A national recovery plan has been drafted to increase protection for Australia’s marine turtles, Environment Minister Dr. David Kemp announced today. "These ancient creatures have lived in the ocean for more than 100 million years," Kemp said. "They are part of our unique natural heritage, with six of the world’s seven species living in Australian waters."
All marine turtles in Australian waters are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act which took effect in 2000. Loggerhead and olive ridley turtles are listed as endangered under the act, while leatherback, hawksbill, green and flatback turtles are listed as vulnerable.
Other threats include accidental drowning in fishing gear, overharvesting of turtles and eggs, and predation of eggs and hatchlings by foxes, feral pigs, dogs and goannas.
"The numbers of marine turtles nesting on Australian shores have declined dramatically in the past 25 years," Kemp said. "For example, in 1976 around 3,500 loggerhead females nested on the Queensland coast, whereas only 300 nested in 1997.
The national recovery plan is designed to reverse that decline "as a matter of urgency," the minister said. He expects the measures outlined in the plan will restore turtle populations "over the next few decades." A recovery team will be appointed and will meet soon to put the plan into action, he said.
The estimated costs are A$5.64 million over a five year period. The priority of each action, the feasibility and the estimated cost for each action is identified.
Despite status varying from species to species and country to country, global decline of marine turtle populations has been recognised by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) through the assigning of endangered status to all species except the hawksbill and leatherback turtles, which are listed as critically endangered, and the flatback turtle, which is listed as data deficient.
The new national plan recommends the establishment of a national monitoring program to allow better management of stranded turtles and to identify causes of death such as disease, damage from fishing fleets, and boat strikes.
Marine turtles have unique cultural and social values for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders living in coastal areas of northern Australia. They are an essential food item for some island communities in the Torres Strait where there are few other sources of fresh red meat, and the eggs of marine turtles are a source of protein.
In a few Aboriginal communities, marine turtles are taken in large numbers for traditional feasting. Harvested turtles and eggs are shared equally among relatives and friends of the hunters. Turtle oil is used as a medicine or tonic.
The new plan "seeks to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the national recovery effort," Kemp said, urging the state and territory governments to establish arrangements with indigenous communities as a priority, "as they are all custodians of significant turtle populations."
The national plan was developed by a team of key stakeholders from state and territory governments, industry, the Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation and Humane Society International. "We will be working closely with state and territory governments, as turtle feeding and breeding areas are predominantly found in their waters," Kemp said.
The consultation process included indigenous groups such as the Northern Land Council and the Larrakia Nation, nongovernmental organizations, the fishing industry and the public.
The biodiversity of Australian coastal waters is expected to be enhanced due to the actions identified in the marine turtle recovery plan.
The bycatch of other large marine vertebrates will be reduced with the introduction of turtle excluder devices, and the effective management of bycatch in fisheries will benefit other marine species, according to information released with the plan.
The protection of marine turtle habitat will benefit seagrass and shallow continental shelf communities, and those species found on the beaches where the turtles are hatched.
The control of pests that prey on marine turtle eggs is expected to reduce predation pressure on other species on land near the turtle nesting beaches.
The identification and targeting of sources of marine debris will benefit other marine animals such as seals, dolphins and whales.
View the Australian marine turtle recovery plan online at: http://www.ea.gov.au/coasts/species/turtles/recovery/index.html