Clever fish – Yellowfin Bream Individuality

For the first time, yellowfin bream has been recorded grasping and manoeuvring shells, pebbles, leaves and sticks in search for hidden prey.

TropWATER scientists, Dr Brendan Ebner, who captured the behavioural footage, said this kind of foraging strategy has been reported in other species such as wrasses on coral reefs, logperch in Northern America and grunters in Australian freshwaters – but this is the first record of an estuarine bream doing this behaviour.

“Yellowfin bream are a popular fish for recreational fishers along the east coast of Australia and are renowned as wily critters. It’s no surprise to see this species has this clever foraging strategy,” he said.

The observations including a video clip are published in the journal Food Webs. In the brief article, Dr Ebner speculates that global shifts in oyster production may have had far reaching impacts on food webs in ways that are not fully appreciated.

Ebner, B. C. (2021). Yellowfin bream, Acanthopagrus australis, reorientate individual shells in search of prey. Food Webs, 29, e00216.

Dissecting the Dishonourable Catfish from the Tablelands Trophy Fishery

The recent 2021 Barra Bash at Lake Tinaroo was about angler participation and the elusive big barramundi, but emerging citizen scientists also investigated an unwanted species that has become established in the reservoir. The annual fishing tournament is a premier event on the north Queensland angling calendar and is run superbly by the Tableland Fish Stocking Society.
This year junior anglers rallied behind the call to collect forktail catfish. Across the tournament 448 catfish were landed. One hundred of these specimens will be used for scientific purposes with a subsample already dissected by young anglers with the assistance of TropWATER fish ecologist, Dr Ebner (Ebb).
Junior anglers that took the opportunity to perform a dissection or preferred to watch, got the opportunity to check out a bit more of what is underneath the bonnet of Neoarius graffeii aka forktail catfish. This included measuring several bits and pieces including length, mouth size and gut length. Then it was down to business assessing stomach and intestine contents looking at bugs, redclaw and fish remains among other things. Ear bones were also extracted from the fish for later use in determining their age. In a couple of cases, the fish had well developed ovaries and the large eggs of the catfish were also measured. This led to wonderful conversations about the biology of this catfish species and native catfishes more generally.

Citizen scientist, Joel Nobelius, relished the opportunity to dissect a forktail catfish and is shown here measuring egg diameter (Photo: B. Ebner)

There were several vibrant exchanges of knowledge among the Tableland Fish Stocking Society members, the junior anglers, mums, dads, and a chatty scientist. Tournament organisers had a wealth of information on the history of the fishery, and the biology of the fishes, and the focus on catfish is now part of community dialogue regarding the established benefits of legal stockings of important target species such as the mighty barramundi, but also the risks and disbenefits of illegal and accidental stockings thanks to the unwanted forktail catfish.
Ebb noted that the project is being run by the Tablelands Regional Council and the initiative was developed with the help of Barron Catchment Care, the Tableland Fish Stocking Society, and a visiting scientist from the Australian National University. The next step is to investigate samples and work with the angling community to create awareness about pest fish issues in the region. Specifically, the goal is to expand knowledge of pest fishes beyond the well-known cases of tilapia invasion in the Wet Tropics. The work is proudly supported by the Queensland Government—Queensland Citizen Science Grants. Anglers are reminded they are legally allowed to be in possession of 20 forktail catfish.

Competitive Summer Internship and Industry Placement with $2,000 bursary – Cairns/Townsville/Mackay

How would you like to join forces with an award winning university and industry partnership for a unique career-enhancing opportunity in marine science and environmental management?

James Cook University’s TropWATER and North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation (NQBP) are offering a one-of-a-kind opportunity for just two JCU students (undergraduate, honours or post-graduate) who are interested to pursue a career in marine science or postgraduate research.

What’s on offer

  • A four-week industry-research placement with JCU and NQBP
  • A bursary of $2,000 to help fund flights/travel during the internship
  • One week accommodation in Mackay will be covered by NQBP during the placement
  • Guidance from JCU and NQBP staff during a research and industry application experience. Dates are flexible but the internship will consist of four weeks generally during the semester two and three breaks between November 2021 and February 2022 and during the first half of 2022.

