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Doing research to ensure the strongest ecosystems are protected from global warming


Sharlene King
11 November 2019

Early work of Southern Cross University’s Amanda Reichelt-Brushett on port contaminants found they were risking the success of coral spawning events, and led to the prevention of dredging during coral spawning periods in north Queensland.

Her research is dedicated to tropical marine ecotoxicology, developing test methods to represent taxonomic groups such as cnidarians (including corals) in toxicity assessment.

More recently, Amanda turned her attention to the dispersal of mercury – a neurotoxin used in small scale gold mining by 50 million people worldwide - in the Maluku region of eastern Indonesia, the fishing ground for Indonesia, and an important global tuna fishery.

“In this region where I work, 90 per cent of protein resources for human consumption come from the ocean,” said Professor Reichelt-Brushett. “People depend on the ocean as a healthy system as it is directly linked to their own health and livelihoods. Food safety and food security are essential.”

Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett is profiled in the RUN Women in Science, Technology and Engineering in Regional Australia booklet.

Her formative motivation as a woman in STEM dates from childhood explorations of rock pools, the wonder of trying to catch little fish, but being appalled by the discovery of crabs stomped on and killed by someone.

“Human beings have been one of the most destructive species on the planet, but we also have empathy and can learn from our mistakes. I am inspired by understanding our impacts to help create solutions for the problems facing the environment now and in the future.”

The Maluku region is the geo-centre of the Coral Triangle countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, and bounds Raja Ampat, ground zero for coral diversity globally.

Indonesian authorities are working hard to manage fishery resources across a vast region subject to illegal poaching. These fisheries feed Jakarta, and tuna is exported to the United States (US), Japan and Vietnam.

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining accounts for a fifth of the world’s annual gold production, and is the single largest source of anthropogenic mercury emissions, responsible for releasing 1000 tonnes of mercury into the environment annually, says the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

The use of highly toxic, mercury-based extraction and processing methods in unregulated regions in Africa, South America and informal markets elsewhere, puts poor miners and their communities at risk of brain damage, vision and hearing loss and delayed childhood development, according to the UNEP.

Amanda and her Indonesian colleagues discovered mercury used to extract gold from ore in small scale gold mining in Maluku leads to highly contaminated tailings, which are distributed through the environment and found to be concentrated in marine sediment up to 82 times higher than recommended safe levels, and was at elevated levels in seafood, fish, mollusks and crustaceans.

Amanda was supported with funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities Fund to measure total mercury, mercury species and the amount of the toxic form, methyl mercury.

“Contamination at the moment is quite localised, but definitely there is a risk of long-term impacts to human health.”

Education about the type and the amount of fish people should eat is important. Even in Australia where we consume higher order predators such as shark and swordfish, the recommended maximum is only two fish meals per week.

Indonesia and the Philippines are part of a US$180-million UN initiative aimed at improving conditions for miners across eight countries while cutting mercury emissions. Under the initiative, mercury is phased out by connecting miners to formal markets for responsibly produced and sourced minerals.

“Indonesia is our closest neighbour and has 260 million people, 10 times that of Australia. The people have amazing resilience. We can learn from them, and they can learn from us. We should really value that relationship we can have with a neighbour.”

Indonesia’s Academic Mobility and Exchange scheme has supported Amanda’s collaborators to train on specialist equipment at SCU and develop research outputs. The University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre has supported return visits and analysis using ARC-funded equipment.