widely accepted as being beneficial for marine biodiversity, and can even help fish stocks in adjacent areas through the spillover effect.

halophila ovalis, coral, tropical fish, Shark Bay,

Climate change is already causing changes in our marine ecosystems, but do the politicians have a plan to deal with it?

This is not to say that there are not remaining questions about the new marine parks, but on the whole the policy should be seen in a positive light, given the pressures our marine ecosystems (and therefore fisheries) will face in the future.  The announcement to suspend the implementation of the new marine parks is therefore deeply worrying, and not warranted.

The discussion of climate change has also been relatively limited in the election build-up, especially in comparison to the 2007 and 2010 elections.  This is in spite of an increase in both the evidence for and effects of climate change around the world.  The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the Earth is warming, and it is almost certainly as a result of anthropogenically-released carbon dioxide (and greenhouse gases).   This warming is directly responsible for significant changes in our environment (both in land and in the ocean), and is already causing detrimental social and economic consequences.  Given that these negative environmental, social, and economic consequences are more than likely going to increase in the next few decades, we should be trying to limit greenhouse gas emissions – the cost of inaction looks far too high for me!

Despite the challenges that climate change is posing, the major political parties are proposing policies that do not go far enough!  Labor are aiming to reduce emissions by 5% of 1990 levels, while the Coalition will reduce emissions by as much as their Direct Action plan will allow (predicted to be much lower than 5%).  For serious change to occur, we must reduce emissions by far more than this 5% target and Australia, as a wealthy nation, should be setting a global example by being at the forefront of lowering emissions.  Climate change has received far less attention than it deserves during this election campaign, as it is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.  I worry that we (and future generations) will look back at this election and note that progression towards dealing with climate change moved backwards in 2013.

This post wasn’t meant as a comprehensive review, so I’m not going to go on too much longer.  However, there have also been worrying announcements regarding changes to the Australian Research Council funding process (the Coalition plan to limit “waste” by preventing funding to projects that – in their opinion – do not meet their priorities), and removing protection status from 170000 hectares of the World Heritage Listed central highlands area in Tasmania.

Now that the election is over, let’s just hope that the environment will be given enough attention over the next 3 years, though I’m not too optimistic based on what the election coverage has been like.

Shark Bay: a pristine template for marine ecosystems worldwide

Here in Western Australia, we are lucky to be in the global centre of seagrass diversity.  As such, we have a coastline dominated by many different species of seagrasses – from large, temperate seagrasses like Posidonia australis to small, tropical species like Halodule uninervis. Seagrasses form the foundation of coastal ecosystems, and support much of the diverse marine animal life we also have off the coast of WA.

In Western Australia, Shark Bay is the epicentre of seagrass diversity.  In fact, Shark Bay contains 12 off the 65 (ish!) species of seagrasses found globally, and some locations have as many as nine different species growing side by side!  Pretty impressive stuff.  Some of the smaller tropical seagrasses are eaten by critically-endangered megagrazers like turtles and dugongs; amazingly 1 in every 8 dugongs in the world lives in Shark Bay!  And the seagrasses of Shark Bay also indirectly support an amazing food web that includes dolphins, sea snakes, and tiger sharks!  Again, pretty impressive!  On top of all this, the seagrasses of Shark Bay also give provide more unique benefits to the ecosystem.  For example, the presence of Amphibolis antarctica Posidonia australis (the two big seagrasses in Shark Bay that cover a large area) increase sedimentation rates, and have led to the build up of shallow areas across the middle of Shark Bay called the Faure Sill.  The Faure Sill restricts water circulation in Shark Bay and contributes to the really strong salinity gradient we see in the Bay, which reaches up to 65 parts per thousand in Hamelin Pool – that’s twice as salty as normal seawater.  This hypersalinity has allowed stromatolites to flourish in the southern reaches of Shark Bay, Stromatolites are really important as they provide an excellent example of Earth’s early organisms were like, and contribute to the World Heritage Status of the Bay.  But without the seagrasses we may not even have had the stromatolites in Shark Bay in the first place!

Posidonia australis, commonly known as strapweed, is an important seagrass species found in Shark Bay and along much of the temperate Australian coastline.

Posidonia australis, commonly known as strapweed, is an important seagrass species found in Shark Bay and along much of the temperate Australian coastline.

