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Satellite technology used in Coorong algae battle

Algal mats are being detected by satellite in the Coorong in a bid to help protect South Australia’s world-renowned bird refuge.

PlanetScope false colour composite image over Parnka Point in the Coorong in October 2017.

A joint project between the University of Adelaide and the State Herbarium of South Australia, the satellite tracking is helping researchers map floating algae known to smother vital aquatic food in one of Australia’s most important bird habitats.

Floating algae destroys aquatic plants, including widgeon grass, in the southern Coorong by shading adult plants and preventing seed formation.  Aquatic plants are one of the most important food sources for birds in the refuge at the southern end of the Murray Darling Basin.

The project is using a new method to detect and map the algae through satellite imagery which will potentially enable better control of the algae in the future.

Professor Michelle Waycott, Chief Botanist at the University of Adelaide and the State Herbarium of South Australia, said researchers started by looking at recent satellite imagery where known areas of the algal mats had formed.

“We undertook an assessment based on satellite imagery taken spring and early summer last year and we’ve established a method to trial at the same time this year.” she said.

“If the assessment works the way we think it will, we can use the data to go back through time, perhaps to older satellite imagery from the 1980s, to determine the scale and speed of onset of these algal blooms in the past.”

Professor Waycott said recent research has indicated decreasing numbers of waterbirds, such as the fairy tern and other migratory shorebirds along the Coorong.

“The algae poses a significant threat as it grows from underneath the water but can become so large it reaches the surface and forms a blanket which can prevent water birds from diving for food,” she said.

“It also gets blown onto the shoreline where it decays, meaning nutrients are not cycling normally.”

This project is part of the research being delivered by the Goyder Institute for Water Research supporting investigations for the South Australian Government’s Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin Program, which is jointly funded by the Australian and South Australian governments.

Earlier this year the Australian and South Australian governments announced the next $22.2 million of funding to help get the Coorong back on track for a healthy future. 

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