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New challenges and solutions at WCTTAA Forum

It was a year of new challenges for turtle nesting protection on the western Cape York  Peninsula, with unprecedented early nesting, vehicle breakdowns, weather events, shifting landscapes and data collection unreliability.

The good news was predation rates for most groups remain very low, feral pig numbers have reduced and help is on its way for a new data collection system. 

Rangers from Apudthama Land Trust and the Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council (NPARC), Napranum Aboriginal Land Council, Mapoon and Pormpuraaw gathered in Weipa in December for the annual forum on the turtle nesting season.

Facilitated by Cape York NRM, the Western Cape Turtle Threat Abatement Alliance (WCTTAA) meeting took a step outside to start the day, with attendees visiting a beach site at Napranum to compare techniques for locating and identifying turtle tracks and turtle nests according to the different beaches and turtle species.  

Each year the WCTTAA meeting enables ranger groups from the Alliance to discuss the methods of turtle nest protection, success rates and issues faced. It also hears from guest presenters, with this year's talks from rangers from the Rio Tinto Land and Sea program, Ben Jones from Ecologistics,  Mike Gregory from the Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service and Heather Channon from the National Feral Pig Action Plan.

NPARC/Apudthama rangers opened the presentations, discussing some of their monitoring during August along a 10km stretch of beach from the mouth of the Jardine River. They recorded 708 Flatback turtle (Natator depressus) nests. Of these only three were destroyed, which is a 99% survival rate for the nests and a 96% success rate for the eggs. 

The rangers then moved on to Crab Island, which is one of the largest Flat Back rookeries in Australia. For the first time, the island was split in two by the ocean, along the narrow stretch joining the two larger land masses. This, together with strong winds, meant rangers couldn’t set up camp and monitoring was carried out by daily visits from the mainland. 

The Nanum Wungthim Rangers of Napranum patrolled Pennefather Beach, which is about 70km northwest of Weipa. From June to September rangers marked 368 Flatback and six OIive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtle nests.

Following the destruction of 39 nests last year from vehicles driving on the beach, the Council approved the closure of a small area on the southern side of the beach during the 2020 nesting season.

Despite a barrier being erected and signage, people still drove on the beach. The rangers said while there was some destruction it was not as bad as last year, and the tourists were very respectful. They are hoping a local education campaign and possible temporary fencing would improve outcomes next year. 

At Pormpuraaw, rangers were also restricted in monitoring and only focused on the  Christmas Creek to Hersey Beach stretch because of machinery maintenance, logistics, cultural closures and a long Olive Ridley nesting period of four months. 

Despite the restrictions, rangers said what was monitored showed successful results, with only  5% predation. Of the 95% of intact nests, average hatching success was 88% for Olive Ridley turtles and 83% for Flatbacks. 

Results were not as good at Mapoon with rangers telling the meeting it was “the worst they’d had in some years.”

Issues centred on large numbers of predation by dogs and goannas and some crocodile attacks. Teams of rangers began monitoring from July both day and night but the season is four months long so resources were stretched. 

Of the Flatback nests monitored at Skardon Beach, 47 were predated, and 11 of the 13 olive ridley nests were attacked. Predation rates were at 66 % which was “very bad”. (However, At Flinders Beach, results of monitoring were better, with only 16% predation.) 

The rangers said problems included access to the beach, vehicle unreliability, a late wet season and data capture failure, leaving rangers reverting to paper records. 

Guest rangers from Rio Tinto’s Land and Sea program also acknowledged there were ups and downs during 2020, including beach access and vehicle breakdowns. It took months to get replacement parts or even replace vehicles. Another interesting challenge was the earlier-than-usual nesting season which started in March. 

The team noted the lower number of pigs during aerial culls and they also introduced more on-ground culls using thermal imaging at night, because “you can really target the larger, lone boars… the sneaky ones … we can get them before they get to the beaches and nests.” 

All groups had conducted feral pig culls before nesting seasons, and were also looking at introducing more on-ground culls. 

They also compared the removal of large amounts of debris including ghost nets, cargo containers and other structures and plastics washed up from international waters. 

The recurring issue with all ranger groups was unreliable data collection technology. Presenter Ben Jones showcased a new data collection app, Nestor, which he has been trialling with the Aak Puul Ngantam (APN) rangers over the past five years.  

Nestor was developed by Ug Media in collaboration with Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation and CSIRO. It has inbuilt track and nest identification tools, GPS tagging of records, map navigation to find existing nests and a secure way to store and export the data in the Australian recognised format.

Ben told the group the app was extremely well received through the APN trials and training could be rolled out to all WCTTAA groups for next season. Rangers at the meeting were enthusiastic and could see how it could save time and provide stable information.

Cape York NRM’s Biodiversity and Fire Program Manager Toby Eastoe said the Nestor app could be a great initiative for the Alliance and there will be ongoing discussions about its use in the new year.

The WCTTAA is supported by the Queensland Government's Nest to Ocean Turtle Protection Program, with the primary aim of increasing survivorship of eggs and hatchlings at monitored nesting locations to over 70 per cent by reducing predation.