Coastal and marine science Honours projects

Refer to the below for a full list of the Coastal and Marine Science Honours projects.

When you find a project that interests you, click on the supervisors name which will automatically generate an email message.

West Australian Seahorse populations in Perth: Abundance and population connectivity

Supervisors: Dr. Joseph DiBattista and Maarten De Brauwer

The West Australian Seahorse (Hippocampus subelongatus) is a species endemic to the subtropical and temperate waters of Western Australia. This iconic species is collected for the marine aquarium trade, but information on population abundance and connectivity is lacking, creating concern for potential population resilience. This Honours project will investigate seahorse abundance at multiple sites in the Swan River and at oceanic sites near Metro. Non-lethal biopsies and next-generation sequencing techniques will be used to examine the level genetic exchange among, and natural selection acting on, the river and ocean populations of these fish.

Note: Scuba diver certification (min. Rescue Diver) and experience (min. 50 dives, preferably more) is crucial for this project.

Carbonate production rates at Rottnest, a semi temperate reef system

Supervisor: Dr Nicola Browne and Dr Zoe Richards

The accumulation of reef framework required for reef growth is reliant on the balance between carbonate production by calcifying organisms (corals, calcareous coralline algae (CCA), molluscs, crustaceans, bryozoans, foraminiferans, serpulid worms), carbonate framework erosion from bioerosion (borers, urchins, fish) and physical destruction (e.g. storm event) and sediment input and export rates.  This project will focus on quantifying rates of carbonate production at Rottnest Island to provide the first assessment of this kind for a semi-temperate reef.  The student is expected to design a robust field experiment and work closely with the student assessing rates of carbonate removal through bioerosion (see below). Together these data sets will provide the first carbonate budget for a semi-temperate reef as well as providing valuable insights into reef growth potential.

Are parrot fish key macro-bioeroders on semi temperate reefs and what is relative impact on carbonate budgets?

Supervisor: Nicola Browne and Dr Ben Saunders

Removal of carbonate framework by bioeroders can have significant negative impacts on reef accretion and stability.  Bioeroders include both micro-borers (e.g. worms) and macro-borers (e.g. urchins and fish), which graze on corals and crustose algae, removing framework and producing carbonate sediments.  If rates of bioerosion exceed carbonate production, the reef has a negative carbonate budget that over longer time periods typically results in reef degradation.  To date, no such studies of bioerosion on semi-temperate reefs have been conducted and, as such, rates on bioerosion in cooler waters have yet to be determined.  This study will quantify rates of bioerosion and, in particular, assess the importance of Parrot fish in carbonate removal and sediment production.  This student is expected to work closely with the student quantifying rates of carbonate production (see above) to provide the first carbonate budget for the region.

Getting testy with urchins: Comparative sensitivity of sea urchins

Supervisors: Dr Chris Rawson, Dr Tristan Stringer (Principal Ecotoxicologist – Geotech Services)

Sea urchin larvae are used globally in the assessment of the toxicity of anthropogenic compounds, and industrial effluents. In Australia, most studies using urchins have focused on a species with a restricted east-coast distribution used to develop trigger values and acceptable release thresholds across the country. This project will compare the larval sensitivity of a tropical west coast urchin (Echinometra mathaei), an urchin with a southern Australian distribution (Heliocidaris erythrogramma) and a temperate east Australian urchin (Heliocidaris tuberculata) to a range of stressors. The project will provide commercial ecotoxicologists and their clients in the oil and gas industry with critical information on whether trigger values developed with temperate species are relevant in the north-west of Australia.

Home range sizes and feeding rates of kyphosid fishes in temperate Western Australia

Supervisors: Dr Ben Saunders, Prof Euan Harvey and Adrian Ferguson

Kyphosids or rudderfish are highly abundant on macroalgal dominated reefs worldwide. They are herbivorous schooling fishes and as a school has the potential to impact the algal assemblage through intense feeding. Through snorkel observations of focal fishes this project will investigate the feeding rates and home range size of kyphosids at multiple locations within Western Australia.

Geomorphological reconnaissance of nearshore islands along the Pilbara coast

Supervisors: Dr Mick O’Leary and colleagues

A chain of over 100 small sandy islands can be found along the Pilbara coast between Onslow and Dampier. However little is known of their geomorphic structure, form and evolution. This project will provide the first geological reconnaissance of these island using remote sensing techniques establishing a (1) genetic classification of island type and form, (2) relationship between island geometry and metocean processes, (3) island elevations and potential threats from rising sea levels and cyclonic events, (4) using archived aerial photography establish the dynamic response of these islands to cyclonic events and rising sea levels.