Shark Bay is also extremely important in terms of restoration of other globally important marine embayments.  Shark Bay is fortunate enough to be relatively isolated from areas of high human population densities.  As a result, there has been little human influence on Shark Bay, and we can consider it to be a relatively pristine ecosystem.  However, other coastal ecosystems around the world haven’t been so lucky, and there is a long history of degradation of these systems due to human activities such as pollution, coastal development and pollution.    This degradation has resulted in distinct changes to the ecology of many organisms living in these ecosystems, leading to public calls for restoration of the systems.  However, there is often a lack of data before human impacts, leading to the questions ‘How did this ecosystem function before human disturbance?’ and ‘What aims should we put in place for restoration of the ecosystem?’.  This is where Shark Bay comes in; we can learn lots about what impacted ecosystems should be like from pristine ecosystems, especially in terms of interactions between species.


Shark Bay World Heritage Site, Stromatolites, microbial

Stromatolites may not look like more than rocks, but they are really important as they show us what early life on Earth was like! Shark Bay has some of the most extensive stromatolite communities, contributing to it’s World Heritage Status.

I was recently part of a collaborative project involving UWA and Florida International University that investigated the similarities and differences between Shark Bay and Florida Bay.  This formed the introductory article for a special issue in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research exploring sub-tropical marine embayments.  Despite the two Bays sharing many similarities, far more research has been conducted in Florida Bay, primarily due to the close proximity of the Bay to areas of high human populations.  Degradation of Florida Bay has been recognised in many different aspects of the ecosystem – from seagrasses to fish populations.  There are numerous restoration and monitoring projects occurring in Florida Bay, but the previous questions still arise – what should these projects aim to acheive.  We conclude that using Shark Bay can be used as a template for the types of function a healthy ecosystem would display, we can make more informed management decisions for Florida Bay.  This principle could also be applied to other degraded, sub-tropical embayments worldwide.  Collaborations between different research institutions in different ecosystems should increase scientific knowledge in pristine ecosystems, while leading to more informed management policies in degraded ecosystems!

Admittedly, I have lots of interest in Shark Bay itself (the bulk of my research for my PhD is centred in Shark Bay!), but hopefully this little post will allow people to see the local, regional, national, and international importance of this iconic, World Heritage Site!

Bamboo shark, strapweed, Shark Bay

Seagrasses in Shark Bay support a huge variety of animals! Here, a bamboo shark chills out in a Posidonia australis patch. I wonder if the starfish is happy about that!

Kendrick, G.A., Fourqurean, J.W., Fraser, M.W., Heithaus, M.R., Jackson, G., Friedman, K., & Hallac, D. (2012). Science behind management of Shark Bay and Florida Bay, two P-limited subtropical systems with different climatology and human pressures Marine and Freshwater Research, 63, 941-951 DOI: 10.1071/MF12280


Impacts of climate change on marine communities, seagrass dieback, and a trip to the Abrolhos Islands!

You may have noticed a lack of posts over the last few weeks.  No holiday for me though, here’s a quick taste of some of the other stuff I’ve been up to!

Impact of climate change on marine coastal ecosystems – A masterclass with Nuria Marbá
I was lucky enough to be invited along to present some research at a masterclass at the Institute of Advanced Studies led by Nuria Marbá in late March.  Nuria is a highly respected marine ecologist, and is mainly focussing on researching how coastal communities will respond to climate related stressors such as increased sea surface temperature.  Nuria gave a fantastic talk on the responses of a variety of different coastal ecosystems to projected future warming; from seagrass meadows in the Mediterranean to seaweed communities off the coast of Greenland.   In particular, the seagrass Posidonia oceanica – the real foundation species of the Mediterranean Sea – is at real risk from a combination of increased temperatures and future human activity.  P. oceanica has historically been able to resist disturbance events through extremely long life spans – a study led by Sophie Arnaud-Hound in 2012 suggest that some clones are thousands of years old!!!  However, this long life span is coupled with extremely slow recovery, and it is the really fast rate of expected change in temperature that is expected to cause the P. oceanica meadows to really struggle.  Above average temperatures in the Mediterranean in the last decade has already resulted in significant shoot mortality (Marba and Duarte 2010 Global Change Biology), and the predictions for seagrass response to future warming events look even scarier – with the present consensus being a “functional extinction of P. oceanica meadows by the middle of the century (2049±10), even under relatively mild greenhouse-emissions scenario” (Jorda et al. 2012 Nature Climate Change).  This is all pretty sobering stuff considering that P. oceanica forms the basis of key ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea.

