Plates attached to a float collect data, which is then turned into a ‘DNA soup’ to identify marine pests. (ABC North West WA: Susan Standen)
A scientific program that identifies potential marine biosecurity risks in WA ports has won a Golden Gecko environmental award.
The State Wide Array Surveillance Program (SWASP) run jointly by port authorities and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development aims to minimise the risk of introduced marine species into Australian waters from visiting ships.
SWASP helps tackle the huge challenge for port authorities of monitoring the 11,000km-long WA coastline for invasive pest species.
The Pilbara Ports Authority’s environment and heritage manager, Dan Pedersen, has been working on the science behind this unique program that effectively turns collections of marine organisms into DNA soup.
He said any introduced marine pests such as barnacles, sea-squirts or Asian green mussels could be picked up outside Australian waters and spawn inside WA ports if not detected, threatening local wildlife and industry.
Organisms found on plates
Collecting introduced marine species is relatively simple.
SWASP uses settlement plates, about the size of a beer coaster, mounted to a float to collect the data.
“Twice a year, summer and winter, we’ll hang these into the water and those eight plates will sit in the water for a period of two months, then during those two months they’ll accumulate marine growth,” Mr Pedersen said.
“The really interesting part where the science really happens is when we take those plates off, we freeze them and we send them down to scientists in the Department of Fisheries.
Scientists scrape off any organisms from the plates and blend them up into a “DNA soup”.
“Millions upon millions of strands of DNA sit in the soup,” Mr Pedersen said.
The soup then gets sent to Curtin University where it is put into a next-generation DNA sequencing machine.
DNA strands are then compared with the reference library of more than 70 introduced marine pests to find any matches.
SWASP then considers whether anything in the DNA soup is an early stage of an introduced marine pest growing in the port.
Action taken at sea
New technologies, such as UV sterilisation, are also being used to treat ballast far out to sea.
Visiting ships are now required to undertake mid-ocean exchanges of their ballast, mandated for any international vessels entering our ports.
“Imagine a vessel sitting in waters off Singapore somewhere — it can collect marine growth like an Asian green mussel,” Mr Pedersen said.
“When that green mussel reaches maturity, and the vessel comes to visit Australia, it can then spawn and establish here.
“What this program has told us, which is the really positive thing, is that the processes and management practices we’ve got in place are being effective, as we haven’t identified an introduced marine pest species of concern in the port of Dampier to date.”
Mr Pedersen said the program had also enhanced communications between authorities, leading to a proactive approach to understanding marine pest management risks.
The award recognises that the program uses innovation to give cost-effective, accurate data that can lead to early detection and identification, making it possible to manage the vast coastline of WA.