2023 Impact Circle Grant Awarded to Houtman Abrolhos Islands Field Trip

07 Aug 2023

The Foundation for the WA Museum’s Impact Circle donors have awarded the 2023 Impact Circle Grant to a faunal and maritime archaeological survey of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. 

At an event held on 3 August at WA Museum Boola Bardip, the Foundation for the WA Museum’s Impact Circle donors voted for the project they wanted to see supported at the Western Australian Museums this year. The 2023 Impact Circle Grant was awarded to the project “From new species to shipwrecks: targeted marine faunal and maritime archaeological survey of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands”, represented by Dr Lisa Kirkendale, Head of Aquatic Zoology and Molluscs Curator.

Dr Kirkendale told the Impact Circle donors about the urgency of this project in light of a 2022 coral bleaching event, and fears of a further coral bleaching event this summer, which makes a comprehensive biodiversity assessment of the area absolutely time-critical.

While the other two projects vying for the 2023 Grant – “Sydney to Sound: One Ship, Four Stories”, and “Otto’s Symphony”, passionately represented by Catherine Salmaggi and Helen Simondson respectively – also captured the imagination of the donors, the sense of urgency of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands expedition ultimately won the day.

“I would like to congratulate Dr Lisa Kirkendale, Dr Ross Anderson and the Western Australian Museum’s Aquatic Zoology and Maritime Archaeology teams, who will be collaborating on the biodiversity survey and shipwreck inspection during the field trip. This is such an important example of how WA Museum contributes to the knowledge of biodiversity and our environment. I’d like to thank all our Impact Circle donors who support these important projects.” commented Coralie Bishop, the CEO of the Foundation for the WA Museum.

About the Project

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands represent a marine transition zone where tropical and temperate fauna overlap. Renowned as the most southerly coral reefs in Western Australia, these islands host vibrant coral ecosystems that grow in concert with luxurious temperate algal communities. Together, these habitat-forming taxa sustain the regionally important crayfish industry along with various commercial aquaculture, the aquarium industry and eco-tourism ventures.

Situated approximately 60 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton, the Houtman Abrolhos Archipelago is the Indian Ocean’s southernmost true coral reef. It supports almost 200 species of coral, over 380 species of fish, a huge diversity of echinoderms and other marine invertebrates, and the northern-most population of Australian sea lions.

The Western Australian Museum has conducted marine biodiversity surveys of the Abrolhos Islands for nearly 60 years. However, it has been over 25 years since a comprehensive multi-taxa survey was undertaken there.

Over a 14-day field trip, this project will undertake a biodiversity assessment of the major marine groups, studying fishes, molluscs, crustaceans, cnidarians, echinoderms, and poorly known and understudied fauna such as micro-molluscs.

Any potential changes in biodiversity may be identified by historical data comparison to the new faunal collections. In addition, the collection and preservation of new material in DNA-friendly ways will unlock additional opportunities to use modern genetic and genomic tools to detect new species.

Maritime archaeologists from the WA Museum will join the Aquatic Zoology team on the field trip, working together to support marine biota studies as well as further investigation and monitoring of historically significant underwater cultural heritage sites.

The Maritime Heritage team aims to assess, and record select shipwreck sites in the Abrolhos, ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries. In-water surveys will allow wrecks that have not been visited before to be assessed for the first time. This information will contribute to the Museum’s established wreck inspection program focussing on sites that have been previously difficult to access.

The field trip will help discover species new to science, collect genetic information to improve the WA Museum’s understanding of the existing collection and assess vulnerable underwater marine heritage to improve the understanding of shipwreck sites.

View the event photo gallery here.