Closer to home, I presented some initial research that was conducted looking at the effect of the 2011 Marine Heatwave on seagrass populations in Shark Bay.  We travelled up to Shark Bay in March 2011 (right in the middle of the heatwave) as part of a separate research project, and noticed two striking features – water temperatures were far higher than normal, and the dominant seagrass Amphibolis antarctica (wire weed) had experienced severe defoliation (leaf loss) in certain parts of Shark Bay.  Closer analysis showed that the areas worst affected were adjacent to the recently flooded Wooramel River, so we hypothesis that a combination of elevated temperatures and decreased light availability may be leading to the loss of leaves.  Effectively, we believe that the increased temperature increases respiratory demand (the seagrasses get ‘hungrier’ for light) whilst the decreased light availability stops that demand being met.  We are re-visiting previous study sites where defoliation was noticed in an attempt to measure the recovery of the seagrasses; so I’ll keep you posted!

Defoliation in Shark Bay seagrass meadows

A healthy Amphibolis antarctica meadow (left) and a defoliated meadow in Shark Bay (right). We believe a combination of low light availability and elevated tempertaures has led to this loss of leaf material.

Other workshop presentations included a discussion on the impacts of the same marine heatwave on marine communities (in particular, macro algae) up and down the West Australian coastline by Thomas Wernberg, carbon sequestration impliactions from Oscar Serrano-Gras, and a discussion of the effects of warming on feedback in algal assemblages from Scott Bennett.  All in all, a fantastic workshop that will hopefully have positive benefits for the management of marine communities in the face of continued warming of our oceans.

A trip to the Houtmans Abrolhos!
For one week at the start of April I was lucky enough to help out Luke Thomas with his research into coral resilience at the beautiful Houtman Abrolhos.  The Houtman Abrolhos is a chain of small islands located 80km off the coast of Geraldton, Western Australia.  They are really special as they are the highest latitude true coral reef in the Southern Hemisphere.  As such, they may represent an important site that could potentially act as a refuge or a stepping stone for some coral species to move south as temperatures increase.

Acropora research at the Abrolhos Islands

Luke taking samples to investigate coral resilience at the Houtman Abrolhos.

Luke is trying to figure out the genetic connectivity of the corals in the Houtman Abrolhos with those in other locations along the West Australian coast, such as those found in Shark Bay, Ningaloo Reef, and Cygnet Bay.  This will help to determine the resilience of the coral reef communities in the Houtman Abrolhos to future changes in climate (Luke explains things much better than I do here!).  We also carried out some ecological experiments on kelp beds at the same time, so it was a full week of research!  But luckily the weather held up for us and we had some stunning dives – hopefully I’ll be able to post some more photos at a later date!

Kelp research at the Abrolhos Islands

Some fantastic visibility led to some incredible kelp dives (20m depth at this site!) Photo: Gary Kendrick

The inaugural Oceans Institute Student Conference
March also seen a landmark for the UWA Oceans Institute – the first student conference was held at the University Club at UWA.  There were a huge range of talks that showed the breadth of research at the university – everything from tracking marine plastics to studying the biology of pteropods!  And even me trying to get everyone excited about phosphorus cycling in seagrass sediments (what’s more, I was awarded joint first place for the presentation, and won a return trip to Rottnest Island – fantastic!).  One of the highlights from the conference was a talk by renowned marine ecologist Callum Roberts about the pressures facing coral reef ecosystems over the next 100 years.  He was quick to emphasise that warming temperatures aren’t the only threat, with human impacts such as overfishing and pollution likely to lead to worsen negative impacts on these reefs.  Sobering stuff.  On a brighter note, the day as a whole went well, and I think that the 2013 OI student conference will set the benchmark for many more successful conferences in years to come!  Big thanks to Liza, Eric, Renee and the rest of the organising committee!

