Eye tests to eye fillets: 10 science projects in northern Australia

By Kate CranneyAugust 17th, 2021

Our scientists have been working in northern Australia for more than 90 years. Science and technology continues to transform the north, a region spanning more than 40 per cent of Australia's land mass.

As early as the 1920s, CSIRO scientists have been working in the north, researching everything from prickly pear, cattle breeding, pineapple and coconut diseases, and buffalo-fly.

Fast forward to today, and we have numerous projects across northern Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. This week, our scientists are presenting at the virtual Developing Northern Australia event. Here is just a taste of the work we’re doing across the region.

1. Supporting stronger fisheries and aquaculture

A prawn

Our research support the development of stronger fisheries and aquaculture industries. In Australia, prawn farming is a 5000T, $90 million industry.

Northern Australia is famous for its fish (Million Dollar Barra, anyone?!).

Our scientists are helping existing aquaculture industries through breeding programs for barramundi and black tiger prawns. We’re also investigating a new white flesh fish species for northern Australia to replace imported fish products.

Our science underpins the profitability of the northern prawn and tropical rock lobster fisheries. And our research has indicated significant potential for the development of large‑scale, saltwater pond aquaculture in the coastal regions across the north.

2. Turning horticultural ‘trash’ into treasure

A mango

Our scientists are helping mango farmers and other producers upscale their product and waste streams.

In a region long touted as a food bowl, our scientists are working on smart, sustainable options for northern Australia’s food production. We’re beginning work with northern Australia’s producers to help establish niche markets and value add to existing industries. For example, we’re looking at markets for upcycling and secondary processing of mangoes. Why? Each year there is 11,000 tonnes of mango food waste in the Northern Territory alone. We’re delivering science innovation to the food industry.

3. Providing eye screening in remote Indigenous communities

A retina photo of an eye

Image of a retina with diabetic retinopathy.

Left undiagnosed and untreated, eye conditions such as diabetic retinopathy can lead to vision loss or total blindness, which can affect a person’s mobility, overall health and quality of life. We’re working with partners on a multi-year project to establish eye screening services to prevent avoidable blindness in remote northern Australian communities. The outcome? A working sustainable teleophthalmology service, to help detect eye problems early and enable timely treatment. This service delivery involves connecting metropolitan based ophthalmologists with remote health clinics via telehealth to prevent the leading cause of preventable blindness in working aged people.

4. Actively managing the north’s biosecurity risks

A buffalo in the bush

We’re partnering with Traditional Owners to find new ways to protect land and culture, including using satellites to track buffaloes and cattle.

Cane toads. Varroa mite. African swine fever. Northern Australia’s tropical environment makes it more receptive to certain pests, weeds, and diseases. These unwelcome guests threaten the sustainable development of new and existing primary industries in the north, at to the environment itself. The north also acts as a “green bridge” for exotic pests and diseases to travel down to southern Australia.

Our scientists are working with industry and government agencies to investigate new risks and biosecurity challenges. We’re also working on the biosecurity management process: from threat identification all the way through to ‘on the ground’ work. And working closely with Indigenous groups on the surveillance, detection and management of new biosecurity threats. This includes the deployment of smart technologies and social approaches to biosecurity.

5. Working with Indigenous groups to eradicate invasive ants

Two ants on a leaf

Our long-term partnership with the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation and Rio Tinto has eradicated yellow crazy ants from 30+ locations in Arnhem Land.

Our scientists have worked on invasive ants on Indigenous lands, in collaboration with Indigenous ranger groups, for more than 20 years. Invasive ants, like the yellow crazy ant, have signficant environmental, social, and economic threats to Australia. We’re currently focusing on the use of RNA interference as a non-toxic and species‑specific tool for invasive ant management. This eliminates the potential for non-target impacts.

6. Helping unlock the future of protein

A photo of someone taking a photo of food

Future protein (Image: V2Food)

Future protein is a growth opportunity for northern Australia.

Protein is a building block of life. We’ll need to grow more protein of every kind, more sustainably, to feed the world. So how can we deliver high quality, affordable, sustainable, and nutritionally-optimised protein? Our scientists are helping producers capture high-growth global protein markets. This includes work into animal, plant, and novel protein products.

7. Supporting Indigenous-led decision making

We are working with Indigenous communities and organisations to create Indigenous-driven science solutions that support sustainable futures for Indigenous peoples, cultures and Country.

In the north, we’re involved in a portfolio of research partnerships and co-developed projects. For example, in the wetlands of Kakadu, Northern Territory, rangers are using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Indigenous Knowledge to care for country. The results are promising: thousands of magpie geese are returning to nest. And on the remote beaches of western Cape York, rangers are using AI, cloud computing and Indigenous knowledge to protect endangered sea turtle hatchlings from feral pigs.

8. Investigating the potential of water resources

A boat cruising along a river

We have done water resource assessments across the north, including the Darwin catchments in the Northern Territory.

There’s great interest in harnessing water in northern Australia, for irrigated agriculture and other developments. But there has also been a significant lack of data. Much of the land and water in the north hasn’t been mapped in enough detail to support good decision-making.

With a team of collaborators, our scientists have worked on several catchment-scale studies in the north. These water resource assessments provide analysis about water availability, soils, potential crops, and social and environmental information. They improve confidence about the scale and nature of the opportunities in the north, and outline any risks involved with development. At the moment, we’re working in the Roper River and Victoria River catchments in the Northern Territory, and in several Gulf catchments.

9. Helping make Darwin a cooler, more liveable city

The future looks hot for Darwin. The city is already experiencing the kind of increase in hot days that were predicted for the year 2030.

The Darwin Living Lab is a 10-year collaboration between CSIRO, the Australian and Territory Governments and City of Darwin. Since 2019, the team has been testing and evaluating heat mitigation measures. By using real work experiments, our scientists are informing tropical urban design. For instance, we’ve mapped the hot and cool spots of Darwin. And this amazing image is the output of 3D laser scanning technology, used to monitor the greening of Darwin.

10. Supporting smarter logistics and infrastructure decisions

An aerial photo of a hay truck

We created a transport logistics tool help reduce the costs of agriculture transport and supply chain logistics.

How do mangoes get from the Top End to a corner store in Tasmania? In the north, the distance between production and markets is often more than 1,000km.

Transport infrastructure is essential for moving more than 100 million tonnes of agricultural and forest product output annually in Australia. To help reduce costs of agriculture transport and supply chain logistics, our scientists developed the Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool (TraNSIT).

Using TraNSIT, we produced Australia’s first detailed map of routes and costings across the country’s entire agricultural supply chain. In the north, we have supported investments in beef roads; assessed the needs for infrastructure to support new agricultural development; and helped plan responses to natural disasters such as floods and cyclones. Keep truckin’, Australia!

1 comments

  1. Many of the issues relating to Darwin a cooler, more liveable city also applies to cities in the South. Especially when most development is removing a lot of green space.

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