A MARINE research partnership between the CSIRO and BHP Billiton Petroleum will focus on wildlife studies at Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef.

The five-year, jointly-funded $5 million research program will include both deep and shallow reef research, turtle and shark tagging, a PhD scholarship scheme and opportunities to engage the local community, including BHP Billiton Petroleum employees, in Exmouth, WA.

BHP Billiton will commit $2.6 million to the program, set to start early this year, which will also include three PhD scholarships to help support the next generation of scientists.

In a joint announcement, the company said the funding formed part of its voluntary community contributions, and was not linked to either a statutory requirement or any licensing conditions.

BHP Billiton Petroleum general manager Doug Handyside said the company was looking to support areas of national and international conservation significance, adding the investment would help the oil and gas industry to better understand the reef and help target conservation efforts.

“We are dedicated to ensuring the knowledge on which we base our operational decisions is entrenched in science,” he said.

“The partnership between CSIRO and BHP Billiton supports this valuable scientific research to provide baseline data on the condition of the ecological values of the reef, which will allow assessments over time to determine any changes.

“This enables us to uphold our commitment to operate in the most environmentally responsible manner possible.”

Ningaloo Reef is the largest fringing reef in the world, extending for 300 kilometres along the northwest coast of Australia.

CSIRO executive director environment Andrew Johnson said the research would deliver the fundamental knowledge required to manage increasing and varied uses in the Ningaloo region.

“Our research presence at Ningaloo is now entering its tenth year, so we are very aware of the reef ’s many uses – it is the way we manage and balance these different uses which is key to sustainable development,” Dr Johnson said.

“We intend to work closely with the Exmouth community throughout the project, to understand their needs and to build their knowledge of the local marine environment.”

The program follows the successful BHP Billiton Petroleum investment in the Ningaloo Atlas Research program, and builds on CSIRO’s extensive decade-long shallow coral reef and fauna research and turtle tracking using satellite and acoustic technology.