Palaeosea level during Marine Isotope Stage 31 ‘super interglacial’

Supervisors: Dr Mick O’Leary and colleagues

Marine Isotope Stage 31 (1.08 to 1.06 million years) is one of the last ‘super interglacial’ events prior to the onset of mid to late Pleistocene glaciations. Drill core data from proximal sediment cores around several sectors of Antarctica point to a significant warming event around the Antarctic margin at this time and the probable collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. MIS 31 is of interest to climate modellers because of its value as a climate analogue for future warming scenarios. However, despite the extreme warmth experienced during MIS 31 and the suspected collapse of the West Antarctic Ice sheet, there has been no published geological evidence of a sea level highstand occurring during this period. On a recent expedition to the West Australian sector of the Nullarbor Plain a paleoshoreline was observed at elevations of 6 to 8 metres above the modern shoreline. Strontium isotope analysis of fossil shells returned ages of around 1.1 million years. This project will return to this site and conduct a rigorous field mapping and collection of fossil material for dating, to better establish the palaeoenvironmental setting the age and elevation of the formation.

Examination of species richness and related indices to provide an effective measure of biodiversity in an exploited north-west trap fishery.

Supervisors: Prof Euan Harvey, Dr Mike Travers (Dept Fisheries), Dr Steve Newman (Dept Fisheries), Dr Corey Wakefield (Dept Fisheries)

Using the species composition of both Baited Underwater Videos and trap data across the spatial extent of the Northern Demersal Scale Fishery, this project will determine what indices are appropriate to characterize the diverse fish assemblages across the region and thus contribute to an effective monitoring program.

An investigation of the effect of changing water temperature and sedimentation on the hatching success of squid eggs and the growth of calamari squid

Supervisors: Dr Ben Saunders, Prof Euan Harvey, Dr Jen McIlwain

This research will involve predicting how squid will respond to increasing sea surface temperatures and increased sedimentation which will allow predictions to made under various scenarios of increasing climate variability. Using the Curtin Aquatic Research Laboratory squid eggs and juveniles will be manipulated through a series of experiments.

Evaluating various bioprocessing (fermentation) techniques on agricultural products to improve their assimilation efficiency in aquaculture diets

Supervisors: Prof Ravi Fotedar and Prof Mark Gibberd

The research will test and compare various fermentation techniques on agricultural waste products in order to improve their amino acid profiles and protein assimilation efficiency for selected aquacultured species. The research will collect data on (i) the amino acid profile (ii) digestibility and (iii) nutrient utilisation of the bioprocessed products for cultured species like barramundi and yellowtail kingfish.

Use of biofloc in commercial marron farming operations in SW of Western Australia

Supervisors: Prof Ravi Fotedar, Prof Bruce Phillips and Nyan Taw

The research will be conducted on commercial marron farms located in Collie, Manjimup and Northcliffe in southern Western Australia. The use of biofloc has shown lowering of FCR in shrimp farming operations. The research will test the technology in commercial marron farms.

Stressing the small stuff: Development of a small invertebrate model for the assessment of cumulative impacts

Supervisors: Dr Chris Rawson, Prof Euan Harvey, Dr Tristan Stringer (Principal Ecotoxicologist – Geotech Services), Dr Jen McIlwain.

While the impacts of climate change and other anthropogenic impacts (e.g., dredging) will be felt at all marine trophic levels, most work has focussed on calcifying invertebrates and to a lesser extent vertebrates. Studies on small invertebrates (particularly planktonic invertebrates) are few. The impacts of rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification are likely to be felt strongly by those animals that cannot actively avoid warming water and may manifest in generalised stress reposes, reproductive output decreases or mortality. A student taking this project will work in the isolation and culturing of a local marine invertebrate (a copepod, amphipod or rotifer) and establishing methods of quantifying cumulative anthropogenic impacts. The outcome will be a locally relevant, but transferable model organism for the assessment of these impacts.

Marine biodiversity in water through environmental DNA (eDNA)

Supervisors: Prof Mike Bunce, Dr Nicole White

Recent advances in DNA sequencing has, for the first time, enabled DNA to play a key role as a proxy for marine diversity. Recently it was discovered that eDNA isolated from water samples (seawater and freshwater) can provide valuable insights into ecosystem composition. It is envisaged that in combination with existing survey techniques that DNA metabarcoding will become an integral part of  multi-proxy biodiversity surveys of marine environments. In this project DNA will be isolated from a variety of water sources to explore the value of this approach in WA. Students will gain core expertise in sample collection, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics.

Marine diets through next generation sequencing techniques

Supervisors: Prof Mike Bunce, Dr Nicole White

A better understanding of the trophic interactions in a marine system is critical to best-practice management. In recent years, fisheries and aquatic ecosystem management strategies have adopted a holistic approach towards cumulative impacts on the aquatic environment. Central to this is the question of “who is eating who”. By using DNA metabarcoding we are able to profile plants, invertebrates and fish in a variety of samples up and down the food chain. It is anticipated that, in a cost effective manner, metabarcoding will better facilitate the understanding of food webs and how best to monitor them. Using a variety of samples from marine species (e.g. dugongs and turtles) the project will seek to tease apart the composition of diet via genetic research. Students will gain core expertise in sample collection, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics.

