Monash University researchers are diving beneath the waters of the Falkland Islands as they survey the local seaweeds that are poorly known yet so vital to the island's economy. PENNY FANNIN reports.
The kelp forests off the coast of the Falkland Islands are a favoured spot for Patagonian long-finned squid to spawn. The squid come in to shore and lay their eggs in packets, attaching them to the kelp stalks. The eggs remain on the kelp until they hatch.
Just as the kelp is vital to the squids' survival, squid fishing is a fundamental part of the Falklands' economy. Over the past few years, squid - mostly Patagonian long-finned squid, which makes the best calamari, and a larger, coarser squid called Illex - has made up about 60 per cent of the catch for Falkland Islands' fishermen.
Despite the importance of kelp and other seaweeds to the country's economy, little is known about the vast amount of seaweed found in the area.
However, Professor Margaret Clayton from Monash's School of Biological Sciences is carrying out the Falkland Islands Seaweed Survey - the most comprehensive study for nearly 100 years.
Professor Clayton and Dr Louise Phillips spent a month in the Falklands in January conducting field studies and collecting specimens in a visit partly financed by the Shackleton Scholarship Fund. The fund supports research of benefit to the Falklands community.
Professor Clayton and Dr Phillips collected specimens of nearly all the 180 species known in the Islands, also finding some that have previously not been found there and some that appear to be new to science.
"Seaweeds are a vital natural resource for the Falkland Islands," says Professor Clayton."They are a key component of coastal ecosystems, where they make a major contribution to primary production and provide the habitat and/or food source for a wide variety of marine life, including young fish, squid eggs and crustaceans.
"The health and overall biodiversity of coastal ecosystems depend on seaweeds. This affects the environment - and the
economy of the Falklands - through the complex interactions and interdependence between seaweeds and marine fauna such as birds and mammals."
Professor Clayton, Dr Phillips and Mr Ronnie Snyder, a volunteer and qualified marine biologist who dived for seaweeds with Dr Phillips, collected 350 specimens from a range of Falkland Island localities, including Cape Pembroke, Berkeley Sound, Stanley, the Canache, Sea Lion Island, Weddell Island, Hill Cove, Roy Cove, Pebble Island, Ruggles Bay, Darwin and Port Sussex.
Professor Clayton aims to use these specimens to provide up-to-date information on what she calls the "unique and distinctive seaweed flora" of the Falkland Islands. She is preparing duplicate sets of herbarium specimens for the Falkland Islands National Herbarium and the Natural History Museum in London.
After extensive research taking place for most of this year, Professor Clayton plans to produce a scientific checklist and an illustrated guidebook to the common species.
As well as collaborating with Falklands Conservation, the Department of Agriculture and the Falkland Islands Development Corporation on the project, Professor Clayton and Dr Phillips are working with Dr Phillip Stone of the British Geological Survey on the biology of calcified seaweeds in the Falklands.
These seaweeds grow offshore, but after being washed inshore they dry out, die and form huge deposits that are mined and used by local farmers as fertiliser.
Action: For more information, contact Professor Margaret Clayton on +61 3 9905 5630 or email email@example.com.
Professor Margaret Clayton (left) and Dr Louise Phillips are conducting a comprehensive study of seaweed in the Falkland Islands.