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New Science on Australia’s Sea Turtles

New science documenting important nesting, migration and foraging habitat for Western Australia’s sea turtles was revealed at the first-ever Western Australian Sea Turtle Symposium at Curtin University in Perth on August 27 and 28. The results of satellite tracking, tagging and nest monitoring from both recent research and unpublished research from past programs reinforced the importance of the Kimberley coast to virtually all sea turtle populations and species along the coast. Extended abstracts from the presentations will be published by year’s end.

Program Director Teri Shore presented an analysis of consumer seafood guides and the need to consider sea turtle bycatch and a poster on the fossil fuel frenzy and harm to sea turtles.

Download Teri Shore’s extended abstract on the fossil fuel frenzy here.

Download Teri Shore’s extended abstract on the seafood guides here.

Here is a quick summary of some of the key findings presented at the symposium.

Flatbacks tracked from Barrow Island by Chevron consultants consistently swam north after nesting to the Kimberley coast at James Price Point and environs, the proposed site of the controversial Browse Basin gas plant. Many loggerheads nesting along the Ningaloo coast near Exmouth also headed to the Kimberley to forage after nesting, a species that was completely ignored in environmental assessments of the Browse gas project review. Flatbacks nesting in the Kimberley at 80 Mile Beach and Eco Beach, also consistently headed for the Kimberley coast to forage. Same with the flatbacks nesting at Port Hedland. Some of the turtles went farther out to sea to an area dubbed the Holothoria foraging grounds by researchers and to the Timor Sea and Torres Straits.

All the findings underscored the consistent site fidelity by these sea turtle populations to foraging sites; and the importance of foraging habitat in the Kimberley to significant numbers of sea turtles. This fact was downplayed by the environmental review of the Browse gas project.

An analysis conducted by a graduate student on nesting flatbacks in Western Australia found that 85 percent of internesting movements by turtles nesting at Barrow Island and Thevenard Island occurred within 5 kilometers of oil and gas  projects that are being built or proposed. This was the first time that anyone had overlaid sea turtle movements with oil and gas development, at least in a public venue. It demonstrates the need to consider cumulative effects from the numerous  oil and gas projects along the coast to turtles (Chevron’s Wheatstone and Gorgon, Browse Basin – which Chevron has withdrawn from, Ashburton North and others.)

In the Kimberley, the Broome No Gas community  presented their findings from one season of volunteer monitoring at James Price  Point (Walmadan) that revealed 14 sea turtle nests consisting of flatbacks and hawksbills, including one likely hybrid hawksbill/olive ridley. The area has never been monitored before and was overlooked by the Browse environmental assessment. While the total number of nesters may not be large, they are likely to be significant to the population of flatbacks and hawksbills nesting the Kimberley, which appear to be distinct from those that nest further south at Barrow Island and Mundabullangana on the mainland.

More to come

While much new data was presented, there is still more to come. More than 25 years worth of monitoring data on hawksbills at Rosemary Island will soon be compiled and released. Twenty years of green sea turtle data is also now being compiled and analyzed for release and publication. Recently, sea turtle work from Varanus Island on hawksbills was published based on data from the 1990s.

With sea turtle scientist Scott Whiting now at the helm of turtle programs at the W. A.  Department of Environment and Conservation, long-term marine turtle conservation plans are finally getting developed and hopefully implemented – if the politicians allow. Even though his position and the turtle plans are funded by Chevron to “offset” the destruction of sea turtle beaches at the massive Gorgon natural gas plant at Barrow Island, I have some confidence that we’ll  see some meaningful management measures put into place and scientific data made more accessible than it has been in the past.

Photo/P.Lindgren