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Marine turtle recovery newsletter

2nd Edition
Department of the Environment and Heritage, November 2004


Illustration of turtle

Welcome readers

As Chair of the National Turtle Recovery Group, I am pleased to welcome you to another edition of the Marine Turtle Recovery Newsletter.

This edition underscores the special importance of turtles to Indigenous peoples and highlights actions underway in northern Australia to protect marine turtles. Non-Indigenous Australians are often unaware of the integral role marine turtles play in the culture, spirituality and economy of many coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Few recognise the wealth of successful work by Indigenous communities to help protect turtle populations, nor the valuable traditional knowledge they bring. Governments are recognising the need to support work by Indigenous communities, and this newsletter details some successful partnerships between Indigenous communities and governments.

Articles in this issue also cover scientific research findings and regional management initiatives. I hope that this mix of articles will inform readers, and also encourage people to become involved in efforts to ensure that turtles are around for future generations to enjoy. This newsletter will also be available on the DEH website (

Robyn Bromley

Marine turtles: their special significance

Marine turtles are spiritually, culturally and economically important to many coastal Indigenous communities. This importance is reflected in the deep traditional knowledge of turtle ecology that these communities have developed through their long association with marine turtles.

Marine turtles are spiritually significant and feature in creation stories. Turtle images frequently appear in the art of many coastal communities. Both the meat and eggs of turtles are important foods in many areas. The activities surrounding the consumption of turtle products form part of a continuous cultural practice. The hunting of turtles may express the continuance of a long cultural tradition, which incorporates the social sharing of the animal according to traditional kinship protocols. Additionally, a young man's first hunt may also be an important part of his progression from boyhood to manhood.

Given the significance of turtles, it is very important for many coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that the populations of these animals are protected for future generations. Traditional protocols that determined who could catch and butcher turtles or that restricted the take of eggs and seasonally closed beaches and hunting areas have ensured the future of turtles for generations. However, new threats to turtles, such as accidental take in fishing nets, predation of nests by feral animals, and entanglement in marine debris, have reduced turtle populations. Coupled with this, there may be an increase in the number of marine turtles being hunted by some Indigenous communities. So today, many Indigenous communities are working to adapt the management of the resources they are dependant upon to ensure traditional use of turtles can continue while protecting the species.

Traditional Indigenous Artwork by Joey Laifoo

Traditional Indigenous Artwork by Joey Laifoo

The unique biology of marine turtles

Australian waters provide habitat for six of the world's seven known marine turtle species. Marine turtles developed from land-dwelling ancestors and, as a result of this, they have air-breathing lungs and must return to land to lay their eggs on beaches.

The eggs, which are laid in covered, sandy nests, develop into hatchlings. The temperature of the nest determines the hatchling's sex. When the hatchlings emerge they head towards the low light on the horizon. Hatchlings then travel into the open ocean where they drift and feed for three to seven years (or up to 15 years in the case of loggerhead turtles). At this stage, most turtles settle near inshore feeding grounds. Leatherback turtles and flatback turtles are exceptions. Flatback hatchlings are not thought to leave the Australian continental shelf and leatherback turtles spend most of their life in the open ocean. Turtles grow slowly and may take from 30 to 50 years to reach sexual maturity.

Once mature, turtles migrate back to their breeding area, which may be as far as 3000 km away from their feeding ground. Female turtles always return to the same breeding ground, which is thought to be in the region of their birth. Individuals will only breed once every two to seven years. During seasons when they do breed, females will lay several clutches of eggs. Green turtles, for example, lay around six clutches at approximately two weekly intervals. Each nest will contain around 100 ping-pong sized, white, leathery eggs.

