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The challenge

Securing the future or our valuable oceans

Climate change represents a threat to the economic and ecological sustainability of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism, as well as to the critical ecosystem services that underpin the beachside lifestyle enjoyed by millions of Australians.

Our oceans generate significant economic wealth – about A$52 billion per year or eight per cent of gross domestic product – through activities such as fisheries, tourism and recreation, shipping and offshore gas and petroleum extraction.

Fisheries and aquaculture are important industries in Australia, both economically (gross value over A$2.5 billion) and socially. Marine-based tourism is also vital to many coastal townships.

Marine life and ecosystems provide invaluable ecosystem services such as recycling nutrients, regulating greenhouse gases, and buffering the coastline against waves and storms.

Fisheries and aquaculture are important industries in Australia, both economically and socially.

Climate change impacts on marine life

The ocean is a major heat sink. Observations since 1961 show that about 80 per cent of the heat added to the climate system has been absorbed by the ocean, which has undergone a temperature increase to a depth of at least 3000 m.

The best available estimate of expected sea surface temperature change by 2030 is an increase of 0.6-0.9 ºC in the southern Tasman Sea and off the north-west shelf of Western Australia, and 0.3-0.6 ºC elsewhere.

Notable impacts of climate change on marine life have already been observed throughout the world – principally due to the existence of long-term data series that enable researchers to monitor changes over many decades.

As well as affecting the earth’s climate, carbon dioxide emissions can also cause ocean acidification.

For example, recent warming of tropical waters has led to repeated mass coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere, a phenomenon not observed globally before 1979.

Research by Australian scientists indicates there will inevitably be flow-on implications for human societies and economies, particularly those in coastal regions of Australia highly dependent on the marine environment and its resources.

Our response

Integrated marine management and data to secure our ocean's future

By bringing together scientists from a range of disciplines across CSIRO, we are developing marine adaptation options to assist policy-makers, resource managers, communities and individuals to respond to the impacts of climate change on our oceans.

This includes future modelling, monitoring and research programs to address:

  • How will the distribution and abundance of marine species and communities alter with climate change?
  • Which species are candidate indicators for climate change impacts?
  • Within large marine regions (for example, the Great Australian Bight or the Great Barrier Reef) where are sensitive areas or hotspots of change?
  • How will ocean productivity alter with climate change?
  • How would reduction in non-climate related stressors increase ecosystem resilience to climate change?
  • What information is required to develop appropriate adaptation options for marine ecosystems?
  • What tools can be developed to assist policy-makers and environmental managers make adaptation decisions?


[Music plays and an image appears of a world globe rotating and then the image changes to show another view of the globe rotating]

Narrator: The oceans around Australia are quite literally taking the heat of climate change.

[Image changes to show an animation of a spinning world globe and dates appear below counting up to 2021]

Since 1970 the global ocean has warmed unabated retaining more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system.

[Image changes to show an aerial view looking down on a coral reef, and then the image changes to show a view looking down on a seagrass meadow]

The effects of this change are already significant.

[Image changes to show a female looking at coral on a computer screen, and then the image changes to show two males looking at a diagram on a computer screen]

To survive and thrive we must adapt.

[Image changes to show the CSIRO logo at the centre and seven circles spinning around the logo showing symbols and text appears beneath the circles: Technological Intervention, Risk Assessment, Assisted Evolution, Connectivity, Working with Communities, Habitat Modelling and Mapping, Forecasting]

At CSIRO we are working with our partners to research innovative methods for adapting to climate change.

[Image changes to show an outline hand between three outline bars on a slope and three outline bars in a vertical position and text appears: Technological Intervention]

Technological Intervention.

[Image changes to show a map of Australia and the camera zooms in on Tasmania, and then Albatross Island, and then the image changes to show a Shy Albatross nesting on the island]

On Albatross Island, the endangered Tasmanian Shy Albatross build nests. These structures will shelter and protect the single egg a mating pair will lay for the year.

