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SEAGRASS DOCTOR ON A MISSON TO BUILD PUBLIC APPRECIATION FOR THE ‘SUPERHERO OF THE SEA’

Published:07 March 2017

TOP: Dr Emma Jackson. BELOW: Aluminium sculptures of local seagrass species designed by Margaret Worthington and fabricated by Clive Rouse. Photos courtesy of William Debois and Bill Watson.

When 16 different people all forwarded British marine scientist Dr Emma Jackson a job advertisement for a research fellow position at CQUniversity in 2013, she realised that the role was one she could not ignore.

The research fellow position had a specific focus on seagrass which has been a passion of Dr Jackson’s since starting her career. 

“I was working as a Senior Research Fellow for the Marine Biological Association of the UK and Plymouth University, but when 16 people all sent me the job advert for the position at CQUni I knew I had to give it a go.

“My application ended up being successful and my family and I were extremely excited about the prospect of moving to Australia – I’m originally from Lancashire in the North of England so the thought of being able to enjoy a warm climate and tropical beaches as part of my job seemed  too good to be true!

“Nevertheless, it was a shock to the system when I arrived, as the warm muddy waters around Gladstone were in stark contrast to the cold clear waters I had been working with in Britain.

“Then there was also the realisation that I would also be contending with Australia’s notorious wildlife – my position risk assessment included mentions of deadly jellyfish, sea snakes, sharks and even crocodiles.

“Deadly creatures aside, the move has been a great step for my career so far and my research is currently focused around the area of Port Curtis, at the tip of the Southern Great Barrier Reef. This environment is one of the most ecologically and industrially diverse in the world, so as a marine  scientist it doesn’t get better than that. 

“The marine landscape is expansive, with seagrass, mangrove, reef and mudflat habitats existing side-by-side with large scale industrial developments and a bustling port.  

“It’s a truly amazing place to research socio-ecological systems, conservation management, marine habitat restoration and environmental impacts,” said Dr Jackson. 

Dr Jackson’s research focuses on the science behind how seagrass habitats maintain their populations and what actions the public can take to help.

Through the use of a state-of-the-art tidal mesocosm system (aquaria that mimic natural conditions) located at the CQUniversity Gladstone Marina campus, Dr Jackson and a team of environmental researchers are identifying best-practice approaches for enhancing and restoring depleted seagrass meadows in  Port Curtis. 

Though often out-of-sight-out-of-mind, seagrass is vital to the survival and health of our marine environments as it filters waste, traps carbon, supports fishery industries and provides a vital habitat and food source for endangered species such as dugong and turtles. 

Unfortunately though, over the past decade, seagrass meadows in Port Curtis have declined by more than 50 percent, and because of this restoration is desperately needed.

Dr Jackson believes the biggest threat to this ‘superhero of the sea’ is a general lack of public awareness and appreciation for the vital role seagrass plays in our important marine ecosystem. 

“I am not just on a mission to research and restore seagrass but to also make people understand just how important it is to the future of our marine ecosystem and our reef. 

“Ensuring the public understand the role and importance of seagrass is paramount to being able to effectively restore meadows. 

“Seagrass restoration is something the whole community can become involved in and increasing awareness and getting the community involved with seagrass preservation and restoration will make a huge difference to the local environment.”

A research fellowship worth $20 000 from the Ian Potter Foundation has helped Dr Jackson on her way to transforming the Gladstone community’s seagrass knowledge and appreciation.

In fact, the funding allowed Dr Jackson the opportunity to test seagrass restoration theories while also delivering awareness programs and building a network of community volunteers and industry partners. 

The project ran for 14 months and involved field and laboratory trials of seagrass transplantation, community information sessions, a blitz on social media and visits to local schools. 

During this time, more than 100 trial seagrass transplants were conducted with the help of volunteers, and each transplant was tested to analyse the influence of the transplant size and positioning, transplant survival rates, and restoration rates. 

The project provided researchers with a unique insight into seagrass environments and their restoration and has now led to further restoration trials and activity in the region. 

Following on from the project completion, Dr Jackson was also successful in applying for further funding from the Australian Government, the Norman Wettenhall Foundation and the Gladstone Healthy Harbour Partnership, to further restore seagrass meadows and educate the local community. 

“It’s been amazing working with the community and local organisations to build the science to restore seagrass meadows and contribute to the improvement of our local marine environment. 

“Community engagement was key to the success of the project as people are now more aware of the importance of our local waterways and the life they support.”

Dr Jackson and a team of researchers will continue to research seagrass meadows in the year ahead with a view to improving the resilience of local meadows to continuing development. 

Part of this work includes continued engagement through the delivery of educational programs at local schools.

One of the flagship activities as part of this has been Dr Jackson’s involvement in a new project conceived by colleagues Dr Linda Pfeiffer and Helen Holden and funded by QGC.

The project fuses art and science and allowed Dr Jackson to work with a local artist (Margaret Worthington) and metal fabricator Clive Rouse to design aluminium sculptures of the five species of local seagrass.

Each sculpture depicts key features used to identify the different species and communicate different aspects of the ecology of the seagrass.

The sculptures were a focal point at the Gladstone region’s QGC-funded ‘Art meets Science Exhibit’, as part of the World Science Festival Gladstone Community Event over the weekend, and will be used to educate children and the community as a whole about the important role of seagrass. 

The sculptures will also be on show at the GBRMPA Gladstone Reef Guardian Networking Meeting and Gladstone Ecofest 2017 before being put on permanent public display at the CQUniversity Gladstone Marina campus.