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Pre-season meet to ramp up turtle protection

From the cost of hiring barges to ensuring enough protection cages to do the job, a solid list of the needs of members of the Western Cape Turtle Threat Abatement Alliance (WCTTAA) was drawn up at a meeting to prepare for the coming turtle nesting season. 

Held in Cairns on April 17 and facilitated by Cape York NRM, the meeting included Land and Sea Rangers and representatives from Pormpuraaw, Napranum, APN, Mapoon and Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council (NPARC). The meeting was called by long-term supporters of the Alliance, the Queensland Department of Environment and Science's Nest to Ocean Turtle Protection Program.

The teams reviewed the ongoing turtle protection campaigns and discussed the costs and equipment needed to make life a little easier during the intense turtle nesting season which ranges from late May/June through to November. 

“It’s the first time in several years we have held a stock-take, if you like, and it builds on the annual WCTTAA conference we held in Weipa in December last year, where we discussed the last seasons results and issues facing on-ground work,” Biodiversity & Fire Programs Manager Toby Eastoe said. 

WCTTAA is a partnership of six Indigenous ranger groups on western Cape York which have been working together in marine turtle conservation since 2014. Supported by Cape York NRM, the work is funded through the Nest to Ocean - Turtle Protection Program, a joint Federal and Queensland Government partnership.

Mike Gregory, from QPWS, told the meeting that since the WCTTAA was formed, turtle nest predation had gone from an average of 90 percent down to under 30 percent, and sometimes as low as 10 percent on some beaches. 

“It’s been a massive turnaround,” he said. “And the WCTTA program in particular is considered one of the most successful recovery programs in Australia.”

He also provided an overview of the Nest To Oceans work, which includes 33 projects throughout Queensland, 27 of which involved Traditional Owners. More than 40 beaches covering approximately 800 km are monitored, and more than 150 Land and Sea Rangers had been trained in turtle monitoring and protection.

“Olive Ridley’s were heading to oblivion, but today’s data shows more positive news: they’re stabilising. The future is looking somewhat better than when we started this program.”

The WCTTAA Rangers provided details of some of the hardships of the grueling monitoring programs which are run for 24 hours a day in shifts for up to a month at a time. 

Well-supported ranger camps on remote beaches are an important element in ensuring staff can comfortably rotate shifts and were vital in keeping predators away. But not all locations were easy to secure. At Crab Island, rangers had to be extra cautious due to the number of “cheeky” crocs that visit. Fires keep them at bay, but barrier fencing, a more secure camp, and easier access to the island now that it had split in the middle, would improve protection work. That would involve new designs for camps, better transport and support for rising fuel costs.  

Turtle nesting earlier in the season than normal had also caught teams out on some beaches last year and expanding the protection season, enlisting more rangers, and monitoring earlier were discussed as steps forward. Again, having better access, through barges (which average $10,000 per year when hired) and vehicles (which have a high turnover due to the punishing salt and sand conditions), would help alleviate the problems. 

The rangers also compared notes on testing new feral pig trapping methods, the high cost of aerial culls, gun licenses, fencing options for highly populated nesting areas, and the need for more nest cages that are purpose-built to prevent feral pigs, goannas or even crocodiles from getting to the eggs while allowing hatchlings to leave and make their journey to the ocean.

Education campaigns, signage and fencing were also discussed as ways to keep the human element away from nests. 

“These ranger teams have over ten years of experience doing this and know what it takes to do it properly and safely. This planning will help us ensure all WCTTAA members have access to priority needs," Toby said. 

The WCTTAA turtle protection season is funded through the Nest to Oceans Turtle Protection Program, a joint initiative between the Australian and Queensland Governments.