[Image changes to show raging surf on a rugged coastline and a graph appears inset and text appears above the graph: Breeding success]

However, the increasingly extreme weather events of the past decade have tested the durability of these naturally constructed homes

[Image changes to show a close view of a Shy Albatross sitting down and looking at an egg in front of a broken nest]

resulting in the loss of their precious contents.

[Images move through of a helicopter lowering a crate onto the island, a female installing an artificial nest next to the birds, and then the female using a shovel to place mud around the nest]

One way we can help is by introducing high-quality artificial nests that will withstand these events and encourage breeding success.

[Image changes to show a map of Albatross Island and then the map zooms in to show Tasmania, and then Australia]

Supporting adaptation for entire ecosystems is even more challenging.

[Image changes to show a central white circle with two wavy white lines moving out from it to join to more white circles and a blue broken line moving out from it to join to blue circles and text appears: Assisted Evolution]

Assisted Evolution.

[Image changes to show an Australian map and then an inset map of Queensland appears showing the Great Barrier Reef, and then the image changes to show an aerial view looking down on the Reef]

On the Great Barrier Reef, corals from northern waters are more heat tolerant than those from cooler southern waters.

[Image changes to show the current movements by a series of arrows on a map of the Great Barrier Reef]

Yet, due to distance and opposing currents these beneficial genes are not finding their way south.

[Image changes to show two researchers looking into microscopes, and the camera zooms in on one of the researchers, and then the image changes to show a large boat and a smaller boat in the sea]

One study bred corals from these two regions resulting in a 26-fold increase in heat tolerance.

[Images move through to show an aerial view looking down on the larger boat, a male standing on the deck of the boat watching a piece of equipment being deployed, and the small and the large boat]

This has led to an effort to seed 10 million of these resistant corals to cooler but warming reefs.

[Images move through of a diver moving over the Reef, an animation of fish swimming past a piece of coral, an animation of a coral cell inset on the coral, and then animation algae inset on the coral cell]

The key to coral surviving bleaching events lies in the algae that live within coral cells.

[Image changes to show a close view of the coral on the Reef]

In nature these algae are only exposed to elevated temperatures once a year during summer.

[Images move through to show two researchers working, a small tray under a microscope, a close view of the researcher looking into a microscope, and then researchers at work again]

We can speed up their evolutionary adaptation by culturing these algae in the laboratory and exposing them to elevated temperatures with more frequency and intensity.

[Images move through of various researchers at work, a researcher looking through a microscope, an inset of  a researcher looking into a pot, a close view of the pot contents, and then coral on the Reef]

After four years of directed evolution, we re-introduced these heat evolved micro-algae into coral larvae and found them more tolerant to bleaching events.

[Image changes to show a blue circle on the right of the screen and blue, purple, and white wavy lines can be seen stretching out from the circle across the screen to the left and text appears: Forecasting]


[Image changes to show a line graph showing the ocean temperature from 1955 to 2020 and text appears: Global ocean heat content]

We are all increasingly familiar with the upward trending ocean temperature curves.

[Images shows a wiggly line appearing along the upward trending line and then the camera zooms in on the wiggly line and text appears: Marine heatwaves]

But it’s the wiggly bits that are of particular importance for planning and adaptation. The most extreme blips represent marine heat waves which are a window into future conditions.

[Images move through of a turtle swimming over a reef, fish swimming around a reef, an aerial view looking down on a reef, and an aerial view looking down on a jetty walkway to a platform on a reef]

These events can potentially bring about devastation not just for ecosystems, but for the industries and communities that rely on them.

[Images move through to show water splashing up from a reef, a close view of water splashing up, two people watching the sunset over the sea, and an Australian map showing heat affected areas]

In December 2020 CSIRO used machine learning to predict a heat wave that subsequently occurred in the waters off Western Australia in January 2021.

[Camera zooms in on the heat affected area of the coast of Western Australia, and then the image changes to show a diver diving off a boat, and then the image changes to show the diver underwater]

While the effects of this recent heat wave have not yet been observed, during a previous heat wave off Western Australia in 2011, water temperatures soared to five degrees above normal.

[Images move through to show the diver underwater, the diver taking notes, and an eel swimming through the water]

Fisheries, including crabs, abalone, and scallops were devastated.

