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Boat-based turtle and dugong monitoring

A collaborative effort in the remote north Kimberley is drawing on extensive Indigenous Knowledge and state-of-the-art tools and technology to develop new ways to monitor marine turtles and dugongs along the remote northern coast of Australia.

The Marine Turtle and Dugong Monitoring Project is an innovative research program involving the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation’s Uunguu Rangers, NAILSMA and the CSIRO.

The project is developing tools that support scientifically robust, community-based biodiversity monitoring programs for the Indigenous rangers managing these culturally important species on their country. A key success of the project to date has been the development of a boat-based transect survey method that can be repeated in a rigorous way to monitor local turtle and dugong populations over time. The project also fosters partnerships that promote the development of sustainable Indigenous livelihoods based on caring for country.

Over nine days in August, members of the Uunguu Rangers, other Traditional Owners, and NAILSMA and CSIRO staff camped out at Gaambermirri camp at Truscott-Mungulalu to complete a survey and sampling trip. At their disposal was Deep Tempest, a 17 m chartered vessel equipped with three tenders to assist them in their work, and a host of sophisticated equipment including unbreakable GPS units, a custom-built quadrat fitted with an underwater video camera, an array of water quality and core sampling gear, a metal grab sampler, and even a small blimp.

Data from more than 200 turtles were recorded during the boat-based surveys, using a customised data collection and mapping tool developed through NAILSMA’s I-Tracker program. Sampling and species identification of seagrass were also completed, and a low-cost monitoring program for the richest sea grass areas proposed. In addition, valuable baseline data was collected with support from CSIRO to get an accurate picture of the water quality in the survey region and to examine changes in the sediment over time.

The data from these surveys support Traditional Owner aspirations articulated in the Uunguu Healthy Country Plan, which documents the ten-year management and monitoring goals for Wunambal Gaambera country. The plan includes a target specifically relating to maintaining healthy turtle and dugong populations.

The monitoring program is a case study within a larger body of research being carried out by Theme 5.1 of the Northern Australia hub of the National Environmental Research Program. 

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