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Dredging Science Node

The Challenge

The combined volume of dredging in Western Australia in recent years reached over 200 million m3 at a cost of some $10 billion – enormous figures even by world standards. Dredging at such scales presents huge challenges in reliably predicting and managing the effects of dredging to minimise its impact on the environment. This has been particularly so for the remote and sensitive areas in northwestern Australia, where most of the dredging occurred and where the understanding of the ecology and diversity has been poor. This predictive uncertainty has led to major delays in environmental approvals, over-conservative regulation and imposition of onerous and costly monitoring requirements.

Approach

Recognising the importance of the need to improve the confidence with which dredging impacts can be predicted and managed, industry and government agreed to pool $9.5 million of offset funds to deliver an unprecedented tailor-made, dredging-specific science program. This collaborative research program, known as the “Dredging Science Node”, was facilitated by the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI). The results of the research would lead to a better understanding of the system and be translated directly into guidelines to help reduce the uncertainty associated with Environmental Impact Assessment and management of dredging impacts.

To augment the unique opportunity provided by the collaborative program, industry partners also agreed to share with the researchers - through data sharing agreements with WAMSI – their marine environmental monitoring datasets worth $250 million collected during four large capital dredging projects (Pluto, Cape Lambert, Gorgon and Wheatstone). Until recently these data were treated as “commercial in confidence” and were unavailable to scientists. Also, there was no capacity within government to collate and analyse them. The data-sharing agreement constituted an extraordinary breakthrough, as environmental monitoring data of this scale and detail had never been made publicly available before in Western Australia.

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Integrated research coordinated across nine themes

The science plan and research themes of the node have been designed to fill a very large gap in our understanding of how dredging activities effect the marine environment.  The key areas of research include:

  • Compiling the collective knowledge of dredging impacts for the Pilbara (Theme 1)
  • Predicting and measuring the characteristics of sediments generated by dredging (Theme 2)
  • Characterisation and prediction of dredge-generated sediment plume dynamics and fate (Theme 3)
  • Defining thresholds and indicators of response by corals, seagrasses and filter-feeders to dredging-related pressures (Themes 4, 5 and 6)
  • Effects of dredging-related pressures on critical ecological processes for corals, finfish and other organisms (Themes 7, 8 and 9)

The second phase of this program involved a suite of field and laboratory-based investigations is almost complete. These investigations address gaps identified in the Stage 1 literature reviews of dredging impacts and, importantly, are informed by the analyses of field data collected during dredging projects carried out in the Pilbara and provided by Industry. These analyses allowed the actual intensity, frequency and duration of dredging-related pressures to be quantified for the first time and to design and undertake laboratory experiments to determine the response of biota to realistic exposure conditions.

Stage 3 synthesis. This stage involved within theme and across theme integration of the key findings and translation of these findings into clear and fit-for-purpose guidelines and protocols to improve the ability to predict and manage the impacts of dredging in tropical coral reef ecosystems.

This represents a significant step-change in the readily available information for dredging in Western Australia and the nation.

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A unique collaborative initiative between government and industry

Dredging is a critical enabler for the export of raw materials from the Pilbara that continues to drive the Australian economy. Over the last decade there has been an unprecedented level of dredging in Western Australia, and the size of some of these projects are enormous by world standards.

However, the ability to predict and manage the impacts of dredging is very poor worldwide. We're no better-placed in that regard here in Western Australia.

The WAMSI dredging node is the direct response to this uncertainty. A remarkable collaboration between industry, government and research will not only allow the scale of research required to be delivered, but also ensure a strong focus on delivering outcomes and real world change.

Our Dredging Science Node was made possible through $9.5 million invested by Woodside, Chevron and BHP as environmental offsets. A further $9.5 million has been co-invested by the WAMSI Joint Venture partners, adding significantly more value to this initial industry investment.

Extraordinary sharing of data

In addition to the funding provided, our industry partners have generously shared hundreds of millions of dollars worth of environmental monitoring data. By providing access to this usually confidential data, Woodside, Rio Tinto Iron Ore and Chevron have enabled WAMSI researchers to better understand the real-world impacts of major dredging projects, and therefore how they can best be managed. Rio Tinto's voluntary contribution is particularly noteworthy, as they were one of the funding contributors to the Node.

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