16 October 2018

Scientific research provides the bedrock of information that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) uses to make fisheries management decisions. Many aspects of AFMA’s management, such as deciding catch limits and assessing how fishing impacts marine species and the environment, are based on scientific data.

DNA and genetic research continue to open new frontiers in the world of science. As the building-block of life, DNA is packed with information that has many potential uses for scientists. Fisheries scientists are increasingly turning to DNA for fisheries stock assessments, selective breeding programs for farmed fish, and species identification.

To learn more about the role of DNA in fisheries management and the exciting technologies in development, we spoke with CSIRO molecular geneticist, Sharon Appleyard during her visit to AFMA’s Canberra office to present her research to staff.

Sharon has worked at CSIRO for the last 20 years and is passionate about DNA. She has used her genetic expertise in her work on fishes, sharks, rays, invertebrates such as abalone and oysters and micro-algae. She is particularly interested in research that has real-world, practical applications.

One of Sharon’s current projects on environmental DNA could revolutionise how fisheries scientists collect data. Environmental DNA, or eDNA, is DNA collected from the environment rather than directly from the animal. Sharon collects eDNA from water samples to work out which fish species are present in that area without the need to catch any fish. With further development, Sharon hopes that eDNA technology will give researchers greater information, such as the size and number of fish present. This could dramatically change how scientists perform fisheries stock assessments, which are vital to AFMA’s decision-making. 

Sharon also assesses the genetic diversity and connectivity of various threatened, endangered and protected species, such as hammerhead sharks and the spotted handfish.  This is important for identifying risks to these vulnerable species and to the sustainable management of fisheries.

Genetic technology is advancing rapidly and exciting products are on the horizon. Sharon is looking forward to the development of portable, hand-held devices that could be used in the field to analyse genetic information on the spot. Such a tool could be used by AFMA observers or commercial fishers to quickly identify what fish have been caught while at sea. This would improve the accuracy of fishers’ logbooks, make their job easier, and give AFMA more exact catch data.

In the future, scientists may also use DNA to age fish, gain information about an animal’s environment and understand why fish respond to pressures like climate change. This technology will change how fisheries scientists collect data and will ultimately improve AFMA’s management of Commonwealth fisheries.

Find out more about the role of science to fisheries management here.