With a combination of globally-relevant research topics and locally-focused research activities, MFAS’ research directly influences the broader global scientific community and its knowledge.
Our research focus is on aquatic areas including marine biology, aquatic wildlife and aquaculture, ecology and coastal, estuarine and freshwater ecosystems management. It also supports local and national industries, communities we live in, helping to improve their environmental and economic sustainability.
Marine biology and ecology
MFAS specialises in key thematic areas to enhance the knowledge of marine and coastal issues in Australia and further abroad.
These include marine biology, aquatic ecology, marine ecosystem management, conservation biology, population genetics, biological oceanography, ecotoxicology, marine habitat mapping and the value of blue carbon.
The facility is located adjacent to the Southern Ocean, which provides a permanent base for marine and coastal-oriented field projects.
These projects investigate some of the most unique marine life in our oceans that support productive fisheries, important foraging and breeding grounds and important transit corridors for migratory species.
Marine wildlife ecology
Our research encompasses a diverse range of disciplines from behaviour, physiology and demography to conservation and management of a wide range of taxa including marine mammals, seabirds, shorebirds, sea turtles and jellyfish.
We aim to understand the factors influencing the population dynamics of these ecologically important species, predict how they may respond to environmental change and provide practical solutions to their conservation challenges.
Using state-of-the-art tracking technology we investigate the foraging behaviour of these taxa to determine how they adapt, within their physiological limits, to environmental variability. This is central to predicting how they will respond to ecological impacts of climate change and anthropogenic stressors such as pollution, fisheries interactions and habitat loss.
Our studies of central place foragers such as fur seals, penguins, gannets and shearwaters examines how they locate and exploit prey patches and allocate resources to self-maintenance and offspring provisioning.
Reducing carbon emissions is a necessary step in the fight against climate change. In addition, because greenhouse gases will linger in our atmosphere for another hundred years, there is also a need to find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Biosequestration is one promising option that capitalises on natural CO2 capture and storage by photosynthetic organisms and soil. Although much of the attention on biosequestration has centred on terrestrial forests, the world's greatest carbon storage potential may be in our oceans.
Recent data estimates that vegetated coastal habitats ('VCHs') - the seagrasses, saltmarshes and mangroves - are responsible for capturing up to 70% of the carbon in the oceans – termed 'blue carbon' – making them one of the most intense carbon sinks on the planet. VCHs bury blue carbon at a rate that is 40x faster than tropical rainforests, and their sediments never become saturated. Furthermore, while terrestrial forests bind carbon for decades, VCHs can bind carbon for millennia.
However, there is concern that ecosystem degradation could shift VCHs from carbon sinks to carbon sources. One study estimated up 1.02 Pg CO2 are being released annually from loss or conversion of VCHs, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of the UK and Canada combined.
Follow us on twitter: @bluecarbonlab
Ecotoxicology and ecology risk assessment
Ecotoxicology and ecological risk assessment are multi-disciplinary disciplines focusing on the impact of physical, chemical and biological pollutants at the individual, species and ultimately ecosystem level. Combining chemistry, biology, ecology and toxicology, we seek to establish links between biota and their response to pollutant exposures.
Multiple lines of evidence provide essential information for effective Ecological Risk Assessment, environmental management protocols, and ANZECC Water and Sediment Quality Guidelines. Identification of specific factors influencing toxicity and dose-response relationships reduce the level uncertainty associated with predicting response, from the cellular through to community levels of biological organisation.
Aquatic pollution is a global concern linking air, land and water. Knowledge of pollutant sources, fates and impacts is fundamental to both understanding and predicting pollutant exposure and effects, which in turn is essential to formulate both preventative and remediation measures.
Development and application of methods for identification and quantification of ecological /toxicological impact and risk using biomarkers of exposure and effect under controlled environments and in the field, forms the core of intensive ecotoxicology research at Deakin’s Warrnambool campus.
The research focus includes coastal, marine and freshwater impact from oils, heavy metals, sewage, combined, waste waters, hypersaline brine, alien species, elevated nutrients and climate change-induced thermal increase. The research program is supported by the state of the art Warrnambool Aquaculture Research Facility, an isolated contaminants aquaria laboratory, two fully equipped dedicated laboratories for histopathology and molecular biology, a microscopy and digital imagery laboratory, and a NATA Accredited water quality laboratory.
