Making a career out of a marine dream

Image by Harriet Spark, Grumpy Turtle Creative.

Personnel Image

Written By

Mykala Wright


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

9 August 2022

An island of inspiration

Growing up in the Central Torres Strait, part of Northern Australia, JCU Alumni Madeina David knew from a young age that she wanted to work on the water. As she got older, her fascination with the ocean evolved and her passion to preserve marine life for future generations led her to pursue marine biology.

As a child, Madeina spent most of her spare time on and in the water surrounding her home, Yam Island.

“Growing up, my dad was a fisherman. So, that meant I was out on the boat all day every day before I even started primary school,” she says. “Being on the water all the time inspired me. I knew early on that I wanted to study the things in the water, I just didn’t know at the time that it was called marine biology.”

After graduating from Tagai State College on Thursday Island, Madeina heard about JCU’s tropical research stations and hands-on approach to learning and made the difficult decision to move away from her family and home on Yam Island to pursue marine biology at university in Townsville.

“I heard James Cook University was the place to be if you wanted to study marine biology, so I knew that was where I needed to go,” she says. “My decision was solidified when I got there and realised that students from all over the world had travelled to Australia to study there.”

Her university experience was enriched when she was given the opportunity to work with the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) in their first ever Fisheries Programme Indigenous Cadetship.

“I started my cadetship in 2017 and I did 12 weeks of work experience with them each year for three years before graduating uni. Undertaking a cadetship while studying helped me to think about what fields I wanted to go into after I finished my degree,” Madeina says. “I was able to apply the theory I was learning in the classroom in the world of marine science and management in the Torres Strait. The work experience I gained during the cadetship gave me a strong head start to life in the workforce.”

JCU Alumni Madeina David.

Image by Harriet Spark, Grumpy Turtle Creative.

Where the seagrass is greener

After graduating university and completing her cadetship, Madeina was offered a permanent role with the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA).

“Both the Fisheries Programme and Environmental Management Programme offered me a job, and I ended up choosing the Environmental Management position because they gave me the opportunity to go back home to Yam and work as a member of the Land and Sea Management Unit from there,” she says.

The TSRA Land and Sea Management Unit (LSMU), overseen by JCU Alumni Stan Lui, aims to empower Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal peoples to sustainably manage their natural and cultural resources.

Although based at home, Madeina’s work takes her across all of the Torres Strait, where she collaborates with local Land and Sea Rangers and Traditional Owners to monitor the marine environment. Her work includes using cutting-edge technology — such as environmental DNA (eDNA) — to monitor and map coral, seagrass and migratory species such as dugongs and turtles.

“Seagrass is important because it’s an indicator species. This means that the health of seagrasses acts as a signal of the surrounding environmental conditions. So, if there is something wrong with the seagrass then there is something wrong with the marine environment,” she says.

“It is also very important culturally for us Torres Strait Islanders. The dugong and turtles we depend on rely on the seagrass for food. So, if there is something wrong with the seagrass, marine life such as dugongs and turtles are greatly impacted, and it will affect our island communities.

“As custodians of our waters, Traditional Owners in the Torres Strait understand that sustainable use of marine life for cultural purposes is intertwined with sustainability of species and environment. Our physical, economic, cultural and spiritual lives literally depend on a healthy marine environment.”

Madeina (second from the left) working with JCU TropWATER researchers on seagrass monitoring.

Supplied by Madeina David.

Combining culture and science

As the primary project manager for coordinating seagrass monitoring between Rangers and researchers, Madeina helps manage the partnership between the TSRA and JCU’s Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER).

“My job involves working with the TropWATER researchers at JCU in Cairns, where I’m learning how to analyse and interpret the data from the seagrass monitoring the Rangers are doing and then assisting in communicating this data back to the community with a seagrass report card,” she says.

Together, TSRA and the JCU TropWATER Centre are combining traditional knowledge and modern science to train Rangers from remote island communities to monitor seagrass meadows in the Great Barrier Reef.

Madeina says that her traditional knowledge combined with the skills she gained from her science degree can help carve a path forward for sustainable and coordinated responses to care for our marine environments.

“Traditional ecological knowledge is a lot like science, but I guess it has only recently become recognised in the science world as valid. It is based on observation just like science is based on observation, and it is becoming more valued as actual data. We Indigenous scientists and communities have thousands of years of observation data sets,” she says.

“I can understand science and I can understand traditional ecological knowledge, so I can break information down to Creole for the Traditional Owners and speak in their language, and when they are trying to communicate traditional ecological knowledge back to the scientists I can translate their information into something the scientists will understand clearly.”

Madeina David (right) and Dr Karen Joyce (left) on the Reef Women expedition.

Image by Harriet Spark, Grumpy Turtle Creative.

A dream takes flight from a drone

In late 2021, Madeina was a part of an all-female team of researchers that set sail on a week-long expedition to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) to trial methods for monitoring its health.

On the trip, 15 women from JCU, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, the local tourism industry and the Torres Strait community surveyed 120 sites across 45 reefs as part of the Great Reef Census. Madeina says she feels honoured to have been a part of an expedition that highlighted the contribution women are making to reef research.

“I’m very grateful that the Reef Women expedition gave me the opportunity to work outside of the Torres Strait and learn from other scientists,” she says. “There were a lot of women from different fields; everybody brought different things to the table, and it was a privilege to get to work with them and share their knowledge.”

On board, Madeina found JCU Researcher Dr Karen Joyce’s work with drones to be particularly inspiring. Karen uses drones to map ecosystems from the sky.

“As part of the research, we were looking at sea cucumber populations. Karen had no prior knowledge of sea cucumbers, but she has the droning and mapping background, and I know about sea cucumbers from my work in the Torres Strait. So, while I was telling her about the different species, she was teaching me how to use drones for mapping and I had the chance to practice flying them,” Madeina says.

Since then, Madeina has found a passion for using drones to monitor the marine environment and hopes to pursue drone mapping in the future.

“Moving forward, I don’t want to stick to one field. The Reef Women expedition showed me that working with drones means being able to map a lot of different things,” she says.

“I was very inspired by Karen’s work. I hope that in the future I’ll be doing work with drone mapping; I’d love to survey dugong populations but also map coral reefs and map seagrass meadows. I want to do a bit of everything, and the opportunities for ecosystem mapping seem endless with drone technology.”

Madeina (far right) and the women on the Reef Women expedition.

Image by Harriet Spark, Grumpy Turtle Creative.

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