In addition, proponents and land managers should refer to the Recovery Plan (where available) or the Conservation Advice (where available) for recovery, mitigation and conservation information.
|EPBC Act Listing Status||Listed marine|
|Adopted/Made Recovery Plans|
|Policy Statements and Guidelines||
Marine bioregional plan for the Temperate East Marine Region (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2012aa) [Admin Guideline].
Marine bioregional plan for the North Marine Region (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2012x) [Admin Guideline].
Marine bioregional plan for the North-west Marine Region (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2012y) [Admin Guideline].
Sea snakes - A Vulnerability Assessment for the Great Barrier Reef (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), 2011f) [Admin Guideline].
Federal Register of
Declaration under section 248 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - List of Marine Species (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000c) [Legislative Instrument].
|Scientific name||Hydrophis elegans |
This is an indicative distribution map of the present distribution of the species based on best available knowledge. See map caveat for more information.
The current conservation status of the Elegant Seasnake, Hydrophis elegans, under Australian Government legislation and international conventions, is as follows:
National: Listed as a marine species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
International: The Elegant Seasnake is included in the European Union's Council Regulation (EC) No. 338/97 of 9 December 1996 on the protection of species of wild fauna and flora by regulating trade.
Scientific name: Hydrophis elegans
Common name: Elegant Seasnake
The Elegant Seasnake has a greatly elongated body with the hind parts deep and compressed. In adults, the head is grey or olive. The body and tail have 39–44 blackish bands which constrict on the flanks resulting in a pattern of dorsal and ventral cross bars. On the dorsal and lateral surfaces a row of black dots separate the bands and may produce a secondary crossbar or rows of dark scales (Storr et al. 1986). The head scales are large and regular. The body scales are imbricate (regular and overlapping) and in 37–49 rows at the mid-body. The ventral scales are usually undivided and about as wide as, or slightly wider than, neighbouring scales of which there are approximately 345–432. The Elegant Seasnake was thought to grow to a maximum length of two metres (Cogger 2000), but has been caught more recently (Milton et al. 2008) at lengths of up to 2.6 m.
The Elegant Seasnake is widespread in tropical Australia. This includes Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory (Dell & Fry 2003). Its distribution extends from Shark Bay in Western Australia to Moreton Bay in Queensland (Cogger 2000; Storr et al. 1986).
The Elegant Seasnake uses a variety of marine and estuarine habitats, including sandy substrates in less than two metres of water to depths of approximately 80 m (Limpus 1975).
The Elegant Seasnake is sometimes found in freshwater habitats as well as estuaries. It has even been caught during beam trawling in areas that are 12 km upstream from the mouth of the Burnett River in Queensland in December and January (Limpus 1975). It is one of two species of sea snakes in northern Australia that are most likely to occur in areas of soft sediment in prawn trawling regions (Milton 2001). Within the Northern Australian Prawn Fishery region, the Elegant Seasnake is most likely to be caught in the eastern Gulf of Carpentaria and in water that is 31–40 m deep (Ward 2000).
Sea snakes are air breathing reptiles and must come to the surface to breathe, however they can spend from 30 minutes to two hours diving between breaths. They have one elongate cylindrical lung that extends for almost the entire length of their body which is very efficient for gas exchange. They also carry out cutaneous respiration whereby oxygen diffuses from sea water across the snake's skin into the blood. The waste product, carbon dioxide, is then diffused out of the snake's body, via the skin (Heatwole 1999).
Sea snakes have nostril valves that prevent air entering the lung while underwater. Nostril valves open inwards and are held shut from behind by erectile tissue engorged with blood (Heatwole 1999).
Sea snakes are able to avoid excess salt accumulation from sea water using a salt excreting gland, known as the posterior sublingual gland, which sits under the tongue. Sea snakes shed their skin every two to six weeks, which is more frequently than land snakes and more often than needed for growth alone. The process involves rubbing the lips against coral or other hard substrate to loosen the skin. The snake's skin is then anchored to the substrate as it crawls forward, leaving the skin turned inside out behind it. Skin shedding allows sea snakes to rid themselves of fouling marine organisms such as algae, barnacles and bryozoans (Heatwole 1999).
