In 2008 AIMS commenced a comprehensive research program with Woodside Energy Ltd and its Joint Venture Partners at Scott Reef. This three year Scott Reef Research Project (SRRP) builds on 15 years of previous co-invested research and focuses on the processes influencing the ecology of the reef. There are three specific projects: 1) shallow-water coral and fish communities; 2) deep-water (30-70m) benthic communities, and 3) physical and biological oceanography (20-200m). Many aspects of the SRRP field work required innovative technology and new methods and procedures, ranging from the transition from SCUBA to Surface Supplied Breathing Apparatus, deploying instrument arrays, and sampling deep-water plankton and coral, while continually reviewing operational health and safety.
Vast amounts of data have been collected over three years of field work, totaling over 450 days at sea. Examples of these data include:
- The reproductive state of over 5000 corals quantified and over 3500 colonies tagged and re-surveyed annually;
- Hundreds of coral colonies sampled for genetic and physiological studies using ROV technology from beyond safe diving depths of over 50m;
- 44 instrument arrays deployed around shallow and deep-water habitats at roughly 3 month intervals, logging hundreds of hours of data;
- Plankton communities sampled and photographed across hundreds of meters of depth using new technology.
The final field trip to Scott Reef is in October 2010 and the final report summarizing the work across the three research projects is due in June 2011.
To date, results indicate that:
- Benthic communities in shallow water (<20m) are resilient to natural disturbances, due to periods of high growth and survival and high water quality;
- The fish communities respond to the changes in the benthos, but may also be influenced by unregulated fishing;
- Biological communities rely primarily on local populations to seed recovery after disturbances;
- There are extensive areas of high coral cover in the deep lagoon of south Scott Reef, dominated by flat plate growth forms, and these communities are unique within the region;
- Deep water corals exist at 1% of surface light by using a variety of adaptations that rely on high water quality for success;
- Internal waves up to 110m in height in the deep-water channel between north and south Scott Reef inject nutrients into the lagoon and stimulate plankton growth, but these are primarily bacteria and viruses that cycle daily within the water column and do not fall to the deep-water benthos as a food sour
- With the completion of field work in 2010, Scott Reef will be one of the most intensively studied oceanic reefs.