The Marine and Coastal Hub Research Plan 2021 included several scoping projects that generated a shared understanding of research priorities.

This project provides guidance for future research in priority species, including marine mammals and seabirds. Sub-projects led by different hub partners reviewed and inventoried existing data and publications and consulted researchers and research users from state and federal governments, community and industry groups and non-government organisations.

An inventory of dugong aerial surveys across Australia includes relevant publications, data availability and location, maps of the survey effort to date, and compares approaches of generating population estimates, trends and spatial distribution models. It identifies preferred research pathways and methodologies.

An exploration of research priorities for threatened seabirds and marine mammals (excluding dugongs) reviewed publications and consulted researchers and research users. Priorities included monitoring to support population estimates, linking at-sea behaviours, population trends and ecological change, integrated risk assessment, identification and use of new technologies and novel approaches, risks associated with offshore renewable energy development; and best practice data management.

Approach and findings

Sub-project: An inventory of dugong aerial surveys in Australia

The dugong (Dugong dugon) has significant cultural, ecological and conservation value in Australia. The species is a Matter of National Environmental Significance and is protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 as a listed migratory and marine species. Since the early 1970s various aerial surveys have provided data on the distribution and abundance of the dugong across northern Australia. The survey design, platforms, and methods to estimate dugong population distribution, abundance, and trends, have evolved through time, and much of the survey data and related publications were fragmented and inaccessible.

This sub-project compiled information from all dugong aerial surveys undertaken since the first use of aerial surveys for dugongs in Australia, including date of survey, approach undertaken to survey, latest abundance estimate, relevant reference and link to publication, data availability and location. It mapped survey effort across the known dugong range. The inventory has helped identify similarities and discrepancies in how dugong population estimates, trends and spatial distribution models have been generated.

Dugong aerial surveys in Australia dating back to the early 1970s assessed the presence, distribution, and relative numbers of dugongs around the mainland and islands. Standardised abundance aerial surveys began in the early 1980s and have covered most inshore waters from Shark Bay in Western Australia to Moreton Bay near Brisbane. These range from single baseline surveys (such as in the Kimberley area) to frequently surveyed areas, such as the Exmouth Gulf (15 surveys to date) and the Darwin region (22 surveys to date). The high number of surveys in the latter regions mostly reflects industry-funded programs in areas potentially impacted by coastal development activities. These surveys add to regional dugong population assessment surveys conducted every few years.

Mathematical approaches to account for imperfect detections of dugongs in abundance estimations have evolved through time. The Hagihara method is the most nationally accepted standard and was used in 2019 to retrospectively re-estimate dugong abundance for all surveys conducted in Eastern Queensland since the early 2000s. Similar work should be conducted on historical survey data collected in other parts of Australia to aid data comparison and calibration for population trend analysis. Similarly, approaches to assess trends in dugong populations vary across regions and survey events. Providing available data; efforts should be made to harmonise trend analysis across the country (using frequentist statistics and new Bayesian models).

Varying approaches have been used to model the density distribution of dugongs using aerial survey data, but there has not been an evaluation of how these methods differ or which could be adopted as a national standard to enable comparability of results.

The likelihood of securing funding to increase the number of surveys in large remote areas such as the Kimberley to obtain the time series necessary for population trends analysis is low. In those instances, cheap, user-friendly and culturally appropriate new approaches should be considered for sea country monitoring led by Ranger groups.

Sub-project: Seabirds and marine mammals (excluding dugongs)

For many threatened seabird and marine mammal species, a greater scientific evidence base is needed to support policy development, recovery planning and regulatory processes. This sub-project conducted a literature review and stakeholder workshops with researchers and Commonwealth, state and territory departmental representatives to identify research priorities for threatened seabirds and marine mammals (excluding dugongs). Clear priorities for research identified by both the literature review and workshops were associated with:

  • ongoing monitoring or establishment of monitoring programs for seabird and marine mammal populations across a range of biological and ecological aspects (population parameters, foraging ecology, migration and movement ecology), chiefly to identify change over time and quantify impacts of threats on populations;
  • linking at-sea behaviours to population parameters to attribute biological and ecological change to drivers;
  • integrative approaches that allow for the quantification of risk, attribution of the effects of biological and ecological changes on population viability, and future population trajectories; and
  • identifying and utilising new technologies and novel analytical approaches, particularly population monitoring and threat reduction and mitigation in areas of fisheries bycatch, entanglement, and anthropogenic noise.

An emerging research area for focusing efforts not captured by the literature review but highlighted in the workshops was understanding the responses to and impacts of offshore renewable energy. This discrepancy is likely due to the rapid development of planning processes associated with this emerging industry within Australian waters and the lag between identifying emerging threats and their capture in conservation plans and the literature. Research needs associated with offshore renewable energy included:

  • understanding the behaviours of seabirds and marine mammals around offshore installations;
  • understanding the risks from noise generated during the installation commissioning and decommissioning phases of offshore infrastructure;
  • understanding shifts in habitat use that might be caused by installations and associated supporting infrastructure and the flow on effects of disturbance on population parameters and population viability; and
  • additionally for seabirds, understanding the risks associated with light pollution and collisions with infrastructure.

Priorities to support data and knowledge exchange and delivery involved adopting best practices and protocols, the development of data synthesis products for use by stakeholders, and overall awareness and coordination of research efforts.


The inventory and review of dugong aerial survey research across Australia provided by this project is an important step towards developing Australia’s capacity to estimate dugong population and trends. It provides the Department of Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water guidance on future investment relating to this priority species.

The collation of existing knowledge and consultation with stakeholders to identify priority research areas for seabirds and marine mammals (excluding dugongs) provides a shared understanding among researchers and decision-makers and a pathway to maximising the relevance and effectiveness of future research in this area.

Involvement of a range of end-users in a considered planning, consultation and prioritisation process strengthens the likelihood of on-ground outcomes and long-term adoption.

Project location