Elegant Seasnakes reach sexual maturity at around two years old. The oldest individuals caught by prawn trawlers in northern Australia were 8.9 years old (Ward 2001) and 10 years old (Fry et al. 2001).
The Elegant Seasnake, like most sea snakes, is viviparous, that is giving birth to live young (Cogger 2000). Male sea snakes have two penises called hemipenes, and each is an autonomous independently functioning penis, though only one is used during mating. Mating takes place for long periods and sea snakes must surface for air during that time. The female controls her breathing and, as she swims to the surface, the male is pulled along via the hemipenis. Males are unable to disengage until mating is finished (Cogger 2000; Heatwole 1999).
More specifically for the species, the Elegant Seasnake mates between early May and the end of July (in northern Australia). The species ovulates in August or September and gives birth around February (Ward 2001). Fry and colleagues (2001) found that 78% of females from Groote Eylandt were pregnant in October. In south-east Queensland the species gives birth between March and May.
Cogger (1975) reported 17–23 embryos per female Elegant Seasnake. They have up to 30 young though the mean is 12.3 SE±1.3 (n=25) (Fry et al. 2001). Females may either reproduce every year (Fry et al. 2001) or every two or three years (Ward 2001). Based on the increased rate of capture of juveniles near river mouths in the eastern Gulf of Carpentaria, Ward (2000) suggests that Elegant Seasnakes may move into estuaries to give birth.
Elegant Seasnakes eat benthic (bottom-dwelling) fish such as Catfish (Euristhmus nudiceps), burrowing eels from the families Muraenidae and Nettastomatidae, the eel Leiuranus semicinctus (Ophicthyidae), Gobies, Whiting Sillago (Sillaginidae), and Squid (Teuthoidea) (Dell & Fry 2003; Fry et al. 2001; Limpus 1975; McCosker 1975). They prefer elongated fish (Limpus 1975).
Limpus (1975) has suggested that the capture of Elegant Seasnakes in the Burnett River, Queensland, was seasonal, as most were caught in December and January.
Sea snakes that inhabit coral reefs and lagoons can be surveyed by travelling slowly (at about four knots) along transects in a small boat and visually identifying snakes observed within 3 m of the path of the boat. Species can be distinguished by this method if the water is up to 3 m deep. At low tide, surveys can be done on foot, for example by searching the reef flat along transects that are 1000 m long and 20 m wide (Guinea & Whiting 2005).
For close up identification, sea snakes that are swimming on the surface of the water can be captured using a dip net employed from a small boat (Limpus 1975). Snakes that are underwater and either active or resting can also be hand-netted by an individual snorkelling or scuba diving, using a cylindrical net 300 mm in diameter and 1700 mm long, with 10 mm mesh. With the aid of protective gloves the snake is gently grasped through the mesh at the base of the net, drawing the snake in until the top of the net can be twisted shut (Guinea & Whiting 2005; Guinea in press). Alternatively, snakes that are resting can be captured by grasping them behind the head and by the mid-body simultaneously. Pillstrom tongs and gloves can be used, although mechanical restraint may injure the snake and increase its aggressiveness (Heatwole 1975).
Prawn trawling has been identified as a major threat to sea snakes due to: their life history (low fecundity and longevity); and demographic factors whereby much of the species' distribution coincides with those areas and depths where prawn trawling occurs (Marsh et al. 1993; Milton et al. 2009). Sea snakes are caught in the bycatch of trawls, and it is estimated that approximately 50% of individuals caught in trawls die by drowning or being crushed by the weight of the catch (Milton et al. 2009; Wassenberg et al. 2001). While sea snakes can naturally remain submerged for up to two hours, the conditions within the net will affect the sea snakes (Wassenberg et al. 2001). These conditions include the physical weight of the catch, the composition of the catch (including poisonous, spiny or abrasive animals) and the interaction of the catch with the seafloor. Survival has been found to depend on a few factors including when the sea snake enters the net (early or late in the tow), the duration of the trawl, the weight of the catch, how the sea snake is treated on the deck and the sea snake's morphology (Wassenberg et al. 2001).
