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Solving the ocean's mysteries with the world's smartest aquarium

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08 January 2013

Event: The National Sea Simulator (SeaSim) opening by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator the Hon Kim Carr on Thursday 1 August 2013 at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, North Queelsland

  • How well will the Great Barrier Reef adapt to a changing climate and more acidic oceans?
  • Why do crown-of-thorns starfish populations periodically boom?
  • Can we develop technologies to control crown-of thorns and give the Reef time to adapt to a changing climate?
  • Is coral bleaching simply a reaction to hot oceans or is something more complex happening?
  • Persuading coral to spawn out of season - can marine scientists get their Christmas holidays back, and double their productivity?
  • Will bacteria and viruses become dominant as climate change takes hold?

These are some of the issues to be tackled by SeaSim, the National Sea Simulator, opening at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville today.

The $35 million SeaSim is a research aquarium that can get closer to replicating the conditions of the open ocean; a reef lagoon; or flooding rivers, that any other facility in the world.

"It's awesome," says AIMS marine researcher Mike Hall. "When we started planning SeaSim we visited over 40 marine aquariums around the world to identify key attributes of the perfect research facility. What we've built takes the best in the world and adds new technologies and an incredible level of automation and control."

"In each tank we can automatically control many parameters – from water temperature to ocean acidification to salinity to lighting to nutrients and water quality etc."

"SeaSim will allow marine scientists the world over to test observations, assumptions and models. It will allow the development of technologies to assist aquaculture and fisheries management."

"It's not the be-all – it still has walls unlike the open ocean. But it will fast track marine discovery."

"Fighting the crown-of-thorns starfish is one of the highest priorities for SeaSim," says John Gunn, the AIMS CEO. "We need to understand why starfish populations periodically boom leading to massive reef destruction. Is it due to nutrients in flood waters or are more complex factors at play?"

"Crown-of-thorns talk to each other with chemicals – they gather in groups and they ‘run away' when predators such as the Giant Triton move in to feed on them. Could we use those chemical signals to trick starfish into congregating or dispersing – making physical removal easier? We hope to answer these and many other questions about the starfish with the help of SeaSim," says John Gunn.

Other projects include:

  • The synchronised annual spawning of many coral species makes them hard to study. Many experiments can only be done once a year. With SeaSim we will be able to create small reef communities in which we can induce spawning on demand, accelerating research.
  • Coral bleaching is a growing threat to coral reefs worldwide. It's associated with rising sea temperatures. But some coral communities can survive very high temperatures, for example in lagoons. We need to understand what factors contribute to reef survivability and build those into our computer models.
  • Developing a ‘model' coral that will do for marine science what the worm C.elegans, the fruit fly, the mouse and other model organisms have done for our understanding of human biology.
  • Modelling the impact of sediment, pollution, dredging and other water quality factors on marine life.

"SeaSim is a national and international resource for all marine researchers," says John Gunn. "It will consolidate Townsville's growing reputation as a global hub for tropical marine research and transform our capacity to provide the science that government, industry, and the community need to make informed decisions about how we use and protect the oceans."

The construction of the $35 million SeaSim, was supported with capital funding from the Australian Government under the Super Science Marine and Climate initiative, and with AIMS' own resources.

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