The finds include sea slugs, feather stars and amphipods, a shrimp-like animal.
Professor Jim Thomas from the National Coral Reef Institute at Nova Southeastern University in Florida says the wealth of species in the Madang Lagoon is greater than along the entire length of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
He says the diversity could be under threat from mine waste and the development of several tuna canneries in Madang.
Speaker:Professor Jim Thomas, National Coral Reef Institute, Nova Southeastern University, Florida
THOMAS: We had our team originally did a taxonomic baseline back in the 1990s so we were able to when we went back we actually could tell going back to the same stations if what we were collecting was the same or had changed, and what we found was that we found everything that we'd found before plus additional new species that we hadn't discovered before.
EWART: And we're not just talking about the odd one or two new discoveries, I mean this is significant and large number?
THOMAS: Yes I think the crinoids if I'm not mistaken, Greg Rouse was working on them from Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, the , I think he added another 12 to 14 of the 36 or 37 that were already known from the area, which makes it one of the most diverse areas in the world. Terry Gosliner I think from the California Academy of Sciences, who's the nudibranch specialist added I believe 26 new species to his rather lengthy list. And I found another, depending on what we eventually discover, about 14 to 16 new species of the organisms I was working on.
EWART: So how long is it going to take to catalogue all these creatures that you've unearthed? I imagine quite some time?
THOMAS: Well it depends, for me personally it takes about two weeks to do the photography and the drawing and probably another three to four weeks to do the actual descriptive work and background taxonomy. But the good thing for us is that since we had worked there before we knew when we collected specimens whether they were new or we had already done them. So a lot of places you go in and you pick up species and you think they're new, but it takes quite a while to then sort out what's going on, what the formal relationships are. So we were able to pretty quickly while we were there to determine that we were now collecting things, because we went back to our same stations that we had worked on earlier, and we knew what the expectations were. And so when something turned up that was new we knew fairly quickly that it was something we hadn't seen before.
EWART: Now as I mentioned in the introduction the suggestion is that the wealth of species in the Madang Lagoon is greater than that which exists along the length of the Great Barrier Reef here in Australia. So what would you see as the potential for this region now? Is this going to suddenly become a big tourist attraction, particularly for those who like to dive?
THOMAS: Well that's a good question, I mean Madang is the most diverse reef you've probably never heard of, and the issues in working there are pretty insurmountable because you have ownership of this lagoon by three different clans, a number of villages within those clans, and to get access to go and collect takes, you have to go and meet and do your groundwork and talk to the chiefs and the councillors and all that. It is in fact one of the best diving spots for people to do underwater photography, but most of them go in on liveaboard vessels. We were actually working, we were land-based. The other interesting thing is that the reason diversity is so high there has to do with the complex geology of that part of New Guinea, and it's actually an accretion of about 32 different events that have docked once distant reefs that were developed anywhere from 30 to 50 million years ago, and have been kind of plastered on the front of that Australian plate, which is what New Guinea is accumulated on. Whereas your Great Barrier Reef, the present stand of sea level I think is probably stabilised from six-thousand to eight-thousand years ago. So it's fairly young in terms of recruiting species. So the same thing that's accumulated all these interesting species has also led to this tremendous mineral wealth in New Guinea, which is one of the issues, because where there's mining operations, gold mines, nickel mines, tin mines, there's big tuna canneries that are planned for the lagoon. So one of our strategies we felt since a lot of us started our career there, we felt an obligation to go back and see what was happening and provide a baseline from which further change could be documented.
EWART: You raised the point about the potential environmental damage that could be caused by the mining operations, the tuna cannery and the like. How concerned are you and your team that having made this amazing discovery that already you're sort of in the process of back peddling to protect what you found?
THOMAS: Well it's interesting because the French group that was there working with us, Paris Museum of Natural History, it was led by Philippe Bouche(?), they did some deep sea trawling off the coast of Madang, and while we were there actually doing this work the big international Ramu Nickel mine had opened, and had dumped their first ship load of mine tailings. And I think the trawler went out and within a week after that happened they were finding this red ooze at three-thousand feet that they hadn't found two weeks before. So that part of New Guinea is used to very strong physical impacts but not chemical impacts, and I think there's one tuna cannery there now, there's another nine that are planned, and they're all going to dump in or near the entrance to the lagoon. So I think what our interest was to provide a baseline and said it's still as good as it ever was, and probably even more diverse, and if anything changes from here on out we can probably attribute it to some human induced impact, either from the canneries or from mining or other runoff from land.
EWART: You talked about the unique way that the area is controlled by the influence of the local chiefs and the like. I mean how concerned are you that the economic benefits that can come from mining and the like might outweigh the need to protect this lagoon, and it could be at serious risk in the years ahead?
THOMAS: Well that's exactly what happened because it used to be that the local landowners had rights and refusal of what was going on. But I think there was a law that was just passed within the last year that gave the federal government rights to allow these mines and canneries if it was in the best interest of the nation, the best interest of the thing. But we've had very good relationships with the clans there from when we were there in the 1990s, and they're very concerned because they're living, this is a resource that they own and that they share among themselves. And they're concerned, but they really have no organisational structure to do anything. So when we were working we would bring the villagers through, we'd bring the kids in to help us sort and some of these guys would look under a microscope and were just amazed to see that there was this level of small life going on, all this is the big stuff, the coral and the fish, they don't know that all this underline diversity is there. So you see these young men would come in and look at the microscope and then stand back and they really didn't understand what they were seeing, they didn't know that this kind of life was there on the reefs. So they're very concerned and they're not sure what to do. And I think our job was to provide them with information and say this is what you have, it's still one of the most amazing places on earth in terms of reef diversity, and perhaps this will motivate some of the NGO's, some of the conservation organisations to actually to do something. But as far as the mining operations, I don't know that there's much that can be done now that they're in operation.