Southern Ocean ecosystems: Environmental change and conservation

An octopus (left) glides through an underwater garden of corals, sponges and starfish.
An octopus (left) glides through an underwater garden of corals, sponges and starfish. (Photo: AAD)

Like marine ecosystems world-wide, the Southern Ocean faces many threats and conservation issues as a result of physical, chemical and biological changes. These changes are already occurring and will continue to occur because of fishing, climate change and ocean acidification. Changes to Southern Ocean ecosystems have consequences for the global carbon cycle, the conservation of threatened and depleted marine species and for the sustainable exploitation of fisheries.

Scientific research under this theme is helping scientists understand the impact of global change on Southern Ocean ecosystems, the effective conservation of Antarctic and Southern Ocean wildlife and the sustainable, ecosystem-based management of Southern Ocean fisheries.

The research is divided into four streams:

The health and conservation of Southern Ocean ecosystems is important to a number of international treaty bodies and inter-governmental initiatives, including the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This theme will address strategic needs identified by these peak bodies, as well as national priorities.

Read more about the Theme goals in the Science Strategic Plan.

Theme leaders:  Dr Andrew Constable and Dr Bill de la Mare


Dr Andrew Constable - Southern Ecosystems Change Theme Leader

Video transcript

My name is Andrew Constable. I am a theme leader in the Australian Antarctic science program responsible for studying Southern Ocean ecosystems and that theme has a number of elements. The first element is to understand how southern ocean ecosystems are responding to climate change. The second thing is to look at how do we conserve whales, albatross and other species like that? And then a big responsibility is how do you manage fisheries in the Southern Ocean so as they remain ecologically sustainable?

One of the main parts of our work is to do field work in the Southern Ocean. That involves going to sea on ships for maybe up to three months at a time and what we try to do there is we are sampling the animals and plants in the ocean to better understand how they work with the ocean, what sort of impacts changes in the ocean might have and in particular what things might happen as a result of climate change.

The last thing that we do is we try to look at undertaking laboratory studies that help us better understand the exact mechanisms of impact. That is how we know about the effects of acidification on krill, for example. That was done here at the Australian Antarctic Division.

For example we know the Southern Ocean ecosystem is becoming more acidic which there are some animals at the bottom end of the food chain, they’re not doing so well. So krill, for example, their embryos don’t survive very well in a super acidic environment.

One of the big challenges is being able to do science at a sufficiently large scale, so operating ships or being able to sample in many different places that give us very good information that we can feed into our models and basically help management make the right decisions.

The more we are able to forecast what is going to happen in the future, the more that we can adjust our management practices and the more that we can make better decisions in advance and make sure that fisheries remain ecologically sustainable.

I’m never bored. It’s a fantastic place to work, the work is very challenging, one of the great things about this work is the people that I work with. It is those partnerships that matter. That’s what makes the science very enjoyable and we can overcome the challenges together. In the end it will be a community enterprise to overcome these challenges and to better understand what we have in the future.

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This page was last updated on 28 July 2015.