Ecological crisis looms for Great Barrier Reef

Extreme weather, mining and port projects blamed for record deaths of turtles and dugongs
Jonathan Pearlman, For The Straits Times 12 Aug 11;

SYDNEY: Record numbers of turtles and dugongs have been washing up dead and starving along the Queensland shoreline, prompting warnings of an ecological disaster in the Great Barrier Reef.

The turtles and dugongs - or sea cows - along the reef are believed to be starving to death after a series of extreme weather events destroyed their main food source, seagrass. Some think nearby mining projects and a port expansion may also have destroyed some seagrass.

The Queensland government said 96 dead dugongs have been found so far this year. Hundreds of turtles have also been found, though official figures have not been released. Environmental sources told The Straits Times that up to 1,500 dugongs and 6,000 turtles are expected to die in the coming months.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said the loss of turtles and dugongs will be the worst on record. Most of the carcasses have been found around Townsville and Gladstone, but experts said this is 'the tip of the iceberg' and many more turtles and dugongs will have died at sea.

'What we have seen is just a snapshot of what's really going on,' Dr Ellen Ariel, a turtle expert at James Cook University, told The Straits Times.

'We are aware of turtles that float up on beaches where people find them, but there will be others that die and sink to the bottom or are taken by predators. There are some pretty fat sharks out there.'

Levels of seagrass along the coast are at their lowest on record after the state was hit by a series of floods, heavy rain and Cyclone Yasi in February. Seagrass tends to be highly delicate and can take as long as 10 years to grow back.

The Queensland government, however, said the dugongs are not under threat.

'Our dugong population has been traditionally very resilient and there's no reason to believe they will not bounce back,' said the state's Environment Minister Vicky Darling.

The reef's dugongs are listed as a vulnerable species, meaning they risk becoming endangered under current environmental conditions. The strange- looking herbivore, related to the Florida manatee, is believed to be the source of the mermaid myth. The Great Barrier Reef has provided a stable habitat for the dugong, which helped the region to gain its listing as a World Heritage area in 1981.

Australia has the highest number of dugongs in the world, with most in Western Australia and the Torres Strait. While the 50,000-odd dugongs in these waters are unlikely to be badly affected by Queensland's recent extreme weather, the 5,500 dugongs in the southern, tourist-visited parts of the reef are now under threat.

Professor Helene Marsh, from James Cook University, said many dugongs have died or will die in the coming months and others will flock to safer waters, mainly to the north.

Asked whether the dugongs could be lost entirely from the main section of the reef, Prof Marsh said she did not know, but believed they will probably survive.

'What is unprecedented is the extent of the damage from the cyclone and the floods,' she said. 'Next year, there won't be any conceptions because the animals will be too skinny... In that region, I am quite worried about the dugong's future.'

The Great Barrier Reef is also facing a growing threat of environmental damage from several multi-billion dollar mining projects occurring on its doorstep.

Unesco's World Heritage Committee has expressed 'extreme concern' at the construction of a massive processing facility at Curtis Island, near Gladstone, which will become one of the world's biggest hubs for natural gas exports.

Shipping traffic through the reef is set to double in the next decade from current levels of 3,500 a year.

Environmental groups believe the recent dredging work on Gladstone harbour to expand its port may have further destroyed seagrass and led to more deaths of marine life.

Around the town of Gladstone, four dugongs, three dolphins and more than 40 turtles have been found dead in recent months.

The Queensland government has launched an inquiry into the Gladstone animal deaths but insisted that the development adhered to stringent environmental requirements.

A Gladstone resident, Mr Clive Last, who works on a privately-owned island near the town, came across a dead dugong on Witt Island two weeks ago. He took five photographs and contacted Queensland Parks and Wildlife.

He said he has lived in the area for 50 years and believed the marine deaths cannot be explained merely by the recent poor weather.

'We never had this quantity of deaths before the dredging,' he said. 'Something strange is going on.'

Famine threatens Australia's gentle sea cows
Extreme weather has destroyed the dugong's feeding grounds – just the latest menace facing this already endangered species
Roger Maynard The Independent 28 Aug 11;

An underwater famine is posing the latest threat to one of Australia's most endangered marine species, the dugong, which lives entirely on sea grass. At least 100 have starved to death in recent months and many more are likely to follow in the absence of their only food source.

Torrential rain and storms, including Cyclone Yasi earlier this year, have destroyed vast swathes of sea grass from northern Queensland to the New South Wales border. More than 1,000 miles of coastline which once provided the perfect habitat for these oddly shaped and gentle creatures are now denuded of the dugong's natural foodstuff.

Known as sea cows because of their total dependency on sea grass, numbers have plummeted over the past decade as they struggle to cope with extreme weather conditions, escalating industrial activity, and hunting by indigenous fishermen. Turtles, too, have fallen victim to the seagrass famine with several hundred reported washed up dead along the coastline.

"This is a national environmental disaster," says Professor Ellen Ariel, a marine biologist at James Cook University in Townsville. "What's happening now is they have nothing to eat and it's not going to change in any way soon. Sea grass takes between two to three years to recover, if there are no other extreme weather events in the meantime."

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is similarly concerned, recently launching a campaign to protect dugong and green turtles which it predicts will die in record numbers. Forced to stray from their regular foraging areas in search of food, the two species are much more vulnerable to disease, injury and death. A major industrial development at Gladstone on the mid-Queensland coast is also increasing pressure on the marine habitat.

A multi-billion pound gas processing plant on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef has already attracted criticism. Last month Unesco's world heritage committee expressed its extreme concern at the Queensland and federal government's backing of the project. For her part, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has pledged to make a comprehensive assessment of the plant's environmental impact.

In addition to climatic and industrial threats to the dugong population, indigenous fishermen have also been accused of endangering the species. Next month a television campaign will be launched by animal activists who believe Australia's Native Title laws are allowing the "uncontrolled" and "unmonitored slaughter" of dugongs and turtles. Australians For Animals has accused some aboriginal groups of "appalling cruelty".

Campaign organiser Colin Riddell says: "We have a confirmed report of a dugong calf being tied to the back of a boat, its cries bringing in the mother so they can both be killed. We have reports in our office of indigenous groups going out in motor boats with a GPS to find dugongs. Once found, they radio their mates and entire pods of dugongs are slaughtered."

Dugong hunting has been an accepted part of Australia's indigenous culture for thousands of years. Their ivory and bones are used in traditional crafts and their meat, which is said to be similar to high quality beef, is regarded as a delicacy. The Native Title Act allows dugongs to be caught by aborigines for personal, domestic or non-commercial needs, but, according to Mr Riddell, some are being sold for profit. He claims the meat sells for nearly £100 a kilo and is even being exported.

Now he is urging the government to call a moratorium on dugong hunting until population numbers are established. "I don't have a problem with Native Title hunting if it's done sustainably," he insists. "But let's just see how many are left."

The dugong's placid nature and slow swimming style make it easy prey for predators. Spending their entire life at sea, they swim by moving their broad spade-like tail in an up an down motion and by the use of their two flippers. The large grey mammals which are up to 10ft long, can live for decades but take time to reach sexual maturity and do not breed rapidly. Without the sea grass they will simply starve to death.