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The challenge

Cataloguing, understanding and conserving the abundant and diverse life in our oceans

Australia has a vast marine estate - twice the size of its landmass - that supports a broad diversity of life, both above and below the waves; from surface waters to abyssal depths. It has habitats ranging from cold Antarctic waters to warm tropical waters. Studying life in and above our oceans offers significant challenges, not the least of which are the vast distances involved and the significant costs associated with studies in remote marine areas.

Antarctic petrels fly past RV Investigator. ©  Jez Bird

Our marine environment is epic. It’s home to some of the most diverse marine biota in the world. In addition to this, the oceans are effectively the planet’s lungs, with the oxygen in every second breath we take created by phytoplankton through ocean photosynthesis. To date, 33,000 marine species have been recorded in Australia’s oceans. A further 17,000 have been collected but not yet catalogued. Many new species are still being discovered. In total, it’s estimated that there may be as many as 250,000–500,000 Australian marine species, not including microscopic plants and animals.

These numbers illustrate that the ocean, and particularly the deep ocean, around Australia is poorly understood. Understanding, monitoring and reporting on marine ecosystem biodiversity is vital in the face of changing environmental conditions caused by human activities. The world has warmed over the past 50 years and is likely to continue to do so over the coming century. Modelling predicts that marine heatwaves will become more frequent and intense. This poses problems for life in the ocean, since most species have a defined range of temperatures in which they can live. Similarly, temperature can impact how fast species grow, how much food they need and their reproduction.

In addition to the need for baseline information, Australia needs to plan for and adapt to our changing oceans now and in the decades ahead to protect our biodiversity, as well as the productivity of fisheries and other ocean resources. Emphasising this, Australia’s marine industries are predicted to contribute $100 billion each year to the Australian economy by 2025.

To effectively manage and safeguard the prosperity of our marine biodiversity and resources, we need access to wide ranging data and sustained observations from monitoring of our marine life and habitats. This needs to take place across the whole of the Australian marine estate to better improve our ability to conserve biodiversity and manage the prosperity of the blue economy.

Our response

An advanced capability to study marine life and ocean habitats anywhere in our region

RV Investigator is a state-of-the-art research vessel that enables multidisciplinary study of the biology and habitats of our oceans anywhere across our vast marine jurisdiction. The vessel’s range (up to 10,000 nautical miles) and endurance (up to 60 days) allow it to conduct atmospheric research in the farthest reaches of our marine estate and beyond. Combined with the vessel’s extensive suite of scientific equipment and systems, along with teams of specialist seagoing technical staff to operate them, this enables researchers to collect both high-quantity and high-quality biological data from our oceans.

Researchers sort seafloor samples onboard RV Investigator. ©  Asher Flatt

Marine biologists can use RV Investigator to study ocean life from microscopic phytoplankton to the largest animals that have ever lived on the earth, the Antarctic blue whale. The capabilities we provide offer the ability to collect samples and undertake studies to measure species presence and abundance, as well as to better understand ocean productivity and ecosystems. Biological oceanographers can use equipment such as the Triaxus, an undulating CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) instrument, to collect data from the surface to depths of 350 m. These data can be collected over hundreds of kilometres, providing critical maps of phytoplankton, salt concentrations and temperature.

The vessel can deploy 24 and 36 bottle CTD rosette and collect water samples to depths of 6000 m to study phytoplankton and other biological parameters. A towed camera system is available, equipped with lights, high definition still and video cameras to allow real time video observation of marine life and seabed habitats to depths of 3900 m. Supplementing this, the vessel’s advanced seafloor mapping capabilities can provide a three-dimensional view of seafloor features. Smaller sonar equipment can also be towed behind the ship to provide intricate details of seafloor features and habitats. 

