‘Sim’ ocean satisfies: 2007 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2007

Beth FultonElizabeth (Beth) Fulton

We live on an island. And we’re placing increasing pressure on the oceans around us — relying on them for recreation, tourism, oil and gas, and food. In total, the marine environment contributes $70 billion and 2 million jobs annually to the Australian economy.

So how do governments balance these conflicting uses, and protect the environment? Over the years there have been epic failures — such as the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fisheries.

Beth Fulton’s unique simulations of marine ecosystem dynamics are delivering many of the answers.

This 34 year-old has combined her intuition for maths with a passion for marine biology to create two ecosystem models. Both are being used in Australian fisheries management, and by governments around the world, to predict and manage human interaction with the marine environment. And she’s stayed true to her passion, knocking back many international job offers.

For her leadership in mathematics and ecosystem modelling, Beth Fulton receives the 2007 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.

Australia is surrounded by nutrient-poor oceans: the marine equivalent of desert. So it’s critical that in managing them, we make decisions that work.

“If you get marine management wrong it’s easy to destroy things and end up with a pea green soup,” says Beth Fulton, a senior research scientist at CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Hobart.

The trouble is, it’s easy to have the best intentions but still get things wrong.

“In South Africa in the 1990s the hake catch was threatened by competition with seals,” says Beth. “The response was a proposal to cull seals. But it turned out that the seals were eating a different species of hake. Culling the seals would increase the numbers of these fish. And they would eat the juveniles of the hake the fisherman were chasing.” Catastrophe was averted by good planning.

That’s not always the case. If you make the wrong decisions you can wipe out an entire fishery, as North Atlantic cod fishermen discovered. “They took too many adult fish,” says Beth. “That led to a population explosion of small fish that ate the cod larvae, and contributed to the fishery collapse.”

That’s where ecosystem modelling comes in. Modelling allows you to test management changes on the computer before you apply them to the real world. Beth’s combined strengths in maths and biology have made her a master in the field.

For Beth, maths is an instinct — her earliest memories from school are of maths problems.

Her maths ability came from both parents. “My  mum claims not to be much good at maths, but she solves Sudoku puzzles in her head,” Beth says.

Brought up on a farm near Goulburn, Beth also developed a curiosity in the natural world.

The two interests took her to James Cook University in Townsville. The biology and maths lectures always seemed to clash, but she persevered with her interest in both, and moved to Hobart for her PhD. Looking with youthful fervour at the ecosystem models then in use, Beth decided she could do a better job.

And she did. Her PhD was so good that it led to a lucrative job offer from Microsoft to help them model companies as ecosystems. But she turned it down, choosing to stay with marine biology.

“I love seeing how the real world works and turning it into maths. Maths is such a beautiful way to look at the world,” she says.

Her first model is based on her PhD work and is called Atlantis. This whole-of-ecosystem modelling framework is currently the only one in the world that gives equal attention to the biophysical and human components of the system, and is used by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and other fisheries managers. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has rated Atlantis as the best in the world for the strategic evaluation of marine management issues.

It’s complemented by InVitro. Written with her team, InVitro models the marine environment using independent agents, much like computer games. InVitro is being used for the evaluation of marine plans as part of Australia’s Oceans Policy.  In particular, it allows simultaneous consideration of multiple uses of the marine environment – including oil and gas, transport, tourism, and commercial and recreational fishing.

“To make a model,” Beth explains, “we talk with the people who have spent their lives studying the different parts of the system — fish, whales, plants, plankton, currents, climate etc. We spend months attempting to build the model. Then we push the button and see if it works like the real thing — what lives, what dies. Months of fine tuning follows to make it as accurate as possible.”

Increasingly, Beth’s models are revealing new aspects of life in the ocean that marine biologists have then confirmed with direct observation. For example:

  • Sharks and tunas use jellyfish as junk food to get through lean periods
  • Species living in the shallower shelf waters are more susceptible to ecological pressures than deep water species which are more susceptible to fishing pressure
  • Large populations of jellyfish and squid indicate an ecosystem in trouble
  • Some species (e.g. prey species and large seabirds like skuas and even some target species like prawns) benefit from fishing.  Not all populations will “go up” if fishing pressure is reduced – some species will actually decline.

Beth’s models have proved that you can’t have an economically viable fishery and an unimpacted system. You have to define acceptable impacts and manage for those. Beth says there’s no better place in the world to do this kind of work. “Australia is at the forefront of marine ecosystem-based management. We can make a real difference.”

Biographical details

2005–now CSIRO Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research, Hobart – Senior research scientist; Leader of the ecological and ecosystem modelling group (10+ people); Lead developer of the Atlantis modelling framework; principal investigator for the development of the expanded InVitro modelling framework; Supervisor of 3 post-graduate students and 2 post-doctoral fellows

2004-05 Research scientist, CSIRO Division of Marine Research, Hobart,

2001-04 Postdoctoral fellow on robust indicators of the ecological effects of fishing; developer of regional management evaluation models for southeast and northwest Australian waters, CSIRO Division of Marine Research, Hobart

2005-07 Honorary Associate in Centre for Marine Science, University of Tasmania


2001 PhD , School of Zoology and Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute, University of Tasmania

1997 Bachelor of Science with Honours (Class I) conferred jointly in the Department of Marine Biology and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at James Cook University of North Queensland