The Elegant Seasnake is frequently caught during prawn trawling. In most areas of the Gulf of Carpentaria, it is the most commonly captured sea snake (Milton & Fry 2002). Around one third of sea snakes caught in all areas of the northern Australian Continental Shelf are Elegant Seasnakes (Ward 2000). The species prefers open, unstructured habitats where prawn trawlers also operate.
The Elegant Seasnake comprised 31–38% of the bycatch of sea snakes caught during prawn trawling in the Northern Prawn Fishery region between 1996 and 1998 in the North West Shelf and the Torres Strait. In addition, the species accounted for 16% of the bycatch during research trawling in the Northern Prawn Fishery region between 1996 and 1997 (Fry et al. 2001). On the northern Australian continental shelf, the Elegant Seasnake comprised 32–33% of the bycatch of sea snakes caught during trawling for prawns (Ward 1996b), and 15% caught during trawling for fish (Ward 1996a). It represented 16% of the bycatch of sea snakes caught during the Queensland East Coast Trawl Fishery (QECTF) observer program in 1996 and 1997 (Fry et al. 2001).
The Elegant Seasnake is the most common species of sea snake caught in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf (in the Gulf of Carpentaria), where it was caught at a rate of 0.062 sea snakes per net per hour (Dell and Fry 2003). Although it is the most frequently captured sea snake, the estimated proportion of biomass of the Elegant Seasnake that was removed by fishing between 1996 and 1997 was one of the lowest in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the catch rate does not appear to be declining (Milton 2001).
Studies conducted during the 1970s found that the Elegant Seasnake comprised 23% of the bycatch of sea snakes caught during research trawling in north-east Queensland (Redfield et al. 1978). It comprised 10% of sea snakes caught during research trawling in the Gulf of Carpentaria (Redfield et al. 1978), and 16% caught in the eastern Gulf of Carpentaria during prawn trawling between 1976 and 1979 (Wassenberg et al. 1994). It was less frequently caught further west, comprising only 3% of the bycatch of sea snakes caught during trawling in north-western Australia, and 7% from the Arafura Sea. It was also present in bycatch in the Timor Sea (Shuntov 1971).
Wassenberg and colleagues (2001) reported that Elegant Seasnakes had the lowest mortality rate from trawling of all sea snakes tested. Just less than one quarter of individuals captured were dead when they were brought onto the trawler. The probability of survival decreased as the weight of the catch in the net increased, and larger individual snakes were less likely to survive. Although 94% of Elegant Seasnakes that were alive (when landed on the trawler) were still alive after 96 hours, there was evidence that some individuals took longer than 96 hours to die from trawl-related trauma. In a sample of 77 caught by demersal prawn trawlers, nine sustained lacerations, punctures or bruising. The others were not visibly damaged, suggesting that the cause of death was drowning (Wassenberg et al. 2001).
Bycatch Reduction Overview
In the early 2000s, the mandatory use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) was introduced to all Australian trawl fisheries to reduce turtle bycatch. In addition, the Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs) were introduced to most Australian prawn trawl fisheries to reduce the bycatch of non-targeted species including sea snakes. BRDs are escape grids or openings designed to enable non-target marine animals to swim out of the net, while TEDs are hard grids placed in trawl nets to exclude turtles and other large animals. An illustration of these devices can be found here: BRD/TED. Both TEDs and BRDs assist in the conservation of sea snakes by: reducing the number of fish caught which decreases the weight of the catch, thus, reducing the physical damage to sea snakes caught in the nets; and, enabling sea snakes caught to escape (Wassenberg et al. 2001). As a result of the mandatory introduction of these devices, Australia’s state and commonwealth prawn trawl fisheries must now have both a TED and a second BRD installed in every trawl net (Courtney et al. 2010).