Marine habitat mapping
Deakin Habitat Mapping is a group of researchers from Deakin University focusing on established new techniques for integrating non-destructive sampling approaches such as remote video observations with physical data of the seafloor terrain to predict the distributions of benthic habitat and demersal fish communities.
Deakin has invested in the most advanced oceanographic mapping technologies in the World including the latest Kongsberg multibeam sonar system capable of the collection of thousands of soundings per minute to develop detailed pictures of our ocean floor and water column.
This information is combined with biological data from remotely operated vehicles, baited camera systems and acoustically positioned towed video to decipher patterns of distribution over large geographic areas. These tools are enabling the group to gain an understanding of the mechanisms by which spatial patterns influence key ecological processes.
Understanding the marine 'real-estate' such as the distribution and connectivity of habitats will not only help us in maintaining our biodiversity but will also provide critical information to help us better manage our fisheries and marine protected areas. The information is also providing insights into our geological past, revealing extensions of our river systems and headlands at lower sea levels.
Marine population genetics
Our research focuses on the use of molecular approaches for understanding the ecology and evolutionary biology of natural populations. We use a combination of ecological and genetic studies to address fundamental questions in the fields of population connectivity, genetic adaptation, mating systems evolution and sexual selection.
We work on a diverse range of marine taxa chosen because they represent the best model systems in which to address fundamental questions in ecological and evolutionary research. This includes a wide range of marine invertebrates (e.g. sea stars, urchins, sea anemones), vertebrates (e.g. sea turtles, sharks, fish) and marine plants (seagrass and marine algae).
Understanding patterns of genetic diversity, connectivity and the source of larval recruits is crucial for understanding the long-term viability and resilience of these species. Additionally, the use of new next generation sequencing approaches for population genomic and transcriptomic studies now provides the opportunity for understanding the adaptive basis of genetic variation and the molecular basis of responses to different environmental stressors.
Current projects include understanding the invasion history and range expansion of non-native species, characterising patterns of connectivity and population structure of ecosystem engineers (sea urchins and seagrass), understanding mating behaviour and connectivity in sea turtles, stock assessment of commercially and recreationally important fish and shellfish species, and characterising the mating systems of several marine invertebrate and plant species (levels of selfing, outcrossing and asexual reproduction).
Southern Australia is a globally significant hotspot of marine macroalgal (seaweed) biodiversity with the greatest levels of species richness and endemism of any regional flora.
Seagrasses are also a significant component of our estuarine and coastal regions providing nursery habitats for fish and Blue Carbon sequestration. However, species are under threat from human activities and global climate change.
Our research focuses around these main themes:
- Habitat provision and ecosystem services of marine macroalgae and seagrasses: understanding the significance of habitats provided by marine plants with respect to both the spatial extent and biomass of species, as well as the ecological interactions with other organisms and provision of ecosystem services are key areas of our research.
- Life history dynamics and connectivity of marine plants: we use a combination of field and laboratory experiments as well as population genetics and molecular ecology tools to answer questions about the life history dynamics, connectivity and genetic diversity of marine plants to better understand the ecology of marine plants as well as how populations and communities can be effectively managed.
- Human impacts on coastal marine communities: our research seeks to understand the nature of human disturbances on marine plant species and communities, the flow-on effects to biodiversity and the necessary conditions to restore remediated shores.
- Sustainable nutrition solutions using Australian seaweeds: we are exploring the diverse Australian marine flora for unique edible and nutritious seaweed products that might see sustainable and locally produced seaweeds making it to our tables in the near future.
Deakin University Warrnambool is perfectly positioned to undertake research focusing on the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of streams, rivers and wetlands.
Our research spans a range of freshwater ecosystems, from small headwater streams at the top of catchments to large, lowland rivers and semi-arid temporary wetlands. We have researchers and students investigating both the basic biology of organisms that live in each ecosystem type and how they interact with their environment.
Our research also focussed on sustainable management of freshwater ecosystems so that they can continue to provide water for human consumption and agriculture under a changing climate.
We investigate basic ecological requirements of vegetation, zooplankton, fish, frogs and macroinvertebrates using a combination of traditional and state-of-the-art sampling methods, equipment and analyses.
Our research topics are:
- knowledge for management
- ecological modelling.
Aquaculture and fisheries
Warrnambool is considered to be the birthplace of aquaculture, with the earliest records of any aquaculture practice being eel farming in 6,000 BC by the indigenous Gunditjmara people in South-West Victoria.
