Giant Australian Cuttlefish betrayed by shoddy journalism

Since 2011 here at Cuttlefish Country we have endeavored to keep people informed about the status of the Northern Spencer Gulf Giant Australian cuttlefish aggregation, possible drivers of the decline and the mounting pressures to further industrialise their habitat to serve the expansion of primary industries in South Australia. We have closely followed and investigated the scientific and political stories which are inextricably linked. We have also followed with great interest how the media has reported on these matters. In May 2014, Australian Geographic (the journal of the Australian Geographic Society) published a lengthy article which covered some of this ground (see issue #120). The title of the piece was, and quite appropriately, Plight of the Giants and featured a variety of scientific opinions, anecdotes and some speculation. It was also with some interest that we noticed that an almost identical article was republished under the more diffusive title of Giant Cuttlefish: Undetermined decline as an Australian Geographic blog post in September, this time without the wonderful spread of images which brought the original story to life.

On reading the blog post, I noted a number of inaccuracies in figures and key information, and was also troubled by the apparent bias of the piece. The article names sources selectively, and does so in a manner which is consistent with the way SARDI (South Australian Research & Development Institute) presentations favour naming some sources while withholding others. While I was making notes in response to the article, I sought the opinion of Ruth Trigg, a professional linguist who provided her basic analysis of the article.

‘We don’t know therefore let’s not get too worried’ is the overriding theme of this piece. It is the rhetoric of ‘we are on top of this by being on the spot and observing’, but in fact, what is being developed is the credibility and authority of the named ‘researchers’. It is validating the deep metaphor of science as ‘quest’, as adventure, even as fortuitous luck, but until the last paragraph (many readers don’t make it to the end), it is never about serious analysis of the whole complex interaction of the living environment nor the intervention of the human species. It is validating the status quo, which leaves the cuttlefish going up and down, the scientists being the adventurous observers on $750 000 in grants and their careers being ‘developed’, and in the mean time, the real issues worthy of analysis are so superficially treated that they fall off the table.’

Ruth Trigg is a committee member of the Marine Life Society of South Australia, a not-for-profit organisation based in Adelaide. What now follows are my own observations and analyses, wrapped with relevant additional information to either correct inaccuracies, or provide context which was missing from the article.

Sepia apama amongst the benthic algae

Sepia apama amongst the benthic algae

The discovery and origins of the Giant Australian cuttlefish aggregation

The AG blog post states in its opening paragraphs that the aggregation was discovered in the late 1990s. To the best of our knowledge, it was actually discovered by a team of environmental scientists which included Pat Harbison, the decade prior. The discovery was made during studies investigating the impact of pollution plumes from BHP’s (now Onesteel) steelworks on seagrass. This account was relayed to me in person by Pat, who described observing a living carpet of animals covering the seafloor. Interestingly, this was within False Bay, over sandy bottom and not rocky reef which is known to be their preferred habitat. This suggests the possibility of a great abundance of the population in the 1980s, and potentially an overflow beyond the 60 hectares of reef currently regarded as prime breeding habitat. It is also not known how densely populated the extensive breakwater and rockwall structures at the Onesteel (formerly BHP) steelworks were in the 1980s and 1990s, though Karina Hall’s SARDI publications from the late 1990s note that density of animals was greater at the BHP rockwall than at other observed naturally occurring habitats in the area. It is also known that some of this habitat was lost during the 2000s when ‘fines’ (finely ground rock) were used to fill gaps in the rockwalls. This process filled potential cuttlefish dens and rendered viable egg-laying habitat useless.

The article describes the fishing effort on the cuttlefish aggregation in the 1990s as being ‘to freeze and export to Asia where they are used in dishes’. This neglects to mention the other markets for the product, which we are informed included pet food and fishing bait. Tony Bramley (Whyalla Diving Services) has previously told me that the meat sold for as little as $1 per kilogram- which puts the dollar value of a cuttlefish life at $1-$1.50. It is also important to note that there were no quotas in place during the years of heavy fishing, and that some of the commercial fishers were among those lobbying for the introduction of quotas and appropriate management of the fishery at this time. There is strong evidence to suggest that a hands-off approach to fisheries management was in place in the late 1990s which permitted the removal of hundreds of thousands of animals from the breeding aggregation in a few short years. This also preceded the discovery that the animals were semilparous, which means they only get one crack at reproduction before dying.

Point Lowly's southern shore

Point Lowly’s southern shore

Cuttlefish protection, too little and too late?

‘A total ban on harvesting them around the Lowly peninsula was negotiated, and has now been renewed 14 years in a row.’

