Posted on 25 February 2019

Developing novel tools for monitoring estuary health

Monitoring organisms in estuaries can give a picture of the ecosystem’s health and its response to human impacts and disturbance. Marine ecologist Dana Clark (Cawthron Insitute/University of Waikato) is investigating whether molecular tools can be used for coastal monitoring and management. 

Dana is using a technique known as environmental DNA (eDNA) metabarcoding to identify species from genetic fragments in estuarine sediment. The approach has potential as a cost-effective, rapid and reliable option for comprehensive environmental assessment, and Dana’s research is testing whether it can be used for routine monitoring.

Currently, coastal health is determined by identifying and counting animals, such as shellfish and worms that live within the seafloor sediments. While these are valuable indicators, the approach is time consuming, expensive and requires taxonomic expertise. Molecular tools could complement these methods, while detecting other critically important organisms, such as bacteria, which are known to be sensitive indicators of environmental change.

As part of the Tipping Points research project, funded through the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge, information was gathered from 15 estuaries across New Zealand. These experiments provide an opportunity for Dana to test whether eDNA metabarcoding can detect the effects of nutrient enrichment on a coastal ecosystem. Results from this study will be the first step towards developing molecular monitoring tools for estuaries in New Zealand.

Dana’s research relates specifically to estuaries. She is using eDNA to find out whether there are key changes in seafloor biodiversity that could indicate that estuaries are becoming enriched. This is important because excess nutrients in estuaries can lead to a decline in overall ecosystem health.

Dr Michael Knapp and a team the University of Otago are also researching eDNA monitoring techniques, but they are focused more broadly on monitoring biodiversity in the ocean. Both research projects will help decision makers to carry out effective biodiversity monitoring.   

If you are interested in finding out more about eDNA monitoring techniques you can register for Dr Knapp’s webinar on 27 March. In the webinar, Dr Knapp will talk about the current methods for measuring marine biodiversity and how new research is helping to simplify and potentially reduce the costs of species monitoring. The webinar will cover accuracy, affordability, repeatability and other practical considerations for implementation of new monitoring tools developed and/or tested by Dr Knapp and the team.  The webinar is open to everyone but will be of particular interest to science, policy and operational staff working in the fields of marine biodiversity, invasive marine species monitoring or marine conservation.

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Tipping points in ecosystem structure, function and services
Tipping points in ecosystem structure, function and services

We investigated how marine ecosystems respond to change, and identified tipping points, risks and ways of managing them.