Research Topic: Impact of Oil and Dispersants on Sub-Tidal Seagrass
Supervisors: Assoc Prof Peter Ralph and Prof Greg Skilbeck, UTS
PhD conferred: 2011
Interview with a researcher
Growing up within easy reach of the Australian coast and its waterways Kim Wilson witnessed first- hand the negative, environmental impact of human settlement and industrial development.
“I saw the pollution and I also saw that a lot of people accepted it. I didn’t think this was right, something could be done and so I’ve pursued a career in environmental science in the hope I can make a difference,” she says.
It looks as though this hope will become a reality sooner rather than later. This young researcher may be softly spoken and unassuming about her work but the hard data she has grafted out of, often, cold and murky coastal waters will have an immediate application. Over the past four years Kim has been investigating the impact of different types of oil, and the chemicals used to disperse them, on the seagrass meadows that populate the shallow waters around our busy shipping lanes and foreshores. Her project is funded jointly by industry and government as part of the Australian Marine Safety Authority’s National Plan (AMSA) - an organisational framework enabling an effective response to marine pollution incidents.
Seagrasses are flowering plants that inhabit coastal waters. They have immense global value, providing a habitat for a whole range of species and acting as sediment stabilisers and biochemical modifiers of their local environment via nutrient cycling. Authorities are sensitive to both the damage that accidental oil spills can cause as well as the impact of any potential cleanup operations.
“It’s often a real dilemma. If you don’t use a dispersant the oil slick can get carried into the mangroves and onto the shoreline, the oil is more ‘sticky’ which is bad for sea birds. However the effect of dispersants on the seagrass as well as the organisms and sediments below is largely unknown. What is the net environmental effect? This study allows us to broaden our knowledge enormously,” she says.
To get this knowledge Kim set up Perspex chambers in Kurnell, in Sydney, and Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, and exposed the seagrass within to oil and dispersant over a 10 hour period. Crude oil and fuel oil were used as examples of likely oil spill scenarios. Photosynthetic stress was measured using fluorometry (PAM) and the hydrocarbon content in the water around the seagrass was also measured.
“The field days were interesting. I did this in summer and winter and when the tides were deep I just hoped there were no sharks around. I did feel one head butt my leg, but fortunately that was all,” she says.
Kim also replicated the experiment in the laboratory with the aim of bringing the development of a quick and cheap testing protocol one step closer.
“Previous research had mixed results. Laboratory testing is cheaper and we can test more species and use different scales, for example microalgae and single leaves,” she says.
There are good signs that Kim’s thesis will have important applications in oil spill management.
“Early indications are that dispersants have minimal impact on seagrass and this will mean that oil spill mitigation managers will have more confidence to use them to protect the environment. There is a small window of opportunity to make the decision to use dispersants so it’s important to have the science to guide AMSA. If an effective laboratory testing protocol can be developed then we will be really getting close to solving a worldwide problem,” she says
Kim believes that the depth of experience of her supervisors was a big factor in the decision to come to UTS and said that the ongoing support of UTS, AMSA and other members of the National Plan has been “brilliant”.
“Before I came to UTS I could see the work Peter had done on seagrass, and with PAM techniques, so I really felt I would be in very safe hands. The subsequent encouragement to attend, and present at, conferences has been important for my professional development,” she says.
As Kim nears the final stages of “writing up” she can start to plan the next phase of her professional career.
“I have really enjoyed the industry collaboration and the practical aspects of the project and I would also like to continue with the teaching and demonstrating I’ve been doing at UTS in the Department of Environmental Sciences. I definitely want to work in the marine area, possibly do a post-doc, but I think I’ll move onto tropical waters, somewhere where the water is warm,” she says.
Seagrass meadow on shoreline Spot the fish - seagrass habitat,
Botany Bay, NSW
2003 Bachelor of Applied Science with Honours (First Class)
Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW
National Marine Science Centre, Coffs Harbour, NSW
Demonstrator for The Biosphere (2008 - 09)
Demonstrator for Biocomplexity (2008)
Demonstrator for Cells, Genetics & Evolution (2006 -07)
Tutor for Environmental Management (2007)
Demonstrator for Biodiversity (2005 - 06)
Demonstrator for Resource Assessment Techniques (2003)
Demonstrator for Ecology (2003)
International Oil Spill Conference 2008 - Savannah, Georgia USA
National Plan to Combat Pollution of the Sea - Environmental Working Group Workshop: 2007 and 2008
Wilson, K. G. and Ralph, P. J. (2008). The effects of oil and dispersed oil on Zostera capricorni. Proceedings of the 2008 International Oil Spill Conference.
Australian Postgraduate Award Industry Scholarship (2005 – 2009)
Australian Society of Botany and Phycology - Student Poster Award (2006)
Previous Research Work
2007: Eraring Power & HLA Consultants - Thermal stress on the seagrass Zostera capricorni.
2004: Southern Cross University/ Cape Byron Marine Parks Authority - Community Attitudes to the Cape Byron Marine Park
2002/2003: Southern Cross University/ NSW Fisheries, Port Stephens - Growth determination and reproductive biology of Trygonorrhina spp. A and Trygonorrhina fasciata, the eastern and southern fiddler rays in NSW waters.
2008- TV Interview
o Totally Wild –Channel 10