WA Indigenous rangers undertake research on endangered turtles

12 November 2013

A new approach is being used to monitor marine turtles and dugongs in the far north Kimberley, building a better understanding of their populations in the region.

The Marine Turtle and Dugong Monitoring Project brings together the Wunumbal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation’s Uunguu Rangers and Traditional Owners, the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) and the CSIRO.

For more than a year the rangers and scientists have been developing and using a boat-based line transect method that can be repeated in a scientifically rigorous way to monitor marine populations over time. Previously there were limited survey estimates from the area.

Marine turtles and dugongs are priority species in the ten-year Uunguu Healthy Country Plan and federal conservation and management plans, however existing survey methodologies involving aerial and beach surveys are expensive and sometimes exclude participation by community rangers.

Using the new method, data from more than 200 turtle sightings were recorded over nine days in August 2013 with a customised data collection and mapping tool developed through NAILSMA’s I-Tracker program.

A small blimp fitted with a tiny digital camera was trialled as an aerial photographic platform to examine its potential as an alternative method to observe marine animals and their habitats. Other survey equipment included an underwater video camera, and water quality and other sampling gear.

NAILSMA Chief Executive Officer Joe Morrison said the work the Uungguu Rangers are doing is important because there is a shortage of accessible biodiversity data for northern Australia to support decision making.

“Indigenous rangers are often the only locally-based land and sea managers in remote and regional Australia, meaning the data they provide is vital for a whole range of reasons,” Mr Morrison said.

“Collaborations that deliver culturally appropriate and effective programs based on a combination of Indigenous knowledge and contemporary science are key to informing decisions about this spectacular area of reef, mangroves and wildlife.”

As part of the trip the research team:

  • expanded the scope of the project to include new areas
  • identified seagrass species (a primary food source for turtles and dugongs)
  • developed a low-cost seagrass monitoring proposal
  • collected valuable baseline data about water quality and sediments in the survey region so as changes can be examined over time.

Dugong surveys were also undertaken but none were sighted. However, a seagrass monitoring method was developed to gauge the health of dugong feeding grounds. This project is one case study being carried out by the Northern Australia hub of the National Environmental Research Program.

Find out more about the project.

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