The good stuff

Applicants will gain:

  • Invaluable knowledge in field, laboratory, desktop and administrative skills within a research environment with the Seagrass and Coastal Ecology Group in Cairns and the Coastal Catchments and Water Quality Group in Townsville. These placements will take place over three weeks, with timing and location flexible depending on student location.
  • A one-week placement with NQBP in Mackay
  • Experience for a research and management career or a higher degree in marine biological sciences, as well as offering a unique opportunity to see how results of research are applied in management and operations within industry.

Who can apply:

You must be enrolled in either a second or third year undergraduate course, an honours or post-graduate program at James Cook University.

I’ve heard enough, how do I apply?

Applications close 18 October 2021. To apply, submit a cover letter (maximum one page) describing why you want participate in the program and what skills you can bring to TropWATER and NQBP. Attach your resume (maximum two pages) including contact details for two academic referees and a copy of your academic transcript. Students will be selected based on their academic credentials and application letters.  ATSI and women in STEM applicants are strongly encourage to apply.

Applicants will be notified of outcomes by 5 November 2021.

Submit your application to A/Prof Michael Rasheed: or Dr Nathan Waltham:

For more information about TropWATER:                

Student research projects available at TropWATER Cairns

JCU TropWATER in Cairns has a number of student research projects available for honours, masters and PhD students including:

  • Understanding resilience of large persistent seagrass species to low light conditions
  • Investigating next-gen 3D photomosaic for coral assessments
  • Photomosaic mapping for seagrass monitoring
  • Response of seagrass ecosystems to herbivory
  • Building coral reefs
  • Understanding ecosystems using citizen science
  • Fish communities in deep-water seagrass meadows

Contact Tim Smith ( for more details

Massive coral pre-dating European exploration and settlement of Australia discovered on GBR

“Using calculations based on rock coral growth rates and annual sea surface temperatures, we think it’s between 421 and 438 years old and predates European exploration and settlement of Australia,” said Dr Smith.

The coral was discovered off the coast of Goolboodi (also known as Orpheus Island), part of the Palm Island Group in Queensland. It has been named Muga dhambi (Big coral) by the Manbarra people, the traditional custodians of the Palm Islands.

“Muga dhambi may have survived up to 80 major cyclones, numerous coral bleaching events and centuries of exposure to invasive species, low tides and human activity. Despite this, it’s in very good health with 70% consisting of live coral,” said Dr Smith.

The coral is described in the journal Scientific Reports this week. Dr Smith said the team of scientists and authors who contributed to the paper ranged from 17 year old Kailash Cook to 76 year old Dr Charlie Veron.

“It’s been an honour to document such a magnificent piece of our Great Barrier Reef. Having a publication with Charlie Veron, the godfather of coral, is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget.

“Spending time monitoring, exploring and sharing knowledge about the reefs of Goolboodi island with the Reef Ecologic team was an invaluable experience that excites me for a future in the marine science world,” said Dr Smith.

The authors recommend monitoring the rare and unusually resilient large coral and said that with increasing threats from the negative impacts of climate change, declining water quality, overfishing and coastal development, restorative activities may be required to assist the recovery of the Great Barrier Reef, including the protection of corals like Muga dhambi.

Dr Smith said he is proud of the scientific discovery of this coral and the collaboration with traditional owners.

“I recognise that the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is climate change and I am pleased to report that the greenhouse gas emissions of this research were measured and offset as part of our carbon positive policy. Great science is about knowledge and sustainability of the planet.”

‘Field measurements of a massive Porites coral at Goolboodi (Orpheus Island), Great Barrier Reef’, is a scientific paper that is freely available online at:

Adam Smith (Townsville)
M: 0418 726 584

Images available here. Please credit Richard Woodgett. Images are for use with media associated with this specific release only. They are not available for re-use, re-sale or archiving.

