The RV Solander at Mermaid Reef,Western Australia.Image: Eric Matson.

AIMS' new 35m research vessel, RV Solander , got her first big workout in December 2007 with a 17-day scientific survey of three atolls in the Rowley Shoals Marine Park, including Mermaid Reef National Marine Nature Reserve, about 260km west-north-west of Broome. The project was in collaboration with the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) Western Australia and Charles Darwin University, Darwin.

The Rowley Shoals is the southern-most group of oceanic atolls off the Australian northwest coast. They are special due to their pristine condition, preserved by their remote location and marine park status. Reefs further north, although protected, have all suffered some level of impact through fishing. Scott and Seringapatam Reefs are fished legally by traditional Indonesian fishermen under a memorandum of understanding between Australia and Indonesia, but the concentrated fishing has had a heavy impact.

The pristine condition of the Rowley Shoals provides the best comparison with which to judge the degree of impact on other reefs in the region and to assist in their management. For example, sharks were found to be very abundant around all reefs in the Rowley Shoals in contrast to their near total absence around similar reefs open to traditional fishermen. Similar differences were found in the stocks of important invertebrates like sea cucumbers, green lip snails and giant clams.

Solander's maiden voyage confirmed the Rowley Shoals as a global benchmark for coral reef conservation. After the surveys, the DEC marine parks managers expressed confidence that the Shoals will continue to tell them what a pristine reef atoll is supposed to look like in this bioregion.