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Counting Fish From Space

September 19, 2011

 

A young research scientist who has studied fish from outer space in order to help predict the future of our coral reefs and their fish stocks is this year´s winner of a prestigious science prize.

Dr Nick Graham of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University is this year´s laureate in the Life Sciences & Biological Sciences category of the Scopus Young Researcher of the Year Awards.

The Scopus Awards are presented annually by Universities Australia, the international science publisher Elsevier and the Scopus scientific citation index, and reflect in part how widely a researcher´s work influences other scientists.

Nick says he is an optimist about the ability of humans to use the latest research to better manage Australia´s and the world´s coral reefs  – and keep at least some of them intact through the coming period of massive change.

“A major focus of my work has been on the impact of climate change on entire reef ecosystems, from coral assemblages to fish assemblages – and the benefits they provide to humans,” he explains. This has shown that the loss of live coral due to bleaching leads to reduced biodiversity and changes in the size of fish, ultimately resulting in poorer fish catches as well as changes in how the reef functions.
 
“I have also worked on how long it takes fish stocks to recover if you impose a no-take zone on a reef. The answer is around 20 years for full recovery of fish biomass, but the good news is that depleted fish populations can recover with the right management.”

In the Indian Ocean Nick and colleagues observed fish populations of 50-100 kilos of fish per hectare recover to around 1200 kilos in areas which were closed to fishing.

In recent, eye-catching, work Nick used satellites to study the architecture of coral reefs from space, as a novel tool for predicting the nature and abundance of fish populations.

“My current research is looking into how degraded coral reefs can recover. This is of real importance to tourism, fishing and tropical coastal communities like those of Australia´s Great Barrier Reef, which is worth $6 billion a year, or the nations of the Coral Triangle, Pacific and Indian Ocean.”

Nick´s work has helped several countries to better plan their management of coral reefs and fish stocks. He has been consulted on national marine policy decisions, and is co-author of influential policy reports. 

He began his science career studying zoology at the University of Newcastle in the UK, after a brief spell SCUBA diving on the Great Barrier Reef which inspired him with a love of coral reefs and their brilliant fishes.

Nick spent three months in the Philippines in 1998, where “I learnt for the first time just how bad the plight of coral reefs is, and what this potentially means for the millions of people that depend on them”.

Here he witnessed a horrific episode of bleaching — caused by warming waters. “I watched as the coral turned white and much of it died. I returned to the UK with a determination to try to find some solutions to these many problems.”

Nick pursued his Masters degree in coral reef ecology at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland. “Many of the best coral reef scientists in the world are based at JCU and it was a wonderful opportunity to greatly advance my knowledge of coral reef ecology and fisheries before returning to the UK.”

Subsequent research took him to several countries in the Indian Ocean, such as the Seychelles, Kenya, Mauritius and the Chagos Archipelago.

On completing his PhD in 2008, he returned to Australia as a research fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, where he is still based and continues to work in both the Indian Ocean and on the Great Barrier Reef.

Image Caption: Dr Nick Graham. Photo: Cameron Laird.

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Source: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University