‘Worldwide diebacks of seagrass ecosystems’: A seminar from Ole PedersenI also had the pleasure of heading along to a seminar from Ole Pedersen; a 2013 Professor-at-Large at UWA.  Ole is one of the authorities in the ecophysiology of aquatic plants (including seagrasses!) and is primarily based at the University of Copenhagen, but is over for a two week stint to do some work in Western Australia!  Ole’s seminar focussed on two potential causes of dieback of seagrass – hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and sulphide intrusion (effectively poisoning!).  Ole has played a leading role in the creation of microsensors that can be used to measure oxygen and sulphide concentrations in the field, and his research indicates the both hypoxia and sulphide intrusion could lead to further loss of seagrass communities as ocean temperatures rise!  I’m lucky enough to be helping Ole and Jens Borum (also visiting from the University of Copenhagen) out with some of their experiments into the potential responses of West Australian seagrass species to changing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the water column, so I should be able to also keep you posted on that research!

As you can see, a busy few weeks, which is why the blog has taken a bit of a back seat!  Rest assured I hope to blog more over the next few weeks!

Marbá, N., & Duarte, C. (2009). Mediterranean warming triggers seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) shoot mortality Global Change Biology, 16 (8), 2366-2375 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2009.02130.x

Jordà, G., Marbà, N., & Duarte, C. (2012). Mediterranean seagrass vulnerable to regional climate warming Nature Climate Change, 2 (11), 821-824 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1533

My Teaching Philosophy

As mentioned previously, I need to complete a teaching portfolio over my year as a lecturing intern as part of the PTIS scheme.  Central to this portfolio is a personal teaching philosophy, detailing why teaching is important to me, what my objectives are as a teacher, what methods I will use to achieve my objectives, and how I will assess if I am successful in achieving those objectives.  We had to submit a preliminary Teaching Philosophy as part of the course, you I thought I would post mine for you all to be enthralled with!  A bit on the formal side, but enjoy:

Why is teaching important to me?
Teaching is important to me, as it is an avenue that allows me to pass on knowledge to the next generation of scientists. This knowledge transfer is central to the continuation of science of a whole, and is crucial to the effective stewardship of our environment as we move forward in a changing world. As such, my teaching is grounded in the fundamentals of science. When I am disheartened during my teaching, I would like to believe that I would try to bring my teaching back to the basic principles of preparing students for a scientific career. I would like to feel that my teaching would in some way create a positive difference in the world, especially in regards to effective and responsible stewardship of our environment.
What are my objectives as a teacher?
I strive to engage with students, making them care deeply about the subject matter. I also hope to inspire my students, and raise interest in areas that they were not previously interested in. I also aim to challenge student’s previous concepts and notions through learning that is primarily aimed at ‘problem-solving’ instead of just knowledge retention. I believe this will prepare them for their future careers most effectively. A focus on building independent skills like problem solving and scientific writing in order to allow them to transfer what they learn in the classroom out into the ‘real world’ where they will then be ready to make a difference. As such, I hope to eventually leave an ‘academic footprint’ where my teaching has led to numerous students making a difference in a number of different fields. Finally, I want my students to develop a sense of responsibility towards protection of the environment and understand their responsibility as scientists to interact with other scientists and the general public.

What methods do I use to achieve my objectives?
I strive to ensure that my methods of teaching are all based around a central concept of keeping students engaged at all times with the subject matter, whether completing assessments, attending lectures, or being out on fieldtrips. Specifically, I am interested in getting students to be more accountable for the work they produce, as this will form the basis of their future careers in science. At the moment, I am exploring options for displaying student projects on the internet as part of a blog, freely available for all interested parties to access. I believe this will give the students a sense of ownership over their project, as they will feel the work they are producing is influencing public opinion, instead of merely sitting in a lecturer’s desk after being marked, never to be looked at again.

How do I measure my effectiveness in achieving my objectives?
I have yet to formally assess my effectiveness in achieving my objectives, but I believe this will be done in a variety of forms, from informal to formal methods. Throughout my teaching, I will be continuously adapting based on what I believe is working and not working on the time, mainly decided through the responses of the students as a collective group. This will also include verbal/written feedback received from students both before and after the lectures. I will also assess whether or not my objectives are met after marking student assessments related to my aspect of the unit. I already have a set of criteria that I hope the students will be able to address in some of their larger projects – whether or not these objectives are addressed will be at least partly shown in the quality of the students’ assessments. Peer feedback will also play a significant role in measuring my effectiveness as a teacher. Before each lecture/tutorial that will be peer-reviewed, I will be submitting my teaching plan to the attending reviewer, which will include a detailed summary of what I hope the students take away from the lesson. In doing so, the reviewer will be able to provide feedback detailing if I was effective in meeting those objectives. Finally, more formal measures like SPOT surveys will be used to determine the extent to which these objectives have been met. However, this will be more for long term development, as they will be received after my teaching is completed.