From at least 40,000 BC – now: Indigenous Australians care for land and sea country
20,000-6,000BC Sea level rise
6000BC Age of the Great Barrier Reef
1583- 1600- Porites coral settles on the reef
1770- Captain James Cook and the Endeavour explore the GBR
1887- Orpheus Island was named by Lieutenant G. E. Richards after the Orpheus, a British naval vessel wrecked off the coast of New Zealand in 1863
1974 – Charlie Veron commences coral research at Orpheus Island
1975- Great Barrier Reef Marine Park declared
1978- James Cook University builds Orpheus Island Research Station (OIRS)
1981- Great Barrier Reef declared World Heritage site
2004 OIRS facilities upgraded
2021- Muga dhambi (Big coral) discovered and measured
2021- First scientific paper from OIRS that uses indigenous place name Goolboodi

Repairing wetlands using big business

Researchers believe an innovative new scheme could help save and restore threatened wetlands, such as those that are crucial to the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

The research, from a James Cook University-led international multi-disciplinary collaborative team, was recently published in Cell’s One Earth journal.

Dr Adam Canning and Dr Nathan Waltham from JCU’s Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, and Dr Diane Jarvis from JCU’s College of Business, Law & Governance, say that although wetlands support high biodiversity and many benefits to humans (ecosystem services), they are one the most damaged ecosystems globally.

“Wetlands provide about $47.4 trillion a year worth of ‘ecosystem services’ globally and support immense biodiversity, yet they face widespread drainage and pollution, and large-scale wetlands restoration is urgently needed,” said lead investigator Dr Canning.

He said previous estimates indicate that 54-57% – and possibly as much as 87% – of global wetlands have been lost to agricultural, urban and industrial expansion.

Dr Canning said there are many schemes that will fund the restoration of wetlands for their ecosystem services (such as fishing, providing clean water, storing carbon, recreation and cultural values), but they differ a lot in their ability to actually deliver wetland restorations, particularly at large-scale.

“In our paper, we propose using Common Asset Trusts (CAT) as a vehicle for navigating payment for ecosystem service schemes as we believe this approach increases financial viability, and promotes greater efficiency and efficacy in restoring wetlands and their services,” Dr Canning said.

He said a CAT would invest in, restore and manage wetlands as common property, aiming to maximise the dividends arising from the ecosystem services that are distributed to the public.

“This avoids the need to rely solely on the privatisation of a single ecosystem service, such as the generation and sale of carbon credits.

“These approaches are often financially risky, difficult and expensive to reliably quantify, and may result in wetland management that advances some values at the expense of others.

“Many services provided by wetlands are enjoyed widely and cannot be discretely traded. Valuing wetlands as sole providers of discretely traded goods and services is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Dr Canning said.

Dr Jarvis says CATs have multiple benefits, including financial resilience, high flexibility in investment, ability for long-term and strategic planning, they allow for inclusive and deliberative decision-making, and benefit from well-established legal mechanisms and conflict resolution procedures designed for trusts.

“They also allow a coordinated framework for strategic planning; providing a platform for high levels of collaboration and bringing multiple individual projects under a single unit to efficiently and strategically achieve objectives,” Dr Jarvis said.

Dr Canning says investors in a Wetland Investment Fund linked to a CAT would receive dividends in credits (for example carbon, water quality and biodiversity), which they could use directly in the case of polluting industries (such as airlines using carbon credits), sell if they were a professional investor seeking a monetary return, or reinvest in the trust if they were an environmental NGO.

Dr Waltham said there was great potential for a CAT to be established in the Great Barrier Reef catchment, as wetlands improve water quality and fisheries of the Great Barrier Reef, and help more broadly in the fight against climate change.

Funding for this research project was provided through the Australian Government National Environment Science Program, Tropical Water Quality Hub, which was awarded to Dr Waltham.


Canning, A., Jarvis, D., Costanza, R., Hasan, S., Smart, J, Finisdore, J., Lovelock, C., Greenhalgh, S., Marr, H., Beck, M., Gillies, C., & Waltham, N. (2021). Financial incentives for large-scale wetland restoration: beyond markets to common asset trusts. One Earth 4, 937–950. DOI:


Drs Adam Canning, Diane Jarvis and Nathan Waltham thank their collaboration partners for their contribution towards the study.