The life history of marine turtles makes them vulnerable to a number of threats. They do not guard their nests, so eggs can be taken by humans, dogs, foxes and other predators. They return to breed and nest in the region of their birth, so are unlikely to colonise areas that have been depleted. The longevity and late maturity of turtles means their populations take a long time to rebound from any declines. As a result of their migratory habits, turtles often venture into the waters of foreign countries, where commercial harvesting of them may be allowed. Given the decline in turtle populations from this range of threats, all of Australia's marine turtles are listed as threatened under the Australian Government's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Two species, the loggerhead and olive ridley turtle, are listed as endangered, which means that the species may become extinct if current threats to their survival continue.

Natural Heritage Trust funds at work

Releasing a turtle from a drift net in Northeast Arnhem Land

Releasing a turtle from a drift net in Northeast Arnhem Land (see Ghost nets in North-east Arnhem Land p 5). From left Dhimurru Ranger, Banula Marika; Ranger Parks and Wildlife Service NT, Phil Wise; and Dhimurru Ranger, Nalkuma Burrawanga. ©Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation 2004 (

Turtle nests on the Northern Territory's Melville Island are safer thanks to a project funded by the Australian Government's $3 billion Natural Heritage Trust. Before the project, feral dogs on the island's beaches were eating eggs and hatchlings from turtle nests. Both the endangered olive ridley turtle and the vulnerable flatback turtle were affected.

After gaining approval from the Traditional Owners, the Parks and Wildlife Service of the NT and WWF Australia ran a feral dog control program on four of Melville Island's beaches in April this year. The program was successful, with the number of nests destroyed by feral dogs dropping to zero overnight. Surveys of the two most important beaches a month after baiting found that there was still no loss of nests from dogs.

More projects to help turtle recovery are likely to receive Natural Heritage Trust funding in 2004/05.

Marine Debris - what's being done about it?

In certain areas of Australia, marine turtles and other marine species can become entangled in or eat waste materials, including discarded or lost fishing gear and plastic products. Dumped fishing nets are commonly called 'ghost nets' as they can drift over vast areas for long periods of time, trapping and sometimes killing marine animals. This rubbish is collectively called 'marine debris' and can be very harmful to all marine life. The Australian Government is working to determine if marine debris is on the increase and provided $22,000 in Natural Heritage Trust funds to WWF Australia to support its ongoing monitoring of marine debris in Northern Australia. Elsewhere in this newsletter there is information on actions being undertaken by Dhimurru Land Management Corporation to help reduce marine debris in their area.

In August 2003, the Australian Minister for the Environment and Heritage listed marine debris as a key threatening process for "Injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of or entanglement in harmful marine debris." This listing was made under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), and means that the Australian Government is now developing a threat abatement plan for marine debris. The threat abatement plan will identify the impacts of marine debris and will set out strategies to minimise these impacts.

In developing the Marine Debris threat abatement plan, stakeholder workshops have been held in Brisbane and Adelaide to identify potential solutions to marine debris in Australian waters. Participants included representatives from industry, industry-support groups, government, non-government organisations, volunteer groups, conservation organisations and some Indigenous organisations.

Discussions ranged across the impacts of many kinds of marine debris, from derelict nets to urban litter, gaps in current arrangements to abate the impacts of debris, options for future strategies, and the international dimensions of the problem.

We expect that the draft threat abatement plan will be available for comment early next year. There will be a three-month consultative period when the Minister for the Environment and Heritage will seek comments on the draft plan. Following this period, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee will then assess the draft plan and forward it to the Minister so he can consider making the plan under the EPBC Act. If you would like a copy of the Workshop Report or the draft threat abatement plan when it is available for comment, please contact Narelle Freestone on (02) 6274 2328 or by email We would appreciate any comments you might have.

The Great Barrier Reef - Traditional Use Marine Resource Agreements

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's most important natural assets. It is the largest natural structure on earth built by living organisms, and is clearly visible from space. It stretches more than 2,300km along the northeast coast of Australia from the tip of Cape York south to Bundaberg. More than 70 Indigenous Traditional Owner groups maintain connections with the Great Barrier Reef, which predate European settlement by many thousands of years. Contemporary Indigenous groups retain their cultural association with the reef and their use of it in the face of increasing pressure from coastal development, commercial fishing, private recreational use and rapidly increasing tourism.

A Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement, or TUMRA, is a new type of legal instrument that describes how Traditional Owner groups wish to manage the traditional use of marine resources in their sea country. Traditional Owners who are Native Title holders generally do not require permits for traditional use of marine resources activities from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, (GBRMPA) as these activities may be conducted under s.211 of the Native Title Act 1993. Traditional activities also may be conducted in accordance with TUMRAs that have been accredited by the GBRMPA, or with a GBRMPA permit.

TUMRAs are developed by Traditional Owner groups and are submitted for accreditation by the GBRMPA. TUMRAs do not bind all Traditional Owners within a group to the agreement, although for the TUMRA to be workable, the GBRMPA prefers that more than half of a Traditional Owner group agree to the TUMRA. If they are accredited their provisions are able to be enforced.

TUMRAs will help to ensure sustainable harvest of marine resources using culturally appropriate methods. The GBRMPA will initially focus on the management arrangements for the traditional hunting of dugongs and turtles.

The MACC Taskforce on marine turtle and dugong populations - an update

At the start of 2004 the Marine and Coastal Committee (the MACC), a Ministerial Council Taskforce drawn from Government Departments, established a Taskforce on Dugong and Turtle Populations. The Taskforce was established so that the Australian, State and Territory Governments could develop a national approach to the sustainable management of Indigenous harvest of marine turtles and dugongs. The Taskforce includes representatives from Australian, State and Territory Government departments and agencies responsible for environment, natural resource management and Indigenous policy. One of the highest priorities of the Taskforce is how to successfully engage key members of the community in its work, especially members of the Indigenous and scientific communities.

Many Indigenous peoples, and Governments both nationally and internationally, are concerned by reports of significant population decline of dugong and marine turtles. In particular, the waters of Northern Australia, from Shark Bay (Catharrugodu) in Western Australia to Moreton Bay (Quandamooka) in Queensland, are internationally recognized as strongholds for dugongs. The migratory nature of the species means that Indigenous communities share the same dugongs and marine turtles, so it is essential to work together to manage the species across northern Australia.

The MACC Taskforce members are spending between now and Christmas talking to communities all across northern Australia so that we can better understand the issues and identify some solutions together. We are hoping to hear from Indigenous communities about things like

If you would like to give your views during the consultations, or know more about the work of the Taskforce, please email, or contact the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage on our freecall number: 1800 803 772.

Did you know…

Green turtle, by Robert Thorn

Green Turtle by Richard Thorn. © Department of the Environment and Heritage and Richard Thorn

…that in addition to the MACC Taskforce, the Turtle Recovery Group also works to conserve marine turtle populations? This group advises the Australian Government on how to implement the Recovery Plan for Marine Turtles in Australia, a special plan set up to reverse declines in turtle populations. The group includes representatives from Dhimurru and the Indigenous Advisory Committee as well as Australian, State and Territory Governments, scientists, industry and non-government conservation organisations.

Snapshots of research and action

Actions by Indigenous communities, informed by research, are making a positive difference to turtle populations around northern Australia. This article outlines three initiatives in two separate places. In North-east Arnhem Land, the Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation, is tackling the problem of ghost nets. Meanwhile, researchers working with the Yolngu people have been using satellite transmitters to better understand the migration of green turtles nesting on the area's beaches. In the southern Great Barrier Reef, Traditional Owners of the Girringun Region are formulating an Agreement for the use of traditional marine resource which will help protect turtle populations.