RV Investigator is fitted with the latest fish assessment sonar that can reach to depths of 3000 m to collect passive data on where species live, eat and breed. This, combined with the seafloor mapping technology, offers the ability to collect significant insights into ocean ecosystems. The vessel possesses a wide range of sampling equipment, including nets from small fine gauge surface nets to large ocean trawling nets, that can collect specimens down to 5000 m. Sleds can be used to collect specimens from the seafloor and just above, and equipment such as multi-corers can collect sediment samples from the seafloor to study the life within.  The vessel possesses incubation facilities that can keep species such as krill alive for further studies or during transportation to land-based laboratories. Refrigeration facilities onboard can store seafloor sediment samples at 4°C.

Until the arrival of RV Investigator, Australia did not have the capability to assess fisheries resources below 1500 m water depth. The vessel is fitted with advanced fish school assessment technology that can collect data to 3000 m below the ocean surface. As the demand for fish continues to rise, so must our understanding of commercial fisheries to sustainably manage these resources. The vessel also possesses 4 hydrophones which can be used to detect and record underwater sounds such as whale calls.

The vessel also provides an important platform for seabird and marine mammal observation programs, an area of research that lacks data and sustained observations, especially from the remote ocean.

Since commissioning on 12 December 2014, RV Investigator has delivered 16 voyages with a primary focus on biological research. However, it should be noted that every voyage includes biological data collection via underway systems regardless of the primary research project. These voyages contribute to global programs and are collaborative, delivered by Australian research partners and their international collaborators.

Significant contributions by RV Investigator to biological research efforts include:

  • Multi-voyage project: Distribution and abundance of seabirds. Led by Birdlife Australia, this ongoing multi-voyage project has been included on 13 voyages to date and collects crucial data on the distribution and abundance of seabirds and marine mammals within Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and beyond.
  • IN2021_V04: Investigating the Indian Ocean Territories (Voyage I). Led by the Museums Victoria Research Institute, researchers collected biological data and samples, as well as world-first bathymetry, to better understanding of the biodiversity, composition and distribution of marine life in the newly established Christmas Island Marine Park.
  • IN2021_V01: Trends in Euphausiids off Mawson, Predators, and Oceanography (TEMPO) voyage. Led by the Australian Antarctic Division, researchers collected data that allowed, for the first time, krill abundance to be quantified for krill monitoring and management off the Australian Antarctic Territory to help ensure orderly development of the krill fishery in this region.
  • IN2018_V06: Seamount coral survey 2018. Led by CSIRO, researchers studied deep-sea coral communities on seamounts around the coast of Tasmania to better understand their biodiversity and collected data to measure how reefs have recovered from earlier impacts of trawling since being protected in marine reserves.

The MNF Publications database records 52 journal articles primarily related to biological research delivered by RV Investigator (representing approximately 23% of all articles and reports). While likely an incomplete record of all research publications related to the research by RV Investigator, the impact on knowledge creation is substantial. Insights and research findings are published in many of the world’s leading scientific journals. Commonly, publications from research delivered have a high diversity in co-authorship, demonstrating engagement between Australian researchers and the global scientific community. This signals that the research being conducted is of global importance. 

Significantly, in the absence of RV Investigator, some areas of research would remain understudied.

Beyond the research, there is also a significant contribution to training and development of future generations of marine researchers on RV Investigator voyages through student participation, as well as education and outreach activities. Supporting such activities is one of the strategic pillars for the operation of the Marine National Facility (refer MNF2030).

The results

Increased understanding of species, ecosystems and biological productivity of our oceans

The biological research delivered by RV Investigator is globally significant and provides data to address the grand challenges being faced by Australia, our region and globally. The data collected provides baseline measurements for monitoring and managing fisheries, marine environments and ecosystem function. Without RV Investigator and its multidisciplinary capability, much of this research would not otherwise be undertaken. The biological data we collect informs fisheries, resource and marine park managers, such as Parks Australia who manage the Australian Marine Parks network.

Deep tow camera image of fish aggregations on a seamount. ©  CSIRO

Scientists have been utilising the unique platform offered by RV Investigator to investigate krill and a wide range of other marine species to increase the health of these sensitive resources. This work allows resource managers to better calibrate catch limits, so as not to adversely impact the larger food web system. Emphasising the importance of the biological research delivered by RV Investigator, a recent independent impact assessment by RTI International estimated median benefits from improvements to marine systems health of $1008M through FY2029/30.