[Images move through of fish swimming over coral, a turtle swimming around the coral, and a view of seagrass meadows]

Coral bleaching occurred from Ningaloo Reef to Shark Bay, along with widespread seagrass damage.

[Image changes to show three models of a boat using a drag net, a boat above with a diver on the sea floor, and then a boat above with a diver swimming beneath over a whale]

With accurate models and predictions we can give different users the ability to plan for these events.

[Image shows red lines appearing in water area and the fishing net being taken up, the diver swimming back to the boat, and the diver above the whale swimming back to the boat and text appears: Fishing, Conservation, Recreation]

Fishers can forecast when stocks will be healthy or vulnerable. Conservationists can delay restoration efforts in seagrass meadows. And marine businesses can plan ahead to avoid costly disruptions.

[Image changes to show a central white circle and five white lines move out from the central circle to join to five white circles, and a blue line appears linking to a blue circle and text appears: Working With Communities]

Working with Communities.

[Images move through of a boat moving out from the shore, a boat moving along the coastline, an aerial view of a Torres Strait township, and an aerial view of a boat moving towards the camera]

In Far North Queensland, Torres Strait Islanders are only too familiar with the growing threats to their homes and livelihoods posed by rising sea levels, temperatures, and inundation.

[Image changes to show Male 1 talking while a female and male listen, and then images move through of a diver photographing the sea bed]

Male 1: We’ve seen a few changes on the reefs, especially with coral bleaching and also temperature changes in the water.

[Images move through of a close view of a boat moving through the water, a diver diving over the side of the boat, the sea bed, fish swimming through the water, and a close view of lobsters in a crate]

Narrator: We’re working with these communities to understand and respond to impacts on the local fisheries that are both economically and culturally important.

[Image changes to show a male emptying a crate of lobsters into a tank, and then the image changes to show Male 2 talking to the camera]

Male 2: We need more data to let us know what’s, what’s in ten or 15 years’ time because we’d like to do something now.

[Images move through of a person placing lobsters into plastic crates, a close view of a lobster in a box, and Male 3 talking to the camera]

Male 3: Without the fishing industry we wouldn’t have a backbone to survive here in, in the region.

[Images move through of employees moving lobsters in crates, a simulation model of three boats with lobster cages below, and the water area turns red, and the lobster cages move deeper into the water]

Narrator: Lobster fishers are learning to adapt to extreme temperature events by keeping holding cages deeper in the water during heat waves.

[Camera zooms in on one of the lobster cages and then the image shows some of the lobsters in the cage disappearing]

And because warmer water holds less oxygen they can improve survival by reducing packing density.

[Images move through of people in an inflatable boat, a close view of the inside of the boat, a diver entering the water, the diver underwater, and the diver removing a lobster from the sea bed]

Our models are helping predict what to expect as temperatures continue to rise, ocean currents change, and critical habitats for fish and lobsters suffer damage.

[Image changes to show text on a blue screen: Why We Need To Adapt]

Why We Need To Adapt.

[Images move through of water rushing over rocks, a helicopter moving over bushfire smoke, a close view of fire burning in scrub, and firefighters on the side of a road next to a large fire]

When temperature spikes happen at the same time as a cyclone or a bushfire, the impacts for the economy and communities stack up.

[Image changes to show a devastated landscape in Tasmania and the camera pans around, and then the image changes to show a map of Australia and then zooms in on Tasmania]

This is exactly what happened during Tasmania’s summer of 2015 to 2016.

[Image shows pinpointed spots appearing on the map, and an inset photo shows smoke rising above tree tops]

A record breaking drought increased fire threats in the highlands.

[Image shows inset videos appearing on the left of the map showing a bushfire, flooding near a city,  a raging river between mountains, firefighters at work, a shellfish in a hand, and a kelp forest]

Severe flooding affected the state’s north east, and an unprecedented marine heat wave caused the disease and death of shellfish, and damaged kelp forests on the east coast.

[Image changes to show a flooded raging river moving between mountains, and the image changes to show a boat moving past an aquaculture farm, and the camera zooms in on the farm]

This string of events stretched emergency services, energy supplies, and the aquaculture and manufacturing industries.

