Former Earthwatch PI wins award
In June this year in the Queen's Birthday Honours, Dr David Paton, long supported Principal Investigator of Earthwatch's Waterbirds of the Coorong project, and his wife Penelope Paton were appointed with Members of the Order of Australia.
For seven years, Earthwatch teams joined Dr Paton in conducting ecological monitoring to assess the changes occurring to South Australia's delicate Coorong wetlands. This research has helped reveal decreases in waterbird numbers, food levels and water quality.
"Earthwatch volunteers have made an enormous influence. The key ingredient (in getting governments to act) is actual monitoring and these data are the most influential in advocacy. Their help provided by volunteers with collecting data on the Coorong has enabled us to demonstrate a slow and steady collapse in the wetland," he says.
Earthwatch teams helped survey the waterbird populations along the lagoons, measuring salinities of the water and documenting other flora and fauna which act as food resource for birds along the length of the wetlands. Volunteers also spent some of their time helping Dr Paton sample coastal vegetation and mist net terrestrial bird populations.
Volunteers used fine-gauge mist nets to catch birds which once banded allows researchers to follow their fate. In some years radio-tracking provided more detailed information on their hourly movements.
The Coorong - made up of a 100km long stretch of wetland - has been the focus of Dr Paton's research for over 20 years. Home to tens of thousands of birds during the summer, Dr Paton has discovered that the ducks, terns, pelicans and migratory waders have all decreased in distribution and abundance in the wetland, some decreasing rapidly particularly across the southern Coorong. The reason for such drastic declines is due to a lack of food, caused by increased salinity of the water, which has come from reduced environmental flows in the River.
Dr Paton explains that freshwater is needed to flow into the Coorong from the Murray Darling Basin to counteract the salty water that flows in from the ocean. For most of the last six years, this environmental flow has not been possible primarily due to over-extraction of water from the river compounded by the recent drought. Since 2002 dredges have been required to keep the Mouth open and secure some of natural tidal elements for the northern Coorong.
"It's pretty depressing - the Coorong of 2001 compared to 2008 are two very different systems. In 2001, there was an abundance of fish eating birds (like pelicans, grebes and terns), ducks, and small waders in South Lagoon supported by aquatic plants, chironomid larvae and small fish, and salinities did not exceed three times sea water."
"Now, the salinity is double what it was in 2001, water levels drop in spring instead of summer and there are no plants, chironomids, or fish present and few if any birds - the food chain is gone. Except for salt-loving brine shrimps and Banded Stilts that thrive in the highly salty conditions little life is present. Solving the salinity issue is very hard, given the prospect of no environmental flows to the Coorong in the near future," says Dr Paton.
Even if a flow was provided the salt loads are now so high that the salinity would not drop to a level that would allow the fish, chironomids and birds to return. But there is some hope with plans to pump the highly saline water out of the southern Coorong into the sea, and depending on rates of pumping there is potential to recover this system within a few years. Dr Paton's research has been instrumental in developing this life line for the Coorong.
"There is no water being allocated for the Coorong, so we've had to look at how to manage this problem and this program does give us hope," he says. Dr Paton and the data Earthwatch teams helped collect has been paramount in providing these ideas and information to the Government.
Reducing salinity levels is only part of the solution and although fish and chironomids will re-establish, re-establishing the aquatic plants across the 50 km lagoon will be more challenging since their seed banks have been exhausted, so revegetation will follow.
Dr Paton goes on to explain that although this "engineering" solution provides a future for the Coorong - it only addresses the symptom and not the underlying cause of the collapse of these wetlands.
"We have failed to provide an adequate environmental flow for the Coorong and we need to address this and the over-allocation and extraction of water from the river for human use to provide a sustainable future for the Coorong. The engineering solutions have come because for the foreseeable future there was no alternative to deal with ever-increasing salinity levels in the Coorong that we as humans have created," he says
Although Earthwatch teams are no longer running, Dr Paton and his research staff continue to monitor the Coorong for two-weeks in January every year.
Dr Paton was recognised for his service to conservation and the environment through research into the ecology and behaviour of Australian birds, to the management and restoration of the natural environment, and to education.
Penelope's contribution to conservation and the environment through the management of natural resources and ecosystems, and as a contributor to environmental and ornithological research projects was also recognised.
Earthwatch congratulates Dr Paton and his wife on their achievements.
The awards will be presented in September, 2008.