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Australian Flatback Sea Turtles at Risk From Oil and Gas Boom

March 23, 2012

ustralia’s own sea turtle, the flatback, is one of the big losers in Western Australia’s oil and gas boom according to international experts.

The International Sea Turtle Society adopted a resolution sponsored by SeaTurtles.org and The Wilderness Society of Western Australia calling for the better protection and conservation of the flatback sea turtle in Northwest Australia at its 31st meeting in San Diego, California, U.S.A.

Members of the International Sea Turtle Society include sea turtle scientists, marine specialists and conservationists from around the world.

The resolution highlights the uniqueness of the Australian flatback turtle, conservation status, the significance of populations in the Northwest and imminent threats to their survival from the expansion of the oil and gas industry. Download the resolution in a PDF here or read the full text below.

 

The resolution was sent to Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke, West Australia Prime Minister Colin Barnett, and West Australia Environment Minister William Marmion. While they responded with concern and promises, oil and gas expansion continues unabated with few if any protections for sea turtles or other marine life.

Teri Shore, Program Director at Turtle Island Restoration Network (SeaTurtles.org), said, “The flatback turtle is losing its nesting and feeding areas to coastal industrialization in Western Australia, including Barrow Island, the Pilbara and the proposed gas hub in the Kimberley.”

Flatbacks are listed as ‘rare or likely to become extinct’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘data deficient’ on Australian and international endangered species lists.

“Unfortunately the oil and gas industry funds most, if not all, of the science done on Flatback turtles in WA,” said Dr Jill StJohn, Marine Co-ordinator at The Wilderness Society, “and this science is not always credible.”

The International Sea Turtle Society notes that research and published data on flatback turtles at the proposed gas hub in the Kimberley are extremely limited. New surveys have shown that the region is important to nesting sea turtles, including hawksbills.

The International Sea Turtle Society called on the Australian and West Australian governments to support ongoing research into the flatback and implement  Marine Turtle Recovery Plans.

More information
•    The Australian flatback is the only sea turtle species known to nest exclusively in Australia, and is one of only two sea turtle species not having a global distribution.
•    Unlike other sea turtles, flatbacks are known to spend most of their life in near-shore marine waters.
•    About 1,000 members attended the 31st annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation in San Diego.
•    Flatback turtles are listed as “vulnerable” under Australian federal  and state environmental law and internationally they are listed as “Data Deficient” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species meaning that “there is not enough information to assess their risk of extinction.” This status needs updating.
•    Turtle recovery plans help protect Australian flatbacks and ensure their long-term survival, however, the federal and Western Australian state governments turtle recovery plans that are either unfinished or out of date.

THE ISTS FLATBACK RESOLUTION

AWARE that Australia supports globally significant breeding, feeding and migrating populations of sea turtles and that all six species of sea turtles in Australia are protected under Commonwealth, state and international law and considered vulnerable to extinction; and
RECOGNIZING that the Australian flatback is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “Data Deficient,” meaning that “there is inadequate information to make a direct, or indirect, assessment of its risk of extinction based on its distribution and/or population status,” and that its status needs updating; and
RECALLING that prior to revisions to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 1996, the flatback was listed as Vulnerable and considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild; and
NOTING that the Australian flatback is listed as Vulnerable by the federal government of Australia and is the only sea turtle species known to nest exclusively in Australian territory, from Queensland through the Northern Territory and into Western Australia, and is one of only two sea turtle species not having a global distribution; and
AWARE that unlike other sea turtles which have a pelagic stage in their life cycle, flatbacks are known to spend most of their life in near-shore marine waters, and
ACKNOWLEDGING that one-third of all flatback nesting is recorded from Western Australia; and
RECOGNIZING that Western Australia’s Kimberley and Pilbara coasts and marine waters provide critical breeding, foraging and migration habitat for flatbacks and other sea turtles; and
UNDERSTANDING that a range of human and non-human impacts have the potential to harm flatback and other sea turtle species in their breeding, foraging and migrating habitat; and,
AWARE that Northwest Australia’s marine waters harbor natural gas reserves that are now being actively explored and developed in response to rising energy demands; and
ALARMED that oil and gas exploration, port development, and operations are a growing and imminent threat to flatback turtles and their habitat in Northwest Australia due to noise, dredging, lighting, pollution, vessel strikes, invasive species, destruction of breeding and foraging habitat and other associated impacts; and
CONCERNED that the Pilbara is already populated with major natural gas and mineral export projects in flatback turtle habitat with several more underway or planned; and
FURTHER AWARE that in the mostly undeveloped Kimberley, a new natural gas processing plant, port and pipeline are being proposed on the coast near Broome, Western Australia, where flatbacks exist, but where research and published data on them are extremely limited; and
KNOWING that the federal government of Australia finalized a Recovery Plan for Marine Turtles in Australia dated July 2003 and began revising it in 2006, but never finalized or implemented the revised recovery plan; and
CONSIDERING that this Recovery Plan identified a range of priority actions to reduce turtle mortality, manage factors that impact on nesting beaches and identify and protect habitats that are critical to the survival of sea turtles in Australia, including protection from oil and gas development, operation and accidents; and
ALSO KNOWING that the state of Western Australia has developed a Draft Marine Turtle Recovery Plan for Western Australia, 2009 – 2016, but has never released it to the public, finalized or implemented it; and
FINDING that this Recovery Plan identifies a number of priority actions to ensure the survival and recovery of flatbacks and other species including development of a guidance document to provide advice to minimize the impacts of industrial development on sea turtles and their habitat; and
COMMENDING the federal and state governments of Australia and Western Australia, respectively, for developing the marine turtle recovery plans; and
CERTAIN that the implementation of recovery plans to protect Australian flatbacks and ensure their long-term survival and recovery are timely and urgently needed; and
CONVINCED that the flatback sea turtle should be given high priority for protection and research in Northwest Australia and throughout its range and that further disturbance of its breeding, foraging and migratory habitat should be avoided until more data on the status of the species and habitat use are available:

Therefore, let it be resolved that the International Sea Turtle Society at its 31st meeting on 15 April, 2011 in San Diego, California, U.S.A.

1.    Calls on the Australian Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities to publicly release, finalize and implement the 2006 revision of the Recovery Plan for Marine Turtles in Australia dated July 2003, and
2.    Calls on the Premier of Western Australia and Minister of the Environment to publicly release, finalize, and implement the Draft Marine Turtle Recovery Plan for Western Australia, 2009 – 2016, and
3.    Requests federal and state governments within Australia to support ongoing flatback research and require full scientific review to determine how to best protect flatbacks and the habitats on which they depend to ensure long-term survival in Australia.