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Strong results for turtle protection

More than 5000 turtle nests were monitored along the western Cape York Peninsula during the 2023 turtle season and on average, only 11-12 per cent of them were damaged by predators.

The findings were a key component of the annual evaluation conducted by the Western Cape Turtle Threat Abatement Alliance, established with the backing of Cape York NRM to safeguard turtle nest eggs and hatchlings.

“It has been a good year in many ways,” Cape York NRM’s WCTTAA Coordinator, Dr Manuela Fischer said. 

“Apart from keeping turtle nest predation to a sustainable number of under 30 per cent, and on some beaches under 10 per cent, we set up a new data collection system, NESTOR, to improve the accuracy of nest monitoring - and we have resolved the problem of losing data!

“We also trialled a method of checking and reducing nest temperature, which, because of climate change, has been increasing. From the preliminary findings, we are seeing amazing results, so we will be conducting the official study this year, on a broader scale.” 

WCTTAA is a partnership of six on-ground Indigenous land and sea owners and managers from Apudthama Land Trust and the Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council (NPARC), Napranum Aboriginal Land Council, Mapoon, Pormpuraaw, Aak Puul Ngantam (APN) Aurukun and Kowanyama.

Over the past 10 years, the Alliance has reduce turtle nest predation from over 90 per cent to as low as 10 per cent for Olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), Flatback (Natator depressus), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nesting sites. 

Rangers use purpose-built, rust-proof cages which are installed over nests to prevent feral animals, such as wild pigs, from attacking the eggs. They also remove marine debris, including ghost nets, monitor the beaches, carry out pre-season culling of feral animals and conduct education campaigns for the public about beach driving and camping while nests are present.

Thirty-six people attended the forum held in Cairns on January 30, to review results, discuss any issues and prepare for the 2024 season. 

“We have a really busy year ahead,” Manuela said. “Funding from the State and Federal Governments, under the Nest to Ocean Program is now locked in for another two years, which is excellent news. This will help with feral pig culling before the nesting season begins, which unfortunately didn’t happen in some areas last year.

“It will also help fund an upgrade of equipment for the ranger camps so they can effectively manage the seven census beaches, covering 150 km of coastline.

“And it will assist in a new welding course we have organised for rangers in March so that they can build their own nest cages in the future. This is a really important development for the Alliance members. These cages are pivotal in protecting nests and hatchlings from predators, which dig up the eggs. Building them on Country will upskill the ranger capacity and save time and money.”

Highlights from the Ranger presentations included:

  • Mapoon Land and Sea Rangers found nests on Skarden River had a higher-than-usual predation rate, which they attributed to the “out of control” feral pig numbers. Access was also affected due to flooding which has caused a “dramatic change to the landscape”. But in other areas, there were more hatchlings in 2023, and for the first time, a Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nest was found. 
  • Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Rangers had an interrupted monitoring season due to cultural beach closures. The area stretches from Christmas Creek to Hersey Beach. They noted that, as in recent years, there was a dramatic reduction in nests, from about 140 to 40. They suggested changes in the weather had seen beaches turning into mud flats and are seeking expert advice. 
  • Apudthama Rangers were also fighting climate change impacts with one of its monitoring sites at Crab Island now getting harder to access. Rising water levels have split the island into two sections during high tides for the past two years and turtle camps on site were not possible without a better vessel. The island is one of the largest Flatback turtle rookeries in the region and while there are “millions of hatchlings” the windy, and often flooded conditions have seen nests laid on top of other nests and “eggs everywhere”, 
  • Napranum’s Nanum Wungthim Rangers had a very busy season, revitalising the turtle campsite, hosting school visits and conducting a major beach clean-up. Predation rates were up but with more pig culling assistance,  more cages and a continuation of closures at sections of the beach to prevent vehicles crushing nests, the results should improve. 
  • Newcomers to the Alliance, Aak Puul Ngantam (APN) Aurukun also had issues with accessing nesting sites. While nesting begins in May, it is almost impossible to get to the coast before July. The group is looking at getting a better vessel to “punch through to the sea”. There were no aerial pig culls in 2023, and 18 months of paperwork to get a group licence for on-ground shooting was wasted as the shooters had left employment by then. 
  • Kowanyama rangers reported monitoring 30 of the 50 km coastline and recommended using bikes for travelling on the beaches. Later in the season, the majority of turtles found were Olive ridleys and the predation rate was very low, and mostly caused by goannas and humans.

The forum rounded up the day with updates from National Feral Pig Action Plan coordinator Heather Channon; NESTOR trainer and consultant Ben Jones from Ecologistics; Qld Department of Environment and Sciences’ Mike Gregory on the Nest to Ocean program; Biosecurity‘s Dale Morris on beach clean-ups; and JCU/EnviroVet consultant Erina Young on turtle and dugong health and stranding responses. 

The WCTTAA is supported by Cape York NRM through funding from the Government’s Nest to Ocean Turtle Protection Program, the Marine Turtle Climate Change Resilience Program and the Queensland Feral Pest Initiative.