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What Lies Beneath? An Interview with Marine Ecologist David Booth

By Ale Torres and Nicola Saltman on January 11, 2019 in Other

A weedy seadragon kicking back in the waters around Kurnell, by John Turnbull

If you’re anything like us, being near, on and in the ocean brings pure happiness. For David Booth, Professor of Marine Ecology at UTS, it’s been a life-long passion and professional research playground.

We asked the eminent scientist and advocate of sustainable fisheries and marine parks to give us the scoop on some of his discoveries in Sydney waters. It’s worth a ponder while you’re out enjoying coastal activities this summer…

Why do you love what you do?

I get to work with young people who are committed to saving the world, I pass the ocean message through media and public lectures and I occasionally get to jump in the ocean and study fish.

Sydney boasts over 600 fish species, more than New Zealand or coastal Europe, including iconic ones like the weedy seadragon, which we have studied since 2001 (you can spot them in waters around Kurnell).

What is one of the most amazing things you have ever seen whilst researching underwater?

I recently did a dive off Sydney Harbour to observe the newly growing branching corals and the amazing coral reef fish they support. The branching corals
are deep green in colour and with ocean climate change we can expect more of them. However, this won’t compensate for the impending climate change-related losses on the Great Barrier Reef.

What are the main changes you’ve seen at local beaches and harbours over the last decade or so?

The good news is, due to better sewage treatment and more controlled land runoff, I’ve seen big improvements in the water quality in places like Sydney Harbour.

However, I’ve seen more plastic rubbish accumulating in our shallow coastal waters and beaches, as seen in our studies of cigarette butt impacts on coastal intertidal zones. We’ve monitored coral reef fish influx (the ‘Nemo Effect’) into Sydney over 18 years and some species, such as surgeonfishes, have heavily increased in the last five years, which is clearly linked to climate change and warmer waters.

How can what’s happening under the water impact our lives on land?

The ocean is a source of food for many, and we are seeing declines in fish stocks even in Australia. The ocean is a huge climate sink and CO2 emissions are not being fully absorbed by the oceans; this has affected our climate on land. Climate change is affecting the intensity of cyclones and east coast lows, one of which devastated Sydney’s coast in June 2016.

Name three simple things that people can do to help protect what lies beneath the surface of our oceans?

1. Keep agitating your local MP to take a strong stance on climate change; letting go of coal is a big part of that as well as protecting our oceans.

2. Reduce waste, especially plastics and how they are disposed.

3. Join an active local environmental group, like NSW Underwater Research Group (one of Australia’s oldest dive clubs).

Get along to Waverley Council’s coastal celebration, SUMMERA- MA, for a fun day of music and free activities at Bronte Beach on January 20. To book, visit bronte- summerama.eventbrite.com.au.

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