Gap in the Gulf

 

Sea Turtle Foundation Director Tim Harvey went to the Gulf of Carpentaria last year to work with the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation (CLCAC) in trying to fill knowledge gaps surrounding the turtle populations in the gulf and assist local indigenous rangers in obtaining skills and knowledge to be able to monitor the population. Below is Tim's reflection of his time in the Gulf...

 

Gap in the Gulf

By Tim Harvey

The Gulf of Carpentaria is big. Very big. It is also remote and home for several small communities dotted along the coast. One of which is Normanton; a small town with a small airport. I had flown up from Cairns with Kate, my contact with the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation (CLCAC) and we were standing in the carpark waiting to be picked up by Paul, the senior ranger in the area.

Whilst waiting I cast my mind back several months, to my first meeting with Kate, Paul and Joel at Mon Repos, near Bundaberg, south Queensland. They had travelled down to Mon Repos to learn sea turtle monitoring techniques, and I had travelled up from NSW to meet with them as the first part of a collaboration between the Sea Turtle Foundation and CLCAC. On behalf of the Foundation I was going to work with the rangers to help them research and monitor sea turtles on their country.

Apart from a few areas little is known about the sea turtle populations that nest, forage in, or transit the Gulf. This is not surprising considering its size and remoteness. It is 600 kms across from east to west and the coastline straddles the coast of both Queensland and the Northern Territory. As a consequence it is long and diverse: mostly mangroves, isolated beaches and rocky headlands. What is known is that flatbacks, olive ridleys, greens and hawksbills nest in varying densities along the coast and islands. As far as we know loggerheads don’t nest anywhere in the Gulf and anecdotal reports indicate very limited nesting by leatherbacks. However all species are known to forage in, and transit through Gulf waters.

Just because the Gulf country is remote doesn’t mean that human threats to sea turtles are absent. In some places they are dire. Destruction of nests by feral pigs is a major problem along sections of the west coast of Cape York. The presence of large cattle stations means livestock on beaches can destroy nests. Other threats include fishing, 4WD vehicles on beaches, and unsustainable collection of eggs and hunting by aborigine and Torres Strait islanders. The huge numbers of ‘ghost nets’ that wash ashore along the Gulf coast are a large but as yet not well-calculated source of sea turtles deaths.

Because of its size, and the precarious status of sea turtle populations, greater knowledge is urgently needed about activities in the Gulf. The CLCAC Rangers aim is to help to fill the knowledge gaps in their country so a better picture can be built of nesting sites and potential threats. My role was to find out from the research literature what was already known, to help the rangers learn how to identify the different species, and to help them create a ‘hands-on’ monitoring guide that obtained the relevant data needed by the Queensland Government but that also fitted the rangers’ approach and their work schedule.

I met the rangers in the massive corrugated iron shed that forms their offices and storage space. The original plan was to spend time on overnight beach camps to see what turtles came ashore. But, although it was the middle of the ‘dry’ season, because of recent unseasonal heavy rain, that plan was changed. The big shed was to be the classroom for the next couple of days until things dried out.

The unusual weather brought home to me just how difficult it is to monitor large sections of the Gulf coast. The beaches are long and remote. Heavy rainfall can mean large areas of the countryside are flooded. As a result, to get to the beaches, even when it is ‘dry’, often involves many hours of 4-wheel driving. A simple overnight check of a beach can be a big undertaking involving vehicles, camp equipment, food, fuel and logistical planning; a far cry from the set-up at Mon Repos. And it takes time; sometimes a long time.

But the time in the ‘big shed’ was great. The rangers were keen and the lessons were lively and funny. There was a lot of laughter mixed in with information from the rangers and myself, with Kate doing her best to take notes and keep things on track – a difficult task! Because monitoring sea turtle activity is only a part of the rangers’ duties the chance to get everyone under one roof for several days was a godsend. It gave all of us a chance to find out what was known, not just about local sea turtle activity but also in background knowledge of sea turtle biology and habits. This provided a baseline for development of both the monitoring and sea turtle identification guides.

Prior to the Sea Turtle Foundation’s involvement several of the rangers had created a prototype monitoring procedure on iPads that they used on the beach. This meant information could be entered straight into the iPads and transferred to the main database on returning to the office. This initial procedure was impressive and formed the basis of the eventual monitoring sequence that we created. As we progressed during the week I was left floundering in my limited computer knowledge as two of the rangers, Faren and Fred, checked and changed the order and commands of the program based on our group discussions. The final monitoring procedure had to satisfy three criteria: it had to be developed by the rangers’ so it reflected their own methods; it had to obtain the data the Queensland Government needed; and it had to fit in with all the other duties that the rangers carried out. My role was really to ensure it covered all the data needed.

As nothing is ever created and perfected at the same time it was essential that the monitoring guide was field tested, as we knew that it would require ‘tweaking’. Just how much we were not sure of. It is one thing to create something on a computer, it is another to find yourself on a remote beach in the pitch dark and discover that the procedure doesn’t fit. So, after a lot of fingers being crossed the weather cleared enough for us to eventually get onto the beach at Kuranda but only for a day. However, it gave us the chance to check everything and make last minute adjustments. The real test of the guide will come during the nesting season when it is put into use on beaches under serious field conditions. It will undoubtedly need further changes but currently it looks to be an important tool in the rangers’ search for greater understanding and further management of local sea turtles.

The remoteness of small towns like Normanton and areas like the Gulf, are a world away from the slick operation at Mon Repos and the government offices in Brisbane. If we are to get better knowledge of sea turtles in this important part of the Australian coast, greater resources and assistance are urgently needed. The rangers are doing a great job in very difficult conditions, conditions most people in Australia cannot even imagine, and they should be lauded, encouraged and helped. Without their work we stand little chance of gaining knowledge before sea turtles are just a memory in this unique part of Australia.