Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Dr Norm Duke, a marine biologist with The University of Queensland’s Centre for Marine Studies, has been engaged by PTTEP Australasia (Ashmore Cartier) Pty Ltd to examine the potential risk to coastline ecosystems, following the Montara oil and gas leak 200 km north-west of Western Australia's Kimberley coastline.

Through a contract negotiated with UQ’s main commercialisation company, UniQuest, Dr Duke will spend ten days this month conducting an independent baseline ecological assessment aerial survey with 20 ground sampling sites along the shoreline from Darwin to Broome (excluding Ashmore reef).

The first study of its kind for the area, the survey aims to capture the current and un-impacted condition of the relevant coastal species and habitats. From a chartered helicopter, data will be collected in the form of high-definition video and still photography, with correlating GPS location information, to establish a baseline and permanent record of the coast prior to any potential impact from the oil spill. Ground surveys will collect samples of sediment, seawater and biota.

If any oil reaches the coastline, the baseline data is expected to help determine whether any damage to the local ecosystems observed was pre-existing or the result of the spill or the clean-up. The study will also be used for any future monitoring of the area.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said (as at 3 November) the oil spill was approximately 71 kilometres from the West Australian coastline and about 237 kilometres from the Indonesian coastline (see end note).

Dr Duke, recognised worldwide for his specialist knowledge of mangrove forest and tidal wetland ecosystems, and a former marine investigator for the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, believes the survey sets a positive example for all industry types working near vulnerable shoreline habitats.

“This survey is a proactive effort to have a better understanding of environmental impacts on the shoreline before any potential situation occurs,” Dr Duke said.

“It’s important to understand what is ‘normal’ for any individual stretch of shoreline. In mangroves and salt marsh areas, for example, plant die-back and washed-up carcases maybe common at times.

“Once we know what the baseline conditions are, if this oil spill or any other type of threat reaches the area we will have a much better idea of the strength and extent of the impact and what needs to be done to recover and rehabilitate potentially affected areas.”

Dr Duke confirmed that the scope and design of the study would incorporate scientific monitoring standards for both aerial and ground surveys, as specified in the Monitoring Plan for the Montara Well Release in the Timor Sea agreed between PTTEP and the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA). The data will be collected and interpreted independently, with PTTEP submitting the final report to DEWHA for public release.

Two other experienced UQ researchers with specialist skills will be assisting Dr Duke. Jock Mackenzie is writing his PhD thesis on mangroves as indicators of estuarine health. Alex Haller has experience with mapping software and satellite imagery. All members of the crew have extensive experience in Australian and overseas marine survey work and have undertaken certified Sea and Safety Survival Underwater Escape training.

UniQuest Managing Director, David Henderson, said the PTTEP contract was a valuable investment, not only for the environment, but also in developing stronger connections between multinational companies and Australian university research.

“University researchers are in demand because they can offer impartiality and credibility – two very important qualities for businesses making significant economic decisions that impact on their corporate reputation,” Mr Henderson said.

“UniQuest makes it possible for businesses of all sizes here and overseas to access hundreds of experts in many fields of research, as well as the world-class technical and human resources of UQ’s research facilities. Helping companies like PTTEP engage the best teams for the task, especially when timing is a critical factor, also offers researchers new field experiences and the satisfaction of knowing their efforts are adding value to industry and community development.”

The single baseline survey will be conducted from the second week of November, with Dr Duke and his team travelling from Darwin to Broome by helicopter and boat.

Note: Best estimates of the distance of oil from coastlines are based on observations from aircraft and will vary daily depending also on what land point the measurement is taken and the direction the oil is located at the time.

Contact Profile

UniQuest Pty Limited

Established by The University of Queensland in 1984, UniQuest is widely recognised as one of Australia’s largest and most successful university commercialisation groups, benchmarking in the top tier of technology transfer worldwide. From an intellectual property portfolio of 1,500+ patents it has created over 60 companies, and since 2000 UniQuest and its start-ups have raised more than $400 million to take university technologies to market. Annual sales of products using UQ technology and licensed by UniQuest are running at $3 billion. UniQuest now commercialises innovations developed at The University of Queensland and its commercialisation partner institutions: the University of Wollongong, University of Technology Sydney, James Cook University, University of Tasmania, Mater Medical Research Institute, and Queensland Health. UniQuest also provides access to an expansive and exclusive network of independent academics to tailor a consulting or project R&D solution to meet the diverse needs of industry and government, facilitating some 500 consulting, expert opinion, testing, and contract research services each year.

UniQuest is also a leading Australasian provider of international development assistance recognised for excellence in technical leadership, management and research. Working with agencies such as AusAID, NZAID, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, UniQuest has developed and implemented more than 400 projects in 46 countries throughout the Pacific, South-East Asia, the Indian sub-continent and Africa.

Leanne Wyvill
P: +61 7 3365 4037
M: +61 0 409767199

Roley Myers

P: PTTEP Australasia
M: 0423 552 965


This survey is a proactive effort to have a better understanding of environmental impacts on the shoreline before any potential situation occurs.



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