These data address key challenges we face including building resilient and valuable environments and protecting food security and quality.

Using our capabilities, researchers have delivered biological research to:

  • Increase our understanding of deep-water life in our marine environment. The marine life at abyssal depths (> 4000 m) in Australia’s marine estate is poorly understood. The lack of baseline data about species and their distribution makes it difficult to set policy and measure change. This will be important if new industries develop, such as deep seafloor mining for rare earth metals. For the first time, RV Investigator has provided scientists with the opportunity to study life at these depths, including off the Australian coast and in remote territories such as Christmas Island.
  • Undertake biomass assessment for fisheries management. We have undertaken several studies to measure the mass and distribution of ocean biomass, including Antarctic krill and mid-water prey called micronekton. This data provides baseline information and records long-term changes in the distribution, biomass and behaviour of these organisms, to help increase our understanding of ocean productivity and inform fisheries management.
  • Significantly increase the number of described marine species. Biodiversity surveys and sampling of marine life through voyage activities have led to the collection of significant numbers of new species by RV Investigator, especially from the deep ocean. The total number of potentially new species likely numbers in the thousands but many of these species are yet to be described and named. However, to date, researchers have named approximately 100 new marine species collected from RV Investigator voyages.
  • Assess the impact of marine park creation for protection of biodiversity. Our research has collected high quality quantitative data on conservation status and recovery potential of deep-sea coral habitats. These data support marine park managers in improving overall management and conservation of these important habitats, and the implementation of ecosystem-based fisheries management and reduction of environmental risks.
  • Understand the impact of microplastics on marine ecosystems. Microplastics have the potential for significant impacts across the whole marine ecosystem but these impacts and the lifecycle of microplastic in the marine environment are poorly understood. We have delivered research to provide critical information on the distribution of microplastics throughout ocean waters. This research is helping identify how microplastics are affecting ocean micro-organisms, information that will be used to develop possible clean-up strategies for microplastics in the ocean.
  • Identify how ocean warming is leading to changes fish range and distribution. We have delivered research critical to understanding how changes in the marine environment due to climate change are influencing fisheries along the east coast of Australia. This research is helping inform marine and fisheries managers by increasing understanding of species that are moving into new territories due to changes in the East Australian Current that flows from the Coral Sea south towards Tasmania. The research has also been important for identifying habitats and areas of ocean used by fish species during different stages of their lifestyle, information vital for sustainable fisheries management.
  • Understand the distribution and abundance of seabirds. Research into the distribution and abundances of seabirds has addressed a fundamental gap in our knowledge of the at-sea distributions of most marine taxa in Australia’s marine estate. These data are facilitating a better understanding of seabird dynamics in the marine environment for marine managers and others responsible for the conservation of our remarkable and valuable marine environments.
  • Provide environmental assessments to support sustainable marine industry development. Data collected in collaboration with industry has led to a better understanding of benthic species diversity, pelagic production and biomass in the previously unsampled offshore waters, such as the Great Australian Bight. The data and derived knowledge will be used for input into ecosystem models and to help formulate future monitoring programs for the sustainable development of the region.

The biological data streams collected by RV Investigator provide tangible real-world benefits. These are used by researchers, industry and other stakeholders to inform their operational activities and decision making.  
In addition to primary research projects, the underway data collection by RV Investigator enables scientists to better understand ocean productivity and factors that influence biological activity.

Importantly, all data collected on voyages and through MNF capability, whether from CSIRO or user supplied equipment, are made freely available for the use and benefit of all. Data can be accessed through a CSIRO data portal where it can be discovered, accessed, used and reused. CSIRO engages directly with various end-users of our data to ensure it is accessible and meets their needs. 

This ensures the greatest benefit is delivered from every voyage and from every unit of data collected by RV Investigator.

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