REWARDING EXCELLENCE / JCU celebrateS two Eureka Prizes


James Cook University scientists are celebrating two wins at last night’s ‘Oscars of Australian science’, the Eureka Prizes. The Eureka Prizes are Australia’s most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence in research and innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.

A team of scientists led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU has won the 2020 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research. Social-Ecological Research Frontiers is an international team led by Professor Josh Cinner, including scientists from seven Australian institutions, with Dr Michele Barnes, Dr Jacqui Lau and Dr Georgina Gurney rounding out the Coral CoE at JCU.

FOCUS / Coral reefs that are thriving despite human and environmental pressures can provide novel insights into confronting complex problems. The Social-Ecological Research Frontiers team assembled the largest dataset of its type on conditions in over 6,000 reefs across 46 countries, allowing them to locate and learn from these coral reef ‘bright spots’.

“We study coral reefs bucking the trend and thriving despite climate change, over-fishing and pollution…Some coral reefs have surprisingly high amounts of fish despite high human pressures. We call these reefs ‘bright spots’.”

Professor Josh Cinner, Social-Ecological Research Frontiers

Studying bright spots can help inform new solutions to tackle the decline of reefs worldwide. The team used a blend of social science, ecology and other disciplines to identify and learn more about these unique areas.

The 2020 NSW Environment, Energy and Science (DPIE) Eureka Prize for Applied Environmental Research was awarded to Rebuilding Australia’s Lost Shellfish Reefs. This collaboration between JCU, The Nature Conservancy, and the Universities of Adelaide and Tasmania has collaborated with Traditional Owners, industry, community groups, non-government organisations and policy-makers to document the decline of Australia’s once-extensive shellfish reefs, and identifies what needs to be done to repair and conserve them.

FOCUS / Shellfish reefs, once common across the temperate bays and estuaries of southern Australia, have been overexploited to near extinction. This research has documented the decline and provided the knowledge required to successfully commence restoring them and their vital ecosystem services, such as cleaner water, more fish and protected shorelines.

“Early maritime explorers such as Cook and Flinders regularly referred to extensive shellfish reefs, formed by dense aggregations of oysters and mussels,” said Dr Ian McLeod, Principal Research Scientist at JCU’s TropWATER.

From early European settlement of Australia, vast quantities of oysters and mussels were harvested for food and as a source of lime for mortar, until less than one per cent of Australia’s shellfish reefs remained.

“These reefs, which once stretched around our southern coastline, provide food, clean water, boost fish populations and protect our shorelines. “Bringing our shellfish reefs back from the brink will reinstate those vital ecosystem services, benefitting the marine and coastal environments and all who rely on them.”

Dr Ian McLeod, Principal Research Scientist at JCU’s TropWATER

Shellfish reef restoration projects underpinned by the team’s research are now underway, funded in part from the Federal Government’s Relief and Recovery Fund which allocated $20 million to restore up to 13 reefs across the country in places like Albany, the Sapphire Coast, Kangaroo Island and Noosa. These will help bring back the reefs’ vital services, including cleaner water, more fish and protected shorelines in addition to creating dozens of local jobs and creating lasting tourism benefits through diving and recreational fishing opportunities. 

The NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub’s research has already helped to support the success of a number of projects including a 20-hectare shellfish reef restoration at Windara reef in Gulf St Vincent, South Australia, which has created a limestone reef seeded with more than seven million Australian Flat Oysters. The project is generating new opportunities for employment, aquaculture, ecotourism, recreational fishing, volunteering and community education programs.

JCU Provost Professor Chris Cocklin congratulated all the researchers involved, along with their collaborating institutions.

“The Eureka Prizes are independently judged, and recognize the very best in Australian Science,” Professor Cocklin said. “To bring home two such awards at the end of a tough year is a great achievement and a well-earned tribute to all involved.”

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