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Traditional Owners guide new Pacific coral reef monitoring system

David Prestipino -

The ecological expertise of Indigenous groups across Queensland will help guide sustainable management of natural resources across Australia and the wider Pacific region in a new global collaboration to tackle climate change.

Gurang, Taribelang and Bunda Traditional Owners and fellow Indigenous leaders from Australia and the Pacific recently met in Bundaberg for a cultural exchange aimed at conserving and improving the health of reefs across the Pacific.

Australia and its 16 Pacific island neighbours are on the frontline of climate change, with coral reefs in the Pacific particularly vulnerable to its challenges, prompting a Pacific collaboration to prioritise issues and develop a reef monitoring network, with help from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

Recent workshops with First Nations leaders in Australia and the Pacific had led to exciting insights, such as how traditional knowledge can be utilised with new technologies to better conserve coral reefs across the Pacific, home to 27 per cent of the world's corals.

AIMS principal research scientist and team lead, Dr Manuel Gonzalez Rivero, said western science and traditional knowledge were both about observation and communicating how nature changed in response to climate change pressures, but the information was gathered and shared very differently.

"We've got a big challenge in bringing these two knowledge systems together because they are from different perspectives, but we are finding a visual way that allows this to flow," he said.

The monitoring network will utilise AIMS' new digital platform ReefCloud, which gives Pacific countries capability to share coral reef data in real time to aid their efforts.

Woppaburra Traditional Owner and Elder, Bob Muir, has helped engage traditional owners in the program and seek their consent to research on their Country to help AIMS scientists in their research design.

"Sometimes information a Traditional Owner gives makes a big difference to a whole project," he said.

AIMS scientists were now acknowledging Traditional Owner knowledge in science papers, with recent workshops also focused on weaving different layers of traditional and scientific knowledge to help form coral reef management.

"This traditional knowledge exchange workshop is unique," Mr Muir said.

"I don't think there are many places in the world that are approaching this issue of looking at different cultures."

Taribelang Bunda Traditional Owner and Gidarjil Development Corporation sea ranger, Kelvin Rowe, said the ocean and its reef systems were very significant to his people and culture.

"The sea turtle is one of our totems and it's treasured by us," he said.

"We all seemed to be on the same page at the (Bundaberg) workshop about what we want done and how we can help each other."

Gurang Elder Lola Tiger agreed, saying the cultural exchange sessions were already helping guide the development of the reef monitoring program.

"It's been a great experience and we'll all be better for it," she said.

The coral reef monitoring framework is funded for four years by AIMS and the federal government, with Traditional Owners and AIMS scientists working to develop a management in collaboration with Gidarjil Development Corporation, Papua New Guinea's Sea Women of Melanesia, the Samoan Government, the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme and Conservation International.

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