Using local knowledge to understand linkages between ecosystem processes, seagrass change and fisheries productivity to improve ecosystem-based management

Project Number:



University of Melbourne

Principal Investigator:

John R. Ford

Project Status:


FRDC Expenditure:





Throughout Australia’s coastal fisheries, there is a need to address external, often land-based threats to fishery sustainability. Such threats are often dismissed or poorly understood, so that management responses may be focused on restraining fishing effort instead of addressing external threats. A collaborative approach is needed, which brings together fishers, land users, catchment managers and fisheries managers to educate each other, share understanding of the system, and decide on management actions targeted to be both realistic and effective. In Corner Inlet, the threat to fishery productivity caused by a decline in seagrass health and cover needs to be addressed. The causes for this decline appear complex. The West Gippsland CMA has initiated a Water Quality Improvement Plan to address nutrients and sediment runoff, but this project is needed to adequately counter these and other threats to the seagrass system. To properly target management actions and verify their effectiveness, the first-hand knowledge of fishers is needed to identify areas of seagrass loss and areas currently under threat. The effects of agricultural chemicals must be considered, and there is a need to convey the threats and their solutions to the land-users who can affect change in the catchment – the farmers. To sustain this process, methods that can provide early warning of threats by monitoring specific aspects of seagrass are needed. This project will facilitate direct lines of communication and thus a collaborative approach by fishers, farmers, researchers, councils and catchment and fishery managers to understand the linkages, so as to implement ecosystem-based management. Further, it will provide a model as to how such collaborative approaches may be best carried out in other Australian coastal fisheries. The project meets Victorian FRAB priority 2012 - Understanding linkages between primary productivity and fisheries to improve ecosystem based fisheries management.


1. Use fishermen’s local knowledge to create a map of current seagrass distribution and to document past ecosystem states and historical fluctuations in seagrass cover in Corner Inlet. We will identify areas of seagrass declines outside of natural change and provide report and recommendations for WGCMA.

2. Create a report and recommendations to WGCMA identifying the threats to seagrass posed by agricultural chemical use in the catchment, and investigating alternatives to the use of such chemicals

3. Link the key threats to seagrass in Corner Inlet with historical seagrass loss, focusing on the role of nutrients in driving algal blooms

4. Facilitate the sharing of fishermen’s local knowledge of the aquatic system and threats through a series of workshops involving local management agencies and farmers

5. Review mapping and engagement process, investigating the feasibility of ongoing seagrass monitoring and creating general guidelines for future collaborative catchment management

Final Report - 2013-021-DLD - Using local knowledge to understand linkages between ecosystem processes, seagrass change and fisheries productivity to improve ecosystem-based management

Final Report
Author(s):John R. Ford
Date Published:June 2016

Principle Investigator: John R Ford

Keywords: Algal blooms, catchment inputs, catchment management, collaborative management, ecosystem


This project is the first in Australia to comprehensively engage fisher's local knowledge to understand and address external, catchment-related threats to fisheries productivity. The project, led by researchers at the University of Melbourne, collaborated with the Corner Inlet commercial fishing industry to document, understand, communicate and address declines in fish habitat that threatens productivity. Declines in seagrass, the key fish habitat, was intrinsically linked with the activities in the broader region through catchment runoff and addition of excess nutrients and sediments from land. We successfully raised the regional and management profile of the fishery, its importance to the economy and culture, and increased the awareness of threats to the fishery. Most importantly, and in collaboration with local catchment managers and the farming industry, we engineered and have begun to implement attitude and practice changes that will undoubtedly benefit the fishery in the long term.

We present in this report an analysis of seagrass decline and its threat to coastal fisheries, with a detailed case study of the issues specifically facing Corner Inlet and its fishery. We document seagrass decline in Corner Inlet between 1965 and 2013, and identify algal blooms and turbidity as key threats. We outline a unique methodology of valuing and using the local environmental knowledge of fishers to understand environmental change to help inform threats and guide management action. Finally, we provide a set of guidelines for engaging coastal fishing communities in catchment management, and hope to see this approach applied successfully across fisheries at risk from catchment-related inputs.