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!


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