[Image changes to show a raging river moving underneath a bridge and flooding out either side of its banks, and then the image changes to show an aerial view looking down on a city]

It even forced the state to lease diesel generators to mitigate disrupted energy production.

[Image changes to show an aerial view of a coastal township, and then the image changes to show a landscape of green paddocks and mountains in the background]

The total economic cost to the state government was an estimated $445 million, and cut Tasmania’s anticipated economic growth by about half.

[Image changes to show a map of Australia, and the camera zooms in on the coastal areas of northern Australia and text appears: Northern Prawn Fishery]

The impacts of this severe weather weren’t just limited to Tasmania.

[Image changes to show a boat moving through the water away from the camera]

In northern Australia, the Redleg Banana Prawn Fishery hit its lowest point ever.

[Images move through to show a close view of prawns in a boat, lobsters in a net, a close view of a lobster, and then small boats moored off a tropical coast]

Three years later the effects were seen in the Torres Strait, where poor recruitment of lobsters meant the fishery had to close early for the first time in its history.

[Images move through to show a prawn boat in the water, a net being dragged behind the boat, a close view of prawns, and then an aerial view of the prawn boat moving through the water]

Both fisheries subsequently recovered but may be vulnerable if there are ongoing extreme events impacting them in coming years.

[Image changes to show text on a dark blue screen: Where We Are Going]

Where We Are Going.

[Images move through to show a flooded river, a satellite view of the globe, trees being blown with a strong wind, firefighters at work on a bushfire, and an aerial view of a coral reef]

We live in a world where extreme weather events are occurring with increased regularity and often at the same time as each other.

[Images move through of an aerial view looking down on a prawn boat, a diver jumping off of the prawn boat, the divers in the water, and a view of a whale shark swimming towards the camera]

With that come risks to food security, conservation, jobs and our general wellbeing.

[Images move through of two people paddle-boarding in the sea, two males in conversation while looking at a computer screen, and a researcher looking at a piece of equipment]

We can meet these challenges by utilising existing tools and ingenuity.

[Images move through of a camera being adjusted, two males looking at four computer screens and talking, a close view of one of the computer screens, and a larger and smaller boat in the sea]

We can adapt our communities and industries.

[Image changes to show a view of coral, and then the image changes to show an aerial view of a coral reef]

We can assist in the adaptation of natural ecosystems that are already in peril.

[Image changes to show a researcher looking through a camera at the albatross nesting, and then the image changes to show close views of the Tasmanian Shy Albatross’ nesting on artificial nests]

On Albatross Island the Tasmanian Shy Albatross have accepted the artificial nests, personalising them with mud and vegetation.

[Image changes to show an albatross flying through the air and then landing in the breeding area]

This project alone has seen a 20% increase in breeding success.

[Images move through to show the albatross flying around the breeding area, a close view of an albatross flying towards the camera, and then a bird flying around the nesting area]

As these chicks fly from the island for the first time we can be encouraged that our action in adaptation will help serve future generations.

[Music plays and the image changes to show a photo of albatrosses nesting in the background and the CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO, Footage, NASA, University of Western Australia, Red Baron Drone, The Tree Projects, Special Thanks, Rocky Stephen, Uncle William Stephen, Michael Passi, Albatross work in partnership with DPIPWE, Music, A Hidden Place by Blake Ewing, Autatron by Matt Fax, Enter In by Tony Anderson, Neon Sun by Jacob Montague, Community by Max LL, Always You by Matt Fax, Embrace by Roary, Autonoe by A.M. Architect, Blaze by Airplanes, Reborn by David A. Molina, Morning Texture by the Field Tapes, Daydream in A for Piano by Eric Kinny, The Determined by Michael Cameneti, Larchmont by Wild Pony]

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Marine climate responses case study

  • Marine systems are undergoing rapid environmental change, with some of the largest climate-driven changes happening in the Southern Hemisphere. We are researching the impact of these threats on fisheries and aquaculture to ensure a sustainable industry.

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