Profile: Bardi Jawi marine scientist Marlee Hutton

By Chris McKayJuly 27th, 2017

Marlee Hutton is contributing to a better understanding of west coast marine ecosystems and learning about the role science can play in the issues her and her community in the Kimberley care about.
Woman at coastal location

Marlee Hutton at Roebuck Bay in The Kimberley.

For Bardi Jawi scientist Marlee Hutton, growing up in the Kimberley region of Western Australia meant spending a lot of time in the water. She split her time between her home in Broome and Bardi Jawi Country, a couple of hours drive north on the Dampier Peninsula, where her grandmother and other relatives live. It was here she developed a love for the sea country in these parts that would eventually lead her to a career in marine science.

When large scale gas developments were proposed for the Kimberley region, Marlee saw how it divided the communities she was a part of—some people supported development and others opposed it. She also saw that there was a role here for a trusted source of scientific information to help the local people understand the potential impacts and benefits of such developments on the communities and the environment.

“I found there was a lack of people to communicate appropriately with Indigenous communities about those sorts of developments,” she says.

“That’s when I realised I’d really like to get involved in studying something to do with environmental or marine science, and maybe in the future link that with community work somewhere.”

Woman with microscope

Marlee preparing seagrass samples from One Arm Point

Her desire to better understand marine and coastal environments and the impacts development can have on them led her to study a Bachelor of Science, with a double major in marine and environmental science, at Murdoch University. While still studying she landed an internship with CSIRO’s Coastal Ecosystems team in Perth and upon finishing was offered the position of Research Technician.

“My role sees me helping out a number of different marine projects,” Marlee says. “We’re working on a massive database of echinoderms (starfish) for the north west of WA. We’re aiming to create an interactive online map of starfish distribution and diversity for the area.”

“I’m also helping out with another project where we’re trying to improve our understanding of turtle diets. So, I’ve dissected quite a few turtle stomachs, which is a very stinky job! Soon I’ll be assisting with understanding whale shark diets too.”

Recently, she has become involved in a dugong management project in the Kimberley, led by CSIRO’s Peter Bayliss, which links her back to her home Country. The project is a collaboration with Indigenous coastal communities there, and Indigenous Ranger groups from the Kimberley in particular, to share knowledge and skills. Marlee has been training to conduct aerial environmental observations to monitor dugong populations and other marine species in the region.

“My ideal thing I’d love to do is to work with the Indigenous Ranger groups in the Kimberley,” she says. “That comes back to the whole reason I started down this path, I wanted to liaise with Indigenous communities about science and I think doing that through Indigenous Ranger groups is one of the best ways.”

Three people in front of light plane

Setting off on an aerial survey to observe dugong in The Kimberley

Read more about the dugong monitoring and management project.