THE FIRST exploratory tour of World Heritage-listed reef ecosystems offshore Western Australia’s Pilbara region has uncovered some examples of coral bleaching, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has announced.

CSIRO lead scientist Russ Babcock said the bleaching and decimation of the coral heads, many up to 400 years old, was “sobering.”

“We suspect this bleaching event was due to marine heatwaves that occurred in the region over the past few summers,” he said.

“But to offset this loss, some reefs only a short distance north showed much less damage and will continue to contribute to a healthy ecosystem.”

“By studying these sorts of variations and finding out why they occur, we can improve our overall understanding of the marine environment in the region, and how we can best preserve it”.

Dr Babcock and his team have recently returned from their first exploratory tour of the region, where they were scouting survey sites along the 300 kilometre swathe of coastline to be surveyed under the five year, $12 million Pilbara Marine Conservation Partnership.

The partnership, a joint venture between CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship and The University of Western Australia, will be the first whole of ecosystem study for the region’s unique marine environment.

A health and wellbeing check-up of World Heritage-listed reef ecosystems in the Pilbara region of Western Australia will provide a critical baseline of marine conditions to government, industry and researchers.

The area to be surveyed includes two major marine parks and areas under development for ports and oil and gas extraction and processing.

The study is funded by the Gorgon Project’s Net Conservation Benefit Fund, which is administered by the Western Australian Government’s Department of Parks and Wildlife.

“Our research will help government and industry balance the environmental sustainability of the Pilbara with its increasing broad sector use,” Dr Babcock said.

“Over the next five years we want to find out everything we can about the health and makeup of the region, as well as observe and evaluate any localised changes, so we can give the best possible advice to future use managers on how they can act sustainably.”

Professor Shaun Collin of the University of Western Australia’s School of Animal Biology said the study would set a precedent for future development in the Pilbara.

“This study will develop a greater understanding of the dynamics of coral and fish communities in the region, which in turn will provide us with the ecological indicators of potential human impacts,” Dr Collin said.

“With it, we can provide a research baseline for decision making in the region that will strike the right balance between environmental conservation and industry development.”

The Gorgon Project is operated by an Australian subsidiary of Chevron and is a joint venture of the Australian subsidiaries of Chevron (47.3 per cent), ExxonMobil (25%), Shell (25%), Osaka Gas (1.25%), Tokyo Gas (1%) and Chubu Electric Power (0.417%).