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By  Maigan Thompson 18 December 2023 3 min read

Key points

  • We have completed initial testing of AquaWatch, our 'weather service' for water quality, at Spencer Gulf in South Australia.
  • A combination of on-water sensors and satellite sensors will help provide regular data over a large region.
  • We are seeking new partners for the next phase of the test site to monitor water quality and provide early warnings for seafood farms in the Spencer Gulf.

As is tradition, many Aussies celebrating the summer holidays will soon be reaching for the prawns and oysters. 

One region in South Australia plays a big role in getting seafood to our plates. Spencer Gulf is often referred to as ‘Australia’s seafood basket’, with local aquaculture worth about $238 million a year.

The coastal area typically enjoys good water quality, which is an inviting space for seafood. In certain conditions issues like algal blooms can arise in the Gulf, with potentially devastating impacts for seafood farms and marine environments. 

Australia could be facing more pressures on water quality as climate change continues to drive increases in water temperatures and stratification of the water column. The recent closure of oyster farms in NSW due to flood impacts on water quality was an unfortunate example of how much this impacts the seafood industry.

This is where AquaWatch, our ‘weather service’ for water quality, comes in.

Cleanseas aquaculture pens, Boston Bay

Satellites and seafood

AquaWatch Mission Lead, Dr Alex Held, said the Spencer Gulf is one of a handful of locations around Australia where we've been testing the AquaWatch system. And it's the first location to complete the initial testing stage. 

"The first stage demonstrated that the system, which draws data from both water-based sensors and satellites, is working as intended," Alex said.

"Our attention is now on expanding the test site and using this technology to monitor water quality in the bio-rich Spencer Gulf, providing data to inform the local aquaculture industry so seafood farms can use AquaWatch."

AquaWatch combines the accuracy of water sensors with the broad geographical spread of satellite imagery – delivering near-real time monitoring of large waterways and coastal areas. What makes it unique is this data is processed using AI and computer models to give a forecast, providing early warning of potential issues. 


Satellite image of past algal bloom in the Spencer Gulf region. Credit: Jacques Descloitres MODIS Land Rapid Response Team NASA-GSFC.

Early warning benefits

With increased temperatures in coastal waters, there can be more stratification of the water column, creating a warm top layer for algae like cyanobacteria to grow. These algal blooms can look quite beautiful from our satellites images but can become harmful when they start producing toxins.

Kirsten Rough, Research Scientist at the Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association, said the Spencer Gulf is a great area for aquaculture.

"Its good water quality in a relatively sheltered environment makes for good growth rates and healthy fish," Kirsten said.

"However, in certain conditions algal blooms can form which threaten our stock and can cause significant losses for the industry."

While water quality is monitored, it’s also time consuming and labour intensive. Real-time early warning of harmful algae species means seafood farms can make decisions like scaling up surveillance and adjusting feed cycles. 

"Early detection allows for planning decisions like moving pens out of the way of harmful algae," Kirsten said.

Kirsten Rough, Research Scientist at the Australia Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association.

Inviting industry to partner

We hit this first milestone for AquaWatch in the Spencer Gulf by working with partners SmartSat CRC[Link will open in a new window] and the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI)[Link will open in a new window]. The next step is exploring how to deliver water quality data to the people who need it to inform their water management decisions. 

SARDI oceanographer Dr Mark Doubell said the AquaWatch partnership with CSIRO significantly boosted water quality monitoring needed to support the ecologically sustainable growth of aquaculture in the region. 

"The delivery of real-time data and improved satellite observations on water quality provides new information that complements existing operational oceanographic models to inform on the ecologically sustainable use and development of our precious marine systems," Mark said.

CSIRO is seeking partners to help scale up the AquaWatch system in the Spencer Gulf, have input into the co-design of the system, and get early access to data. Local Traditional Custodians and industry are encouraged to get in touch about building the next phase of AquaWatch together.

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