This statement is also misleading, as it suggests that swift action was taken and that the breeding area has been responsibly managed for 14 years. This was not the case. The protected area actually began as a modest temporal closure, concentrated on the waters of False Bay, rather than on the prime inshore rocky reef habitats. It was not until 2013 that the population was totally protected from targeted fishing across its entire range. For years, Tony Bramley and his peers in Whyalla argued that the limited spacial closure was inadequate, and fought for its gradual extension in both time and area. Meanwhile, nothing was done to investigate the impacts of legacy and proposed pollution of these waters prior to the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam mine expansion Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) studies. There is a dearth of information on the vulnerabilities of eggs for example, with the exception being their known vulnerability to desalination brine with salinity levels greater than ambient ocean. The aggregation occurs within the Upper Spencer Gulf Marine Park, but the park’s management plan does nothing to manage current or future sources of pollution from heavy industry, aquaculture and commercial shipping. The concept to establish the adjacent peninsula as the Port Bonython Mineral Precinct was also formalised during this period, which has seen the State government’s primary industries led development agenda work against the known and widely published environmental values of the area.

Map of Point Lowly - Proposed developments & protected areas

Map of Point Lowly – Proposed developments & protected areas

A genetically distinct population and possibly a unique cuttlefish species

Because the population is currently considered to be Sepia apama, its conservation status considers the species’ whole range (from Brisbane in Queensland around the south coast to Shark Bay, Western Australia). The IUCN Red List classifies the species to be Near Threatened, a fact which is rarely reported. This listing was published in 2012 and was based on an assessment made in 2009, back when the Northern Spencer Gulf population was substantially greater than it is today. A reassessment of available data could well lead to a higher classification of IUCN listing, with or without proving the population to be its own species.

In this article, Professor Bronwyn Gillanders is reported as saying that it ‘may’ be possible to list the animals as endangered or vulnerable with implications for conservation, following such a conclusion. She has informed me that this work will be complete and published in early 2015. Its significance for conservation is understated here by Bronwyn, as the article also clearly states the population has dropped by 93% over its brief recorded history. It would thus receive elevated conservation status immediately, leaping from Near Threatened to Endangered or Critically Endangered, and onto the Federally protected EPBC list of threatened species to which it has already been nominated and rejected twice previously. It would then in turn prompt the development of a recovery plan, and constructive intervention to assist the population would seriously drop into gear. Aside from implementing a total fishing ban on targeting cuttlefish in Northern Spencer Gulf in 2013, the State government has done nothing to genuinely, directly support the recovery of the species. Conservation listing would focus study and intervention to facilitate the population’s recovery.

The ‘natural variation’ hypothesis could support a ‘do nothing’ response

When talking about the unknown history of the population’s abundance pre-1980s, SARDI scientists raise three hypotheses. Two of the three hypotheses (the two favoured by SARDI) suggest that because there may not have been as great an abundance of cuttlefish prior to 1998 (and any formal population counts) or because their population may have never been stable, that the decline may be of limited concern. The third hypothesis also demonstrates internal bias, as it lumps natural processes (rainfall and predation for example) and human activities (such as fish farming, trawling and shipping) in the same cluster of potential drivers. SARDI’s most recent public presentation on the cuttlefish (25-09-2014) suggested that predator-prey relationships should be a higher research priority than pollution investigations or potential industrial impacts. This is of deep concern, as if hypotheses one or two are fixated upon, they could be easily used to justify doing nothing and worse- to support the introduction of new environmental hazards, a new port development and a three-fold increase in commercial shipping among them.

‘Some experts even speculate the aggregation itself represented an unusual spike that has now passed.’

In reality, there is a paucity of data to suggest that this could be the case- the only comparable historical records of abundance only extend back as far as the late 1990s. This is wild speculation and not scientific. If experts truly believe this, why aren’t they attributed as believing so? The other thing that troubles me is that the history appears to be of greater concern to some scientists than the future of the aggregation.

Karina Hall features briefly in the article, casting some doubt on theories of natural fluctuation. Her work is then misrepresented however, as it states that ‘her research showed that 244 tonnes of cuttlefish, perhaps 30,000 individuals, were caught by fishers in 1997 alone.’ This inaccuracy puts this figure out by a magnitude of ten. A figure of 300,000 animals caught is more likely. It also accidentally provides false evidence to support the natural variation hypotheses and diminshes the impact of commercial fishing. Errors of this kind favour the primary industrialists’ development agenda at the expense of the cuttlefish.

‘Another scientist in 1982 says she didn’t find any cuttlefish at all.’

This scientist also went unnamed in a SARDI presentation I attended this week. Why would this evidence pass by without attribution? Perhaps this name is being withheld for some alternative reason? Where was this diver looking, and during which season? This is a key item on my list for fact checking.

‘Male giant Australian cuttlefish can reach 1 metre in length and weigh up to 16 kilograms, about the size of a small dog.’

This statement is misleading as it fails to acknowledge that the Northern Spencer Gulf population is genetically distinct, restricted to living within the gulf’s northern waters, and that the weight range for fully grown adults is far less- typically 1-1.5 kilograms, as stated in SARDI’s 2013 publication assessing the population. The ‘giant’ Sepia apama the author is confusing here with our population, are distinct populations from outside of northern Spencer Gulf. While Sepia apama from further afield have been recorded to weight over 10.5 kilograms, I am not aware of any recorded weighing as much as 16 kilograms.

