The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is stepping up its efforts to promote smart boating and fishing practices to protect dugong and green turtles, as record numbers of deaths are predicted for these species.
GBRMPA Chairman Dr Russell Reichelt said the cumulative effect of several years of extreme weather is taking its toll on the animals' main food source, seagrass. Cyclones and flooding has increased sediments, pesticides and herbicides entering the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, which degrade seagrass habitats.
'Dugong and green turtles are doing it tough at the moment and we're asking all Reef users to take extra care,' Dr Reichelt said.
'We're going to see more dugongs and green turtles straying from their regular foraging areas in search of food. This makes them more vulnerable to disease and injury or death from other threats that may exist in these unfamiliar territories.'
GBRMPA works in partnership with the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM), which provides vital data on dugong and turtle strandings. GBRMPA participated in a DERM meeting of marine managers last Thursday, to discuss the issue of marine mammal mortality rates.
In response to concerns, GBRMPA is releasing posters and information sheets to retail outlets, information centres and marinas, calling on boaties to 'Go slow – lookout below', as a reminder to watch for animals and to slow down when going over shallow water and seagrass beds or to avoid these areas all together.
The agency is also encouraging Reef users to use the GBRMPA Sightings Network to report animals in unusual locations in the Marine Park. The program provides vital information that can assist GBRMPA to better understand the impact of extreme weather events on marine animals and their habitats.
The initiatives are part of GBRMPA's Extreme Weather Response Program, funded by the Australian Government to help with the recovery of Australia's natural resources.
The agency is also encouraging fishers to voluntarily modify their practices to minimise the impacts on turtles and dugongs. For example, commercial netters can shorten soak times to provide an opportunity for marine animals to be released alive if they get caught. It's also valuable if fishers report all interactions with threatened or protected species to allow managers to identify hot spot areas.
The Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2009 identified climate change as the single biggest threat to the Reef. One of the predicted impacts of changing climate is the potential for more severe weather events. This will continue to undermine the health of the Reef and animal habitats.
Dr Reichelt said significant management activities are undertaken by the GBRMPA, as well as the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) and our other partners, to help build the resilience of the Reef so it can better withstand the impacts of climate change.
In the past 30 years, management arrangements have been instrumental in helping strengthen dugong and green turtle populations in the Marine Park. Without them, today's populations would not be as large and the current events would pose an even greater threat to their long term survival.
Initiatives have included the designation of Dugong Protection Areas in the late 1990s, the protection of foraging and nesting habitats through the introduction of the Zoning Plan in 2004, and significant changes to netting arrangements in 2009 including compulsory attendance at nets.
'Other measures such as the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan and the Reef Guardian Farmers and Graziers program aim to improve the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef,' Dr Reichelt said. 'They involve working with coastal communities and industries to minimise the impact run-off has on the Reef.
'The Reef Rescue Land and Sea Country Indigenous Partnerships program and Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements are also important vehicles for the Authority to work with Traditional Owners who are actively involved in managing sea country resources.'
The GBRMPA is requesting individuals who find sick or dead turtles or dugongs to not interfere with the animals but to call the stranding hotline on 1300 130 372.