Nicole Flint

Nicole Flint

Dr Nicole Flint is a Research Fellow at CQUniversity. Originally a fish biologist, her current research focuses on improving monitoring, assessment and management of aquatic environments, particularly through the development of effective environmental indicators for diverse regional waterways. Recent projects include: developing a mud crab indicator for Gladstone Harbour, fish health indicators for agricultural and industrial waters, an Ecosystem Health Index for the Fitzroy Basin Report Card, improving monitoring efficiency in large river catchments, a review of water quality in Queensland’s ports, and case studies of river stewardship in the agriculture and resource industries.

A Framework for Selecting Fish Health Indicators for Ports and Estuaries in Northern Australia

Ports are vital to international trade, but can have unintended impacts on coastal environments. Impacts can be more pronounced in ports that are situated in estuaries, transitional systems that are vulnerable to terrestrial inputs. With increasing public interest in the resilience of rivers and estuaries, report cards have become a popular means of compiling information from a range of indicators, selected to evaluate the condition of a complex environment yet be easily communicated. Fish are key biological indicators, as they are continuously exposed, ubiquitous in aquatic ecosystems and play a variety of important ecological roles. They are also readily identified by non-experts and have high socioeconomic importance. Whilst water quality and other abiotic indicators are usually monitored regularly, biological indicators such as fish health have not been monitored consistently in northern Australia’s ports and estuaries, and standard methods for doing so are not well developed. The development of fish health indicators requires careful consideration of factors such as fish mobility on seasonal and diel time scales, data availability, resource constraints, availability of expertise and equipment, and monitoring objectives. We developed a guiding framework for selecting and monitoring fish health indicators for estuaries and ports in northern Australia. Using a clear and systematic framework for decision making provides accountability and transparency, which is particularly important when developing programs that will be communicated broadly to stakeholders and the community. Our decision framework is designed to allow for the inclusion of additional techniques and parameters that may be required by specific monitoring projects. Consistent monitoring of at least some indicators and species across multiple estuaries and ports of northern Australia would provide a valuable tool for long term spatio-temporal comparisons of fish health, and a baseline understanding of the prevalence of pathologies and pathogens in northern Australia’s unique estuarine and inshore fish species.

Effective Biological Indicators for River Health Report Cards

Biological indicators have long been used in waterway monitoring programs as living water quality gauges, accounting for multiple cumulative and even synergistic impacts. Since the early 1900s scientists have sampled, counted and tested fish, invertebrates, amphibians and aquatic plants to better understand waterway condition. During the 1990s there were renewed calls for biological assessments of river ‘health’ in water quality guidelines. However, despite their obvious relevance to monitoring programs, there are challenges associated with using biological indicators.

While well reported in both the national and international literature, some of these challenges have again become apparent in regional Queensland. As the environmental impacts of historical and current land uses accrue, decision makers and the public have demanded scientifically robust assessments of waterway condition and an innovation communication solution has arisen in the form of regional report cards. The specific objectives of individual report cards may vary, but generally aim to communicate relative environmental performance, and facilitate the conversion of ecological indicators into a management tool.

Environmental reporting should be adaptive, scientifically current, linked to clear objectives, responsive to changing values and capable of guiding management actions and interventions. Biological indicators can help to meet these aims. Despite this, report cards in data poor regional areas may experience difficulties incorporating biological indicators in a robust and regionally relevant way.

This presentation will use case study examples to explore the value of biological indicators, the specific requirements associated with their use in report cards, challenges for their application in rural and regional areas, and some considerations to help improve their relevance as indicators of river and estuary condition. While there are a range of complexities associated with developing and monitoring biological indicators, they provide a much more comprehensive picture of ecosystem status than can be gleaned from physicochemical indicators alone.

View 2018 Presentation here

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