Though currently the aquaculture industry in South-West Victoria is relatively small, MFAS in Warrnambool is strategically located exactly half way in between the two largest aquaculture producing regions in Australia (Tasmania and South Australia), and commercial fishery in South-West Victoria is a well-established and important industry.
Aquaculture nutrition and seafood quality
The Nutrition and Seafood Laboratory (NuSea.Lab) of Deakin University primarily focuses on aquaculture, the fastest growing food producing sector globally. Unlike other human activities, aquaculture is characterised by having an environmental scope, an economic scope and a social scope.
The cost of aquafeed (feed used to farm fish) is considered to be one of the highest recurrent costs in aquaculture. Additionally, aquafeed is also central and fundamental in determining the health and performance of the cultured fish, the quality of the final product and the possible impacts on the surrounding environment.
Fish nutrition is vital to achieving a sustainable yet profitable production of healthy fish and seafood and is therefore at the core of intensive research activities conducted within NuSea.Lab
Our research focuses on a series of important questions and objectives, including lipid and fatty acid metabolism in farmed fish, fish meal and fish oil replacement in aquafeeds, nutritional physiology, overall seafood quality (health benefits, sensorial properties and traceability), and the testing of novel ingredients for the next generation of aquafeeds.
In addition, we have a long standing commitment to Australian aquaculture and work closely with a range of relevant industry partners to tailor research packages that permit the sustainable expansion of industry activities, while simultaneously ensuring due diligence is followed through all stages of product testing/ experimentation.
Fish stress physiology and health
The fish stress and health research examines both basic and applied aspects of fish physiology/endocrinology. It involves the formulation and testing of hypotheses that are designed to generate basic knowledge or could lead to practical applications in fisheries biology or aquaculture.
Laboratory and/or field-based studies are set up to investigate endocrine, metabolic, and cellular responses of fishes to different stressors, with the goal of understanding: a) their relationship to fish health/immunology, diseases, reproduction, welfare and growth, and b) during acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) exposure to stressors.
Studies are primarily carried out using live animals, and physiological and molecular techniques are used to quantify or qualitatively determine the parameters of interest, including corticosteroid and sex steroid hormones, enzyme activity, plasma metabolites, screening of bacterial and viral diseases (molecular techniques), and protein and gene expression.
Recreational fisheries science
Recreational fisheries are globally important, from economic, environmental and social perspectives. Developments in this sector are increasingly underpinned by a 'triple bottom line' approach informed by high-quality science. As a recreational pursuit fishing has one of the highest participation rates of all recreational activities.
Recreational fisheries science is truly multi-faceted and includes perspectives both from the target species and of the human element. Research from a target species' perspective addresses: welfare, stress, trauma, pain and ethical treatment; post-release survival and recreational fishing impacts; habitat requirements and movement behaviour; visual perception and response to baits and lures; recreational fishing induced disruptions to life cycles; and the creation, restoration, enhancement and protection of recreational fisheries.
From a human perspective, research addresses: the fishing experience, well-being and end user satisfaction; human health and food safety; post-capture processing and storage; sensory attributes and how best to prepare and store the catch; monitoring and adaptive management of populations; illegal fishing and compliance/protection regulations; conflicts with commercial fisheries and environmental and animal welfare groups; the social and economic benefits/trade-offs to communities; triple-bottom line development of recreational fisheries; traditional recreational fisheries; funding, research models and stocking practices (or requirement thereof) for sustaining recreational fisheries; tourism; technology, fisher specialisation, and generational attitudes.
Deakin aquaculture futures facility
Deakin aquaculture futures facility's unique infrastructure facilitates multidisciplinary, collaborative research at both national and international scales across a range of aquatic species and aquatic environments.
Applications span research activities in aquaculture nutrition, fish health and stress physiology, fish reproduction, climate change, aquatic ecotoxicology, water recycling and bioremediation, aquatic animal behaviour, and various aspects of undergraduate teaching.
The facility is equipped with a range of experimental systems, permitting small scale experimental work with sensitive life stages, all the way up to unrivalled commercial-scale aquaculture research for the provision of cutting-edge research to meet the needs of the Australian aquaculture sector.
Academic and research staff
Deputy Head of School
Professor John Donald
+61 3 522 72097
Email Professor John Donald