Are Stygofauna really protected in Western Australia?

Sarah Goater

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The question of whether the regulatory framework in Western Australia (WA) - ostensibly designed to protect stygofauna - really achieves that objective is the subject of my thesis. In WA, there is heavy reliance on groundwater resources for human consumption, irrigation, stock and industrial uses as they provide a relatively cheap and low-risk source of suitable water. At the same time, these systems provide refuge and habitat for subterranean aquatic fauna (stygofauna) intrinsically reliant on the sustainable management of these resources. Consequently, conflict now exists over prioritising the use of ground water for human consumption and restricting supply to maintain ecosystem functions without causing deleterious changes. Addressing this conflict in WA is the joint responsibility of the Water Corporation of WA (the Government-owned water services provider) and the relevant regulatory decision-making authorities: the Department of Water (DoW), the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

I have adopted a multidiscipline approach in the development of my hypothesis, generating discussion from the nexus of legal and scientific fields. My primary focus throughout was to identify and test the efficacy of both the relevant legislation and also the regulatory management tools in place to provide for the direct and indirect protection of stygofauna in WA. To strengthen and focus my approach, I anchored my investigations to a case-study of 8 years monitoring data collected from the Corporation’s Exmouth water supply borefield. The data set is a product of the Corporation’s regulatory obligations to protect stygofauna locally at Exmouth, but equally reflects a prevailing scientific paradigm of the early 1990s applied to the north-west of WA as the stygofauna of the region became internationally recognised. Consequently, I followed two approaches; covering both legal and scientific aspects. I based my analysis of the legal and regulatory tools on an exhaustive search of the statutory, administrative and case-study material publicly available, supplemented by correspondence within and between relevant agencies (Chapter 2). I then tested the efficacy of these legislative and regulatory controls against a post-hoc evaluation of the 8 year-long monitoring dataset, using scientific protocols to identify and highlight assumptions, limitations and statistical rigour of the sampling design and techniques (Chapters 3- 4).

My case-study findings applied to the Exmouth borefield show that, while legislative tools are in place to meet the overall objective of stygofauna protection, the regulatory framework in place to administer them combined with a dearth of local knowledge on stygofauna biology, ultimately hinders effective protective measures from being realised. My investigation highlights the reality and consequences of not developing clear, strategic objectives on why and how effective protection of stygofauna is going to be achieved though all phases of a proposed project, from scoping a proposed development through to on-going, long-term operation, or to short-term decommissioning requirements. In Chapter 5, I take a broader perspective of my case-study findings to deliberate briefly whether, in fact, the overall objective of protection of stygofauna in WA is being realised. A summary of my findings is as follows.

1) While legislation does exist in WA to protect all forms of stygofauna directly, these statutory tools are currently not used to full effect, as stygofauna in WA are not universally subject to the same suite of environmental laws as other surface-dwelling or vertebrate biota, confounded by inconsistencies between relevant statutory and policy objectives.

2) Regulatory mechanisms to protect stygofauna indirectly (via protection of the groundwater resources upon which they depend) are limited by focused application to large-scale projects, as opposed to a state-wide or catchment-scale approaches, and rely heavily on project specific environmental commitments set to ‘protect and maintain’ local stygofauna populations.

3) The underlying objective of environmental commitments to ‘protect and maintain’ stygofauna populations cannot be met using traditional sampling methods due to a distinct absence of knowledge of the ecological and biological drivers of species richness and abundances changes in the monitoring data.

4) Little consideration is given to competing priorities between environmental laws for the protection of stygofauna, and those promoting groundwater resources developments for human use, highlighting the need for a multi-discipline approach to stygofauna conservation in WA.

Consequently, I conclude that the current regulatory frameworks to conserve stygofauna in WA and the groundwater resources they depend upon do not provide adequately for their protection.

The inadequacy of the current framework reflects prevailing societal conscience, combined with limited integration of legal and biological tools to implement effective management practices. Thus, I propose here a proactive new adaptive management system to research, evaluate and protect stygofauna collectively in WA.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
  • Gardner, Alex, Supervisor
  • Knott, Brenton, Supervisor
  • Storey, Andrew, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - 2009


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