Cottesloe Fish Habitat Protection Area

Today I am teaching my first tutorial in the second year unit ‘Marine Systems‘, which will introduce students to their major project, which is centred around a field trip to the Cottelsoe Fish Habitat Protection Area (CFHPA).  I’m pretty excited to introduce a few of my new ideas into the class this year, that will hopefully increase student motivation.  So I thought this would be a perfect time to write an introductory post about the CFHPA and the project I want the students to complete!  Enjoy!

The Cottesloe Fish Habitat Protection Area
Cottesloe Beach is one of Perth’s landmarks, well known and much loved amongst locals and tourists alike.  What many people don’t realise is that there is more to Cottesloe Beach than white sands and beautiful sunsets.  Cottesloe Reef sits just offshore Cottesloe Beach, and is home to a thriving coastal ecosystem with an abundant and biodiverse set of flora and fauna. For example, diverse seagrass and algae populations allow for the presence of the Weedy Seadragon, and many species of fin-fish are also present on the Reef.  All in all, a really dynamic ecosystem!  What makes the ecosystem at Cottesloe Reef extra special is the proximity to Perth itself – very rarely does a major city have a flourishing and unique ecosystem so close to it.  However, this proximity to Perth also places Cottesloe Reef at an increased vulnerability of negative anthropogenic influences such as overfishing, wastewater discharge and damage from boat-related activity.

As a result of the combination of high social importance and elevated vulnerability to human disturbances, much of Cottesloe Reef was declared a Fish Habitat Protection Area in 2001, with a principle aim of preserving aquatic biodiversity in the area.  To achieve this, many potentially damaging activities like jetskiing, spearfishing and anchoring were prohibited in the area.  The original plan that implemented the CFHPA underlined the fact that community involvement would be central to the success of the CFHPA in maintaining biodiversity.  This has been underlined by groups such as Cottesloe Coastcare Association being highly involved with raising public awareness about the protection of the Reef.  They even helped to get the Weedy Seadragon listed as a protected species in 2011 (and were even endorsed by a certain Sir David Attenborough!)!  Pretty cool to see the difference that can be made through hard work and a passion for our oceans….

The Cottesloe Ecosystem Research Project
Since 2007, undergraduate students from The University of Western Australia have conducted an annual field trip to study different components of the Cottesloe Reef Ecosystem as part of the “Marine Systems” (previously Intro to Marine Science) unit.  Students are usually split into several groups that all study one component of the ecosystem.  Students either focus on:

  • the benthic primary producers (seagrasses and macro-algae)
  • the invertebrate community (everything from nudibranches to anemones)
  • the fish community (including the Weedy Seadragon and Port Jackson Sharks)

Students then collate their data and write up a report detailing the distribution of flora/fauna across the Cottesloe Reef ecosystem.  This has essentially resulted in a series of reports benchmarking the type of organisms present in the area.  However, the really exciting thing we will be doing this year is to give the students access to all the data from previous years, creating a central Google Docs folder that the students can edit all data from.  This allows some really cool ecological questions to be asked, that have a temporal nature to them (i.e. how is the Cottesloe Reef Ecosystem changing over time!).  This project is really driven by the students, and they are completely free to investigate any question of their choosing, but I am hoping to see varied topics that include students thinking about the impact of environmental events (e.g. the ‘marine heatwave of summer 2010/11) or linkages between different sets of organisms over time (e.g. is there consistent links between primary producers and fish species that may suggest habitat dependency).  Hopefully the students will also get a feel for some of the difficulties associated with sharing data with different people over time.

Seagrass and benthic invertebrates

Students may investigate linkages between seagrasses and invetebrate communities

Obviously with limited resources and the students having many other commitments, really deep ecological questions linking cause and effect aren’t really possible,  but the students should still be able to pick apart some really cool patterns from the data!  As part of the assessment the students will not only write up a scientific report, but also a short press release to go along with the report, all of which will be posted on this website. This will hopefully spark some public interest (seeing as how Cottesloe is much loved in Perth!), and may even go a long way to influencing decision making in the area.  Most of all, hopefully the students will be very engaged, and feel as if they are doing real science instead of just ticking another box needed for getting their degree!