Industrial impacts are side-cast prematurely

The ambiguous ‘some experts’ raise their heads again, attributed to having concerns about pollution from local industry from the Whyalla steelworks, the gas fractionation plant, kingfish and snapper farming and shipping traffic. Why aren’t these experts named? Do they have less authority than those whose names appear in the article some how? If this information was obtained from this website, why wasn’t Cuttlefish Country attributed? We would of course, welcome the attention.

Our current concern relates to a correlation between the increasing volumes of nutrient pollution from Yellowtail Kingfish aquaculture- and industrial activity which grew from a paper concept in the late 1990s until its collapse in 2011, after animal health problems. The graph of the three publicly available data points shows the industry’s growth from a tiny pilot operation to the region’s major nutrient polluter.

There are also concerns about the long-term contamination from heavy metals originating from the lead smelter at Port Pirie and the steelworks at Whyalla. Cuttlefish Country has not been able to obtain any data on heavy metal contamination of cuttlefish.  The Government Cuttlefish Working Group of which the Conservation Council of South Australia is a participating partner, initiated a study that was undertaken by the Environment Protection Authority to investigate whether there are abnormally high levels of metals are accumulating in Giant Australian cuttlefish.  While reference has been made to this study in two official Cuttlefish Updates, the actual report and its results are yet to be released.

Another industrial impact, cuttlefish bycatch by prawn trawlers doesn’t rate a mention in the article at all. Cuttlefish bycatch data has been collected, but again, is not publicly available.’


Major marine nutrient pollution discharges in Upper Spencer Gulf

Major marine nutrient pollution discharges in Upper Spencer Gulf

A cuttlefish cameo in a very popular video

The article reports that Roger Hanlon’s cuttlefish footage features in a talk which has been viewed over 10 million times. The footage is indeed fantastic, but the article did not mention the name of the video or its presenter. Fortunately we were able to track it down. It’s presented by David Gallo, and features not only Giant Australian Cuttlefish, but octopus and a variety of bio-luminescent creatures from deeper water. If you’re into cephalopods or enjoy a good magic trick, it’s well worth a look.

The Olympic Dam mine – Copper concentrates and brine pollution

The article refers to the Olympic Dam mine, but describes it as ‘one of the world’s largest gold and uranium mines’. The mine is primarily a copper mine, with gold and uranium being secondary products. This is an important omission, as cuttlefish are vulnerable to copper concentrate contamination should mining company BHP Billiton consider exporting from the proposed Port Bonython export facility in the future. This is a distinct possibility, as specified in the Olympic Dam mine expansion’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of 2009.

On the topic of the mine expansion’s proposed seawater desalination plant at Point Lowly, the article reports that ‘BHP argues that brine emissions will be minimal.’ This is inaccurate, as the plant will return between 300 and 370 million litres of brine to the waters off Point Lowly every day according to its EIS. The brine’s salt concentration is approximately 70 parts per thousand. The threshold for total egg mortality for Sepia apama was determined by Bronwyn Gillanders during the Olympic Dam EIS studies to be 50 parts per thousand. BHP Billiton may well have claimed that the brine may be of minimal concern, but this is contested, due to the occurrence of dodge tides (fortnightly periods of reduced tidal flow) and the slow-flushing nature of the Upper Spencer Gulf. According to oceanographic modelling by Professor Jochen Kaempf, water in Upper Spencer Gulf can take in excess of 400 days to flush with open ocean, and flushing is slowest during spring and summer, when the cuttlefish parents are dead, and the next generation’s embryo’s are developing along the inshore reefs of the Point Lowly peninsula.

BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam Mine Site 2011

BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam Mine Site 2011

The fallacy of ‘creating awareness’

Under the spurious sub-heading of ‘Creating awareness for the cuttlefish’s plight’ the closing paragraphs draw attention to the Adelaide Fringe’s presentation of Stobie the Disco Cuttlefish, and our criticism of it in response to the absence of any environmental messages, information or calls to action. Nevertheless, Australian Geographic surmises that ‘Stobie’s appearance as a mainstay at this popular arts festival signals that awareness of the special connection of the species to South Australia is on the rise.’ From my experience, this is inaccurate, as a tightly controlled media (The Advertiser being the star example) prevents any deep, considered environmental journalism ever gracing its pages. If this section was truly about raising awareness about the cuttlefish decline, perhaps this website would have warranted a mention?

Sadly, South Australians remain largely asleep or misinformed on the complex, highly politicised and nuanced issues of cuttlefish survival and regional development. We intend to break that slumber with the release of our feature-length documentary film Cuttlefish Country in the near future, and also give children a chance to experience the challenge of cuttlefish survival themselves in our computer game, Cuttle Scuttle, which is also in development. In the mean time, we are hopeful that this response will prove useful to journalists reporting on these matters.

Dan Monceaux
Director, Cuttlefish Country


Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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