Some Ningaloo Reef fish are ‘homebodies’

By June 18th, 2009

New research shows that some fish species in Western Australia's Ningaloo Marine Park spend most of their time close to home, staying on the reef rather than travelling significant distances, as was previously thought.

Since November 2007, scientists from CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans National Research Flagship have tagged over 300 fish in the Ningaloo area off WA’s North West Cape as part of a Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) project.

CSIRO’s Dr Richard Pillans told the 8th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference held recently in Perth that around 40 per cent of tagged Spangled Emperor (an important sport fish, also known as nor-west snapper) remained within hundreds of metres of where they were originally captured.

“This is really exciting information as it provides evidence of a resident population,” Dr Pillans said. “Data from the tags also showed that highly mobile species like Gold Spot Trevally and grey reef sharks spent the majority of time within just a few kilometres of where they were tagged.”

The research aims to identify what influences the movement patterns and habitat use of fishes in the park, which encompasses the majority of Ningaloo Reef, the largest fringing reef in Australia.

The new data on the long-term movement patterns of sharks and other fish in the park will have important implications for future management decisions on the size and placement of sanctuary zones. Currently 34 per cent of the park is reserved as sanctuaries designed to protect marine animals and their habitat from human disturbance.

“We’re working on gathering information that will inform management to assist protection of individual species and groups of species,”

Dr Russ Babcock, CSIRO Marine Ecologist

To better understand fish movement patterns and habitat use within the park, the Ningaloo Reef Ecosystem Tracking Array (NRETA) was established in 2007 as part of the Integrated Marine Observing System’s Australian Acoustic Tracking and Monitoring System. NRETA consists of 104 acoustic receivers along the Ningaloo coastline and is Australia’s largest array of acoustic receivers.

Fish tagged with internal ultrasonic tags are then able to be accurately tracked around the study site. Over time, the information collected builds up a picture of the individual’s movement patterns.

Project leader, CSIRO’s Dr Russ Babcock, said many other previously unknown aspects of the lives of fish on Ningaloo, such as where and when different species spawn, are being revealed.

“We’re working on gathering information that will inform management to assist protection of individual species and groups of species,” Dr Babcock said. “At the end of the study, we will be able to give the WA Department of Environment & Conservation a really good idea how fish and sharks use the marine park.”

WA Department of Environment Regulation

This project forms part of WAMSI Node 3 research, which is led by the Western Australian (WA) Department of Environment & Conservation.

National Research Flagships

CSIRO initiated the National Research Flagships to provide science-based solutions in response to Australia’s major research challenges and opportunities. The nine Flagships form multidisciplinary teams with industry and the research community to deliver impact and benefits for Australia.

Western Australian Marine Science Institution

The Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) is providing a better scientific understanding of the marine environment for the people of Western Australia. It is a collaboration between 16 core partners, including Commonwealth and WA Government research organisations, universities and the private sector.

IMOS Integrated Marine Observing System

The Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) is supported by the Australian Government through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and the Super Science Initiative.

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