Reflections of a postgrad lecturer-in-training: Part 1

In a previous post, I mentioned that I was beginning a stint as postgraduate teaching intern at UWA, and that part of the internship involved keeping a reflective journal.  So I’ve decided that instead of merely writing down my thoughts (and possibly becoming lazy about it as the year goes on) I will share my journal on this blog!  To my mind this has numerous advantages, including transparency (including the students I teach), holding myself to accountability and killing two birds with one stone!
Part 1 will be about my thoughts on the first two days of the professional development part of the course, but before this I think it would be worthwhile to discuss what this academic journal will be about (after all, I will be adding to it consistently over the next year, and you all need to know where to pull my up on from time to time!).

The scope of the reflective journal
This reflective journal is NOT meant to be a simple description of my teaching methods and experiences. Instead, I should aim to make this journal a place for honest and critical evaluation of my teaching and learning experiences, with space for reflectance on how I may make changes in similar situations in the future. In addition, the journal should display facets of my teaching philosophy, and is a place to discuss my preconceived ideas on teaching, and how the change during the course of the year.

My pre-conceived notions
As I said in a previous post, I already have goals that I have set myself that I believe I can reach over the next year.  In short, the theme of these goals are centred around motivating students and instilling them with a passion about the environment around them.  I believe I can do this by conveying my passion to the students at all times, and by using technology to allow them to become more interactive with the subject matter in all aspects of the course: from lectures, to tutorials, to assessments. So now that we are all on the same page, let’s start looking at what I have learnt during the first couple of days!

Professional Development days 1 and 2 – The value of a key strategy

Day 1 started by giving us a real foundation in the theory and philosophy of teaching and the learning process.  There was constant reference to the importance of a cycle involving planning, acting and reflecting on our teaching, which I hope this journal will fit in nicely to!  Another aspect that really stuck with me was the difference between an instructivist and constructivist approach to teaching,  I really see myself as wanting to take a constructivist approach to teaching i.e. helping students to reach answers and solve problems on their own through active engagement, instead of the traditional knowledge transmission that only leads to rote learning and not proper understanding.  In addition, the idea of motivating students also came to the forefront during the first day, with repetition of the formula M(motivation of student) = V (value of outcome/process) x E (expectation of success).  I love the idea of keeping this in mind when designing lectures and assignments, and I really feel like this fits in well with my idea of designing an assignment that will be later put into the public domain.  I really hope an assignment like this will be highly valued by the students, hopefully increasing their overall motivation and the final quality of the assignments!

Given the nature of the subject discussed in the first day (based on teaching philosophies), I was slightly concerned that there was too much focus on our thoughts and feelings about teaching instead of actual strategies about how to make lectures and tutorials more interactive.  I thought there was slightly too much emphasise on this side of the development course.  However, more strategies were provided during day 2, dealing in both large and small classes.  Whilst these strategies were undoubtedly useful, I felt that there was not enough focus and discussion around them.  On the plus side, I have a stack of reading on strategies that could increase interactions in both small and large classes.  In addition, I found out about a new resource called Poll Everywhere that I really hope to use during my upcoming lectures.  Basically, I design questions before the beginning of a lecture (they could be to check students understanding, prior knowledge etc.) and work it into my powerpoint at a specific point of the lecture.  I then ask the students the question during the lecture, and they can answer the questions using their computers or mobile phones.  Within a matter of seconds, the class results are shown on the powerpoint, and we can start a debate, go over key concepts again or just chat about the results as a class!  I really feel this will help students to stay engaged without the fear of giving wrong answers in front of 70-80 of their classmates.  Students also struggle to keep taking information in after about 15 minutes of a lecture without a change of pace, so I feel that proper timing of the questions during my lectures may help students to retain more of the take-home messages in my lectures.

I admit that I already have fairly deep set views as to how I can further the learning process for the students that I will be teaching.  As a result, I found myself really agreeing with certain suggestions at some points during the first two days, and questioning the effectiveness of other suggestions elsewhere.  Not that I think this is a bad thing though; all teachers teach differently, and a one-size-fits all approach definitely does not apply in this situation.  Instead, I see the professional development component as supplying us with a diverse set of tools (some generic, some specialist), which we will pick and choose from based on a wide range of factors such as background, class sizes, teaching subject and (probably most importantly) personal preferences and experiences!

Quick wrap-up of day 3 of the professional development course to follow soon!