Dr Adam Canning
T: +61 7 4781 4292

Tourists may love waterfalls, but so do shifty shrimps

Field studies involving scientists from TropWATER, CSIRO Land & Water and a prominent ichthyologist Professor Philippe Keith from the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, show that waterfalls are key feature structuring fish and crustacean communities in particular streams. The role of the jungle perch has emerged from this investigation as a key predator in some of the steeper rainforest streams in the Cairns region. Notably the large adult jungle perch can swim upstream of small waterfalls and challenging cascades, where they are major predators in the food web.

Large waterfalls greater than 5 metres in height are a different matter. These barriers prevent jungle perch migration. Consequently, freshwater shrimps, and prawns flourish above such major roadblocks. The study also found that the diversity of predators representing multiple species and families is highest downstream of the first major waterfall, and that specialist small-bodied fishes exist upstream of these important landscape features. One of the upstream inhabitants, a cling goby species, had not previously been recorded in Australia.

Lead author, Dr Ebner, acknowledged the permissions of Eastern Kuku Yalanji People including Jabalbina and their Rangers, the Mandingalbay Yidinji People and the Djunbunji Rangers, and Yirrganydji Gurabana People and the Dawul Wuru Aboriginal Corporation. He also recognized a fellowship from JCU and CSIRO that had given him opportunity to develop strong working relationships with colleagues from both organisations, work-up data and write up.

Ebner, B. C., Donaldson, J. A., Murphy, H., Thuesen, P., Ford, A., Schaffer, J., & Keith, P. (2021) Waterfalls mediate the longitudinal distribution of diadromous predatory fishes structuring communities in tropical, short, steep coastal streams. Freshwater Biology (April issue)

TropWATER’s Dr Ian McLeod wins 2020 Eureka Prize for Applied Environmental Research

James Cook University scientists are celebrating two wins at last night’s ‘Oscars of Australian science’, the Eureka Prizes.

A team of scientists led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU has won the 2020 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research.

Social-Ecological Research Frontiers is led by Professor Josh Cinner. The international team includes scientists from seven Australian institutions, with Dr Michele Barnes, Dr Jacqui Lau and Dr Georgina Gurney rounding out the Coral CoE at JCU team.

“We study coral reefs bucking the trend and thriving despite climate change, over-fishing and pollution,” Prof Cinner said. “Some coral reefs have surprisingly high amounts of fish despite high human pressures. We call these reefs ‘bright spots’.”

Studying bright spots can help inform new solutions to tackle the decline of reefs worldwide. The team used a blend of social science, ecology and other disciplines to identify and learn more about these unique areas.

Rebuilding Australia’s Lost Shellfish Reefs has won the 2020 Eureka Prize for Applied Environmental Research.

This collaboration between JCU, The Nature Conservancy, and the Universities of Adelaide and Tasmania has documented the decline of Australia’s once-extensive shellfish reefs and identified what needs to be done to repair and conserve them.

“Early maritime explorers such as Cook and Flinders regularly referred to extensive shellfish reefs, formed by dense aggregations of oysters and mussels,” said Dr Ian McLeod, Principal Research Scientist at JCU’s TropWATER.

From early European settlement of Australia, vast quantities of oysters and mussels were harvested for food and as a source of lime for mortar, until less than one per cent of Australia’s shellfish reefs remained.

“These reefs, which once stretched around our southern coastline, provide food, clean water, boost fish populations and protect our shorelines,” Dr McLeod said.

“Bringing our shellfish reefs back from the brink will reinstate those vital ecosystem services, benefitting the marine and coastal environments and all who rely on them.

“The Australian Government’s recent $20 million Reef Builder commitment to rebuild reefs at 13 locations around Australia is a giant step towards recovering this lost ecosystem and puts Australia and JCU at the forefront of underwater marine restoration.”

Dr McLeod and Adjunct Associate Professor Chris Gillies led the team, with collaborators from The University of Adelaide and the University of Tasmania. The research is supported by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program Marine Biodiversity Hub.

JCU Provost Professor Chris Cocklin congratulated all the researchers involved, along with their collaborating institutions.

“The Eureka Prizes are independently judged, and recognize the very best in Australian Science,” Professor Cocklin said. “To bring home two such awards at the end of a tough year is a great achievement and a well-earned tribute to all involved.”

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