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Southern Cross tackles the big-picture problems


Sharlene King
25 September 2019

The wicked challenges facing our planet and our communities demand a different way of thinking. We should not shy away from the complexities of climate change, nor the challenges of environmental degradation and the impact human activity has on ecosystems.

Because there is hope.

It is a hope inspired by the very real action of teams of researchers threading together a collective understanding that is making substantial contributions to saving the planet. Southern Cross University is a global leader in many of these areas.

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We’re proud to be a partner in initiatives such as the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, and in delivering the “Our Coast Futures” global conference in October 2020 at our beachside Gold Coast campus.

But those initiatives are driven by a deep and long-term commitment to tackling the big issues such as saving the Great Barrier Reef, managing greenhouse emissions and pursuing genuine partnerships to achieve those goals.

For instance, ecology and technology are combined in a world first to give nature a helping hand, using an underwater robot to deliver millions of coral larvae directly onto the Great Barrier Reef and on degraded reefs in the Philippines in the pilot of a new technique to help restore and recover coral reefs. It was recently featured on the BBC’s Blue Planet Live program, broadcast globally.

That work was led, and continues to be led, by Southern Cross University’s Professor Peter Harrison and QUT’s Professor Matthew Dunbabin.

The project builds on Professor Harrison’s successful larval reseeding technique piloted in the Philippines with researchers from the University of the Philippines, and on the southern Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017 in collaboration with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service.

This is research that can help save Australia’s greatest natural wonder. It is inspiring and has inspired other researchers at Southern Cross to research the impact of mercury and other metal mining contamination on reefs, as well as other environmental factors such as run-off from farming and industry and the adaption of corals to different environments to better understand coral bleaching.

The western Pacific region, known as the Coral Triangle, is hailed as the epicentre of the world’s coral reef biodiversity, and it is here that Southern Cross University’s Associate Professor Amanda Reichelt-Brushett is negotiating a delicate balance of culture, economy, industry and the environment.

Comprising territorial waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands, the richness of the Coral Triangle is a marine marvel.

But riches also exist on the land, driving an economic gold rush for regional communities through small-scale gold mining.

With Australian Research Council funding and regional partnerships, Professor Reichelt-Brushett’s research is highlighting the environmental impact of mercury contamination from mining.

The ramifications are clear. Small-scale gold mining using mercury is practised by an estimated 50 million people globally, including in many regions of the Asia-Pacific. The transformation of elemental mercury into the more poisonous methylmercury creates an increasing risk of contaminated ecosystems and fisheries. Health problems can also arise, both for people eating contaminated seafood and for the marine environment itself.

Professor Reichelt-Brushett’s research in collaboration with the University of Pattimura in Indonesia is helping find solutions to this problem.

And while the big picture looks at entire ecosystems, the behaviour of individual species is just as important.

Southern Cross University marine scientist Professor Kirsten Benkendorff is leading research into the impact of pesticides, both entrenched and emerging. Of particular interest is the effect of neonicotinoids, which are banned in some countries, though not Australia.

They find their way into our rivers and estuaries and can damage and potentially wipe out species.

In the case of prawns and oysters, pesticides can absorb into their flesh at higher than the maximum tolerable limits for food. This presents a risk to both consumer health and seafood organisms.

Professor Benkendorff’s work has identified that seafood populations are showing stress from pollution and climate change, and she is looking at strategies for improving long-term health and productivity. Collaborations with groups such as Ozfish, Ridley and the Department of Primary Industries are bringing scientific data to bear on resource protection, restoration and sustainability.

These projects are just a snapshot of the solutions-driven research undertaken at Southern Cross University. They focus on marine and environmental issues, often interlinked with the communities and the societies of the region in question.

It is not abstract. It is right here, right now, working genuinely and in collaboration with people all over the world to solve the big problems facing us all. That is research at its best.

Written by Professor Mary Spongberg, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at Southern Cross University. This article was published in ‘Research’, a magazine supplement in The Australian, September 25 2019.