Of Oil and Eggs

Supervisor: A/Prof Monique Gagnon

The 2009 Montara oil spill received widespread publicity. Public concerns were not only focused on the immediate environmental damages, but also on the long term implications on commercial fisheries. In fact, the oil spill occurred at a time where the commercially valuable red emperor and goldband snapper were spawning, and concerns were raised regarding the toxicity of the light crude oil on the eggs. While adult fish have the ability to metabolise and eliminate petroleum hydrocarbons out of their body, little is known on the toxicity of crude oil, and of oil dispersants, to developing fish embryos. The project aims at exploring the toxicity of light crude oil and crude oil dispersants to developing fish embryos. The experiments will involve exposure of developing eggs to crude oil at various concentrations, with and without dispersants. Parameters investigated will include egg survival, hatching, occurrence of deformities, and DNA damage.

Black Bream Otoliths: Archives of Historical Contamination

Supervisors: Monique Gagnon, Paul Hammer

East Perth has been for several decades the site of small industries such as paint shops, mechanics, etc.  The lack of regulations on disposal of chemicals at the time resulted in contamination of the surrounding soils, contamination which eventually reaches Claisebrook Cove via seeping waters. Claisebrook Cove is also the recipient of urban runoff waters carrying contaminants from roads. Black bream is a relatively long-lived fish which inhabits Claisebrook Cove and consequently, this species is exposed to a variety of contaminants.  It is known that some contaminants, especially metals [e.g. Pb, Fe], can be deposited permanently in the otoliths of fish as it grows.  When the metal contents of the otolith is analysed according to the growth rings, it provides information on the historical contamination to which the fish was exposed throughout its life. Black bream have been collected from Claisebrook Cove in 2006 and 2012. The project consists in the analysis of microamounts of metals by laser ablation of the otolith. The data generated will reveal long term contamination trends in Claisebrook Cove, and inform environmental managers on the efficiency of environmental policies on the bioavailable levels of contamination in Claisebrook Cove.

Coral bleaching susceptibility and recovery at the Houtman Abrolhos Islands

Supervisors: Prof Euan Harvey, Dr Dave Abdo (Dept Fisheries)

Disturbances have a critical effect on the structure of natural communities. Following the first mass bleaching event at the Indian Oceans most southern coral reef the Houtman Abrolhos Islands in 2011. Key questions remain around the structure of the coral assemblage at the Abrolhos, and the level of susceptibility and recovery of the assemblage following this disturbance. Using long-term monitoring data from across the four island groups, this project will examine whether the 2011 disturbance has had a persistent effect on the structure and dynamics of coral communities of the Houtman Abrolhos.

Movement and size-related depth stratification of crystal crabs

Supervisors: Dr. Roy Melville-Smith, Dr Jason How (Dept Fisheries)

Crystal crab (Chaceon albus) is a deep sea crustacean that is found along the state’s west and south coasts in waters from 500-1000m deep. It is the basis of the West Coast Deep Sea Crustacean Fishery (WCDSCF), and also a major part of the catch for the South Coast Crustacean Fishery (SCCF). With the move of the WCDSCF to full Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC), an independent third-party assessment of the fishery’s sustainability, there is a need to better understand the movement patterns of crystal crabs and any depth stratification that may occur with crab size. This project will directly relate to the effective management of the WCDSCF and SCCF and assist in its MSC accreditation. Sampling on-board commercial vessels, and tagging of crabs has occurred since 2000, providing a significant amount of data with which to begin analysis. There have been 1000s of crabs recaptured from previous tagging trips with the details on release and recapture date, location and depth. Preliminary analysis revealed possible migration patterns with regard to latitude and depth. Detailed examination of this will enable a robust assessment of movement and stratification in crystal crabs. Newly attained bathometric data will be combined with commercial monitoring to examine possible size-depth related stratification. There is existing commercial monitoring data, but additional field work will be conducted to complement existing data and provide more detailed information on depth stratification crab sizes and sexes.

The impacts of cyclone Winston on the fishes of Fiji; do protected areas provide a buffering effect?

Supervisors: Dr Jordan Goetze, Prof Euan Harvey

In February 2016 the strongest tropical cyclone in recorded history for the South Pacific Basin hit Fiji. Surveys assessing the health of corals suggest that although damage was patchy, some areas experienced up to 80 percent damage (Sangeeta Manghubai Pers Comm). Given the importance of coral habitats for fish populations it is likely there have been significant impacts to fish stocks, although this has not been assessed. Given Fijian communities rely heavily on fish stocks for food and employment, information on the status of fish stock after Cyclone Winston will be crucial to assist in recovery.

This project will use baseline data collected in the Kubulau and Ovalua districts (in the main path of Cyclone Winston) to assess the impacts of the cyclone on targeted fish stocks. This baseline data includes the assessment of periodically harvested closures (PHCs), a traditional form of fisheries management that involves the opening and closing of reefs to fishing. This will allow for the assessment of the impacts of cyclones in areas that are consistently open to fishing and those that receive some form of protection.

The student will be required to analyse stereo diver operated video samples which were collected in May 2016 (post-cyclone) and compare the results to samples collected in 2013 and 2014 (pre-cyclone). This project will involve training in the use of EventMeasure (video analysis software) and advanced skills in tropical fish identification.