Reflections from the Australian Mangrove and Saltmarsh Network Conference, University of Wollongong, 23-25 February 2015
Written by Kerrylee Rogers
The University of Wollongong, with support from the UOW Global Challenges Program, the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health and The Nature Conservancy, hosted the 1st Australian Mangrove and Saltmarsh Network Conference on 23-25 February 2015.
This conference attracted over 80 delegates with a common concern for coastal wetland sustainability in the 21st century. Coastal wetlands provide many ecosystem services including fish and wildlife habitat, coastal protection, flood buffers, water purification and carbon sequestration. However, reclamation and drainage associated with urban and industrial expansion in the coastal zone has caused significant losses in ecosystem services, that are projected to continue due to the on-going effects of climate change and sea-level rise. I had the privilege of co-ordinating the scientific committee for the meeting and ensuring the meeting ran smoothly over the 3 days; this was not a small task, and you may wonder how I got myself in this position.
In February 2014 I attended a meeting of the Australian Mangrove Network in Townsville. This network has been meeting informally as opportunities arose by having symposia at conferences. However in late 2013, Dr Damien Burrows and Professor Norm Duke, both well-regarded mangrove researchers at James Cook University, identified there was a need for our meetings to become more prominent; and hosted the meeting in Townsville. It was agreed to broaden the scope of the network to provide the opportunity for sharing of information between both mangrove and saltmarsh researchers. This was a relatively easy decision as both mangrove and saltmarsh occur in the upper intertidal zone; with mangrove dominating shorelines in the tropics and saltmarsh increasing in diversity on temperate shorelines. I also agreed the University of Wollongong would host the next meeting to be held in February 2015; it seemed a relatively simple decision at the time.
The focus of the meeting held at UOW was Working with mangrove and saltmarsh for sustainable outcomes; which aligned well with my own research interests in the vulnerability of mangrove and saltmarsh carbon sinks to sea-level rise.
As meeting co-ordinator, I also had the opportunity to identify keynote speakers for the event. Professor Bruce Thom, who is currently a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (www.wentwothgroup.org), and honorary professor at the University of Wollongong, provided the opening address. His academic interests stem from a background in physical geography with particular interest in coastal geomorphology, management and land use planning. Bruce refers to encountering mangroves along the way while undertaking his research, but is being modest in this regard as his research on mangrove ecology and deltaic geomorphology in Australia and Mexico has become foundational to our understanding of mangrove geomorphology. I personally have encountered Bruce at the NSW Coastal Conference, an annual event that is coming into its 24th year, and to which I believe Bruce has attended all 23 of the preceding conferences. At these events I have witnessed Bruce’s passion for sustainable coastal management, and was delighted when he accepted the invitation to open our conference. Professor Thom provided an insightful journey through his encounters with mangroves which began following an inspiring lecture from Bill MacNae in 1962. He indicated the current conference at UOW was the first mangrove conference he had attended since 1979. Back in 1979, climate change was not considered, and wasn’t even mentioned in the future directions chapter of the proceedings.
The other keynote speaker was Dr Karen McKee, an emeritus professor at the United States Geological Survey, who has conducted research in the field of wetland plant ecology for forty years. Her research topics have included adaptations of plants to stressful environments, and effects of CO2, climate change, sea-level rise, and hurricanes on wetlands. This research aligned extraordinarily well with the meeting, but this was not the primary reason I asked her to provide a keynote presentation. Dr McKee has been very active in promoting science communication by scientists and has worked to encourage more scientists and students to acquire better multimedia skills. To this end, she provided a resoundingly interesting presentation titled Communication Strategies for the 21st Century Scientist. In this presentation she took us on a journey through mangrove science communication strategies from the 17th century to the 21st century. Interestingly, I found that my own communication strategies are stuck in the 17th century, with knowledge sharing largely limited to conference talks, books, grant proposals, public lectures and teaching, and journal publications (this is largely because these remain as key performance indicators, rather than other methods of knowledge sharing). I now realise that my communication needs to move to the 21st century and take advantage of new technologies, particularly by increasing my professional online presence. I have been delighted to see no less than three blogs, aside from this one, about the conference (Bruce Thom Blog, Madeline Goddard Blog, Carolyn Ewers Blog). Clearly, the challenge has now been set for me to increase my online presence!
There is increasing need for us to share information about mangrove and saltmarsh sustainability, particularly as climate change and increasing urbanisation may have a devastating effect on their health and distribution in the 21st century. Sea-level rise is altering the position of the intertidal zone, and mangrove and saltmarsh are becoming penned in by urban and industrial developments that encroach upon shorelines. As mangrove and saltmarsh researchers, planners, consultants, managers, policy-makers, and advocates, we need to share with the broader community that the loss of coastal wetlands will result in a real loss of ecosystem services that provide an economic benefit to society, including water purification, shoreline protection, fisheries habitat, nutrient cycling and carbon mitigation.
The effect of climate change, particularly sea-level rise and carbon mitigation, was a common theme throughout the conference. The conference program was jam-packed, with 8 sessions held on the first two days, a poster session and conference dinner on the first day, as well as a field trip on the final day of the conference. While the field trip looked like it may succumb to its own rising tide of rainfall in the morning, after a short delay all the delegates were happy to don raincoats and venture out on buses to visit the wetlands of Lake Illawarra and Minnamurra River. This was followed by lunch on the shores of the Shoalhaven River and a river cruise along the Shoalhaven River from Nowra to Greenwell Point. What a fantastic finale to the meeting!
For me, one of the greatest highlights was the opportunity the conference provided for students to interact with some of Australia’s most well-regarded mangrove and saltmarsh researchers and managers. I would like to thank all the students who took part in the meeting. I also want to thank the efforts of other delegates who attended the meeting with presenters travelling from all over Australia, as well as Louisiana, Guam, and New Caledonia. There are many other people who contributed to the running of the conference, though Professor Colin Woodroffe deserves special acknowledgement for his help and contribution to the meeting. I hope to see everyone at the next meeting to be held in Darwin in 2016.