2014 winner of The Nature Conservancy Applied Conservation Award

The winner of the Nature Conservancy Applied Conservation Award for 2014 is Lachlan Fetterplace (University of Wollongong) for his project “The conservation of soft sediment fishes: the vast unknown”.

Lachlan’s award will be presented at the 2014 ESA conference in Alice Springs, and he will give a special presentation on this work at the 2015 ESA conference in Adelaide.

About Lachlan's project:

Sand.  That grainy stuff that covers vast swathes of the ocean floor. Although perhaps to the casual observer this habitat isn’t as exciting as coral reefs or seagrass meadows, delve a little deeper and you will discover that there is a whole lot happening out in the vast sandy stretches of the ocean. Sand or soft sediments cover most of Australia’s state and national waters and are heavily exploited by commercial and recreational fishing.

Surprisingly, there has been little research into fish ecology on these habitats, with most effort expended on assessing fish found on coral reefs, rocky reefs, estuaries and seagrass. For a habitat that is so heavily exploited, there is a serious and immediate need to determine the basic ecology of the fish species present, the effects of fishing and also to examine the success of conservation efforts in place. More than 70% of Australia’s marine protected areas (MPAs) cover soft sediments, yet to my knowledge, both nationally and internationally there have been no studies looking at the effectiveness of MPAs in conserving soft sediment fish.

Recently there have been zoning changes in New South Wales MPAs that are based on the idea that fish on soft sediments do not show site attachment or site fidelity and therefore the no-take areas on soft sediments provide little conservation value. However, as there have been no studies on no-take effects on soft sediment fishes and the majority of fish species found on soft sediments on the south east coast of Australia have no movement information available, it is impossible to say whether these zones really are effective or not.

I am using acoustic telemetry in Jervis Bay Marine Park to determine whether common soft sediment fishes including Bluespotted Flathead (Platycephalus caeruleopunctatus) and Eastern School Whiting (Sillago flindersi) show long-term site fidelity on relatively homogenous soft sediments and whether these species make spawning or migration movements. I will use this tracking information (and also population data gathered by baited remote under video in a concurrent part of the project) to better understand effective reserve size and design for these species.

You can read more about this study and other research being undertaken for Lachlan’s PhD at http://fishthinkers.wordpress.com/

The judges (James Fitzsimons, Gill Ainsworth and Angela Moles) also gave two highly commended awards:

  • Lauren Young “Understanding the characteristics and role of refuges in the persistence of the plains mouse (Pseudomys australis) in arid landscapes.”
  • Michelle Freeman “From Little Things Big things Grow – How do trees succeed in Australian savannas?”

Congratulations to all our winners!

ESA gratefully acknowledges the ongoing support of The Nature Conservancy and the Thomas Foundation in generously funding this significant applied student award