Ghost nets in North-east Arnhem Land

Dhimurru Rangers releasing an olive ridley turtle freed from a ghost net

Dhimurru Rangers releasing an olive ridley turtle freed from a ghost net. ©Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation 2004 (

Ghost nets, which have been dumped by fishing vessels, drift around the seas ensnaring wildlife. In North-east Arhnem Land they wash up on the beaches during the season of southeast wind (dhimurru). These nets often contain miyapunu (marine turtles) and Dhimurru Rangers have been working since 1996 on a recovery project to address this. Every dhimurru season, Rangers patrol the beaches from Wunyinymarra (Mt. Alexander) to the top of Wanuwuy (Cape Arnhem) using Laynhapuy Aviation's helicopter. Patrols are made with the financial support of WWF Australia, the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account, Alcan Gove, the Australian Government's Natural Heritage Trust, the ICC and the Humane Society International. When nets are found, the Rangers free the miyapunu from the nets, measure them and tag them before releasing the miyapunu back to the sea. Miyapunu found dead in the nets are also measured and DNA samples are taken to help researchers find out where they come from. The nets are dragged as far up the beach as possible and a section of each net is taken to help find out the origin of the nets using a kit developed by WWF Australia. Since 1996, Dhimurru rangers have found over 200 green, olive ridley, hawksbill and flatback turtles in nets. Over 114 of these miyapunu survived and were released back into the ocean.

Satellite tracking in North-east Arnhem Land

Green turtle with satellite transmitter returns to the sea at Djulpan Beach.

Green turtle with satellite transmitter returns to the sea at Djulpan Beach. ©Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation 2004 (

In the same area, scientists from Charles Darwin University and rangers at Dhimurru have been tracking the migration of green turtles from nesting sites to feeding grounds. Satellite transmitters were attached to 20 green turtles on their nesting beach at Djulpan (45 km south of Nhulunby). The green turtles were expected to migrate in many different directions and over thousands of kilometres. Instead, the turtles all migrated south and moved to sea grass beds and other feeding grounds within the Gulf of Carpentaria. Most migrated less than 400km from Djulpan to their feeding site, with the furthest travelling 700km. Because the green turtles stayed within Australian waters, they appear safe from the threats of foreign waters where turtles are sometimes taken commercially. The distances travelled by these green turtles mean that they travel through the sea country of many different communities. With this in mind, the Yolngu people of North-east Arnhem Land and other Indigenous communities are looking to encourage cooperative management of turtles amongst communities in the area and share knowledge on these creatures.

Dhimurru Senior Cultural Advisor Djawa Yunupingu (left) and scientist Rod Kennett attaching a satellite transmitter to a green turtle.

Dhimurru Senior Cultural Advisor Djawa Yunupingu (left) and scientist Rod Kennett attaching a satellite transmitter to a green turtle. ©Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation 2004 (

Use of Traditional Marine Resources in Girringun Sea County

In North Queensland, Traditional Owners in the Girringun Region have been formulating a Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement (TUMRA), which will help protect turtle populations in their sea country. The Girringun Region TUMRA Working Group, which is currently working on a draft agreement, comprises two representatives from each of the six saltwater Traditional Owner groups within the Girringun Region and also involves concerned Elders and younger Traditional Owners. This Traditional Owner driven process commenced in March 2004 and has included discussions with neighbouring Traditional Owner groups to agree on the boundaries of the proposed Girringun TUMRA Regions. The draft TUMRA incorporates measures to help the recovery of turtle populations, including limits on the areas from which harvest may take place and the actual numbers of turtles to be harvested per year. As well as assisting turtle populations directly, these measures will make it easier for poaching to be identified and dealt with. The Girringun Region TUMRA Working Group is in the process of finalising the agreement for accreditation by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. More information on the TUMRA process can be found in this newsletter.

Community Agreements in Queensland

Queensland EPA has been meeting with representatives from a number of Indigenous communities to begin planning the development of a series of Community-based Management Plans relating to the Indigenous hunting of marine turtles and dugong. A Memorandum of Agreement Regarding Dugong and Turtles has been entered into between the Two Rivers People at Weipa and the EPA. This will provide for a community-based permit system for hunting and a framework for compliance responses to poaching activities. Discussions have commenced with a number of other Indigenous communities along the Queensland coast in collaboration with GBRMPA.

Contact details

Migratory and Marine Species Section
Department of the Environment and Heritage
GPO Box 787
Canberra ACT 2601


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