A range of studies have been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of BRDs, as well as TEDs and BRDs used simultaneously, on sea snakes. For example, Wassenberg et al. (2001) suggested that the mortality rates should decline with the introduction of BRDs due to the reduced weight of the bycatch in nets as well as increased escapement by snakes. Brewer et al. (2006) concluded that the simultaneous use of TEDs and BRDs used by fishers in the Northern Prawn Fishery (NPF) had little effect (i.e. 5%) on excluding snakes from trawl nets. However, they found that the performance of BRDs alone could be improved if placed closer to the codend (the trailing end of the net where fish are finally caught). More recently, through improvement in design, the Fisheye BRD was similarly identified as capable of reducing sea snake bycatch and its effectiveness dependant on distance from the codend (Courtney et al. 2010). Testing of the Yarrow Fisheye BRD (Heales et al. 2008) and the Popeye Fishbox BRD (Raudzens 2007) in the NPF demonstrated their high potential for reducing sea snake catch rates with no adverse reduction in targeted prawn catch rates.
Prawn Trawling Crew Member Programs
Prawn trawling has been found to have a negative impact on protected sea snake populations (Milton et al. 2008). In 2003, a Crew Member Observer (CMO) program was established in the Northern Prawn Fishery (NPF). The program aimed to collect data on bycatch such as composition, catch rates and distribution during both NPF tiger and banana prawn fishing seasons. The initiative required the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) to jointly run annual industry workshops to train the crew in the identification, photographing and recording of sea snakes from bycatch. During the 2003–2005 seasons, 21 crew member observers on 17 vessels collected data from 7602 prawn trawls. The observers recorded 4131 sea snakes from 12 species, with over half being photographed for identification and length estimation (Milton et al. 2008).
This CMO program has been used in conjunction with logbooks, requested industry collections, scientific observers and fishery-independent surveys for long term bycatch monitoring solutions, and reflects the NPF's commitment to the sustainability of all species impacted by its fishing activities (Milton et al. 2008).
During this time, the Elegant Seasnake was found to be the most abundant species recorded in the tiger prawn seasons, representing between 24–36% of all sea snakes recorded in the NPF. This figure is similar to that recorded during the banana prawn trawls (26% of total sea snakes) (Milton et al. 2008). This species was also found to be the most common sea snake caught in otter trawls in central and southern Queensland offshore waters (Marcos & Lanyon 2004). However, in a 2001 study, the species was found to have the lowest mortality rate (94% alive after 96 hours in a tank) after capture (Wassenberg et al. 2001). Another study (Milton 2001) also found that the species was one of the least susceptible to fishing mortality of all sea snakes caught in the NPF (13 species examined during the study).
Another CMO program (called the Crew Member Program or CMP) was brought into effect in the QECTF during July 2005–October 2007 (Courtney et al. 2010). As part of this program, bycatch data were collected from fisheries such as the shallow and deepwater eastern king prawn, scallop, banana prawn, redspot king prawn, North Queensland tiger/endeavour prawn, black tiger prawn broodstock collection, beam trawl and stout whiting trawl fisheries. During the study from 8289 trawls, information on bycatch rates, composition and mortality was collected. A total of 3910 sea snakes were captured from the 8289 trawls. Identification of the bycatch was made using digital photos taken by trained crew members. The study found that the highest catch of sea snakes was in redspot king prawn fishery, due to an overlap with sea snake habitat (Courtney et al. 2010).
During the CMP, the low mortality trend, apparent during the CMO program, was again evident in the QECTF (Courtney et al. 2010). However, Wassenberg and colleagues found that the species' probability of survival decreased significantly with a heavier catch (Wassenberg et al. 2001).
Current Bycatch Reduction Methods and Effectiveness
Results from the CMP indicate that sea snake bycatch in the Queensland trawl fishery can be significantly reduced by using properly designed and installed BRDs, with no significant reduction in targeted prawn catch rates. Of the BRDs tested (the standard codend with no BRD, Fisheye BRD, square mesh codend BRD and square mesh panel BRD), the CMP found that the Fisheye BRD was the most effective device at excluding snakes i.e. 63% reduction compared to the standard net, with no significant effect on the catch rate of marketable (≥ 20 mm carapace length) prawns. The Fisheye BRD was also the most effective device for excluding bycatch of non-targeted species with a 33% reduction in bycatch rate compared to the standard net (Courtney et al. 2010). Furthermore, the square mesh codend was found to also be highly effective at excluding both sea snakes and other bycatch, with reductions of 60% and 31% respectively, compared to the standard net. However, the effectiveness of square mesh codend was considered to be limited by the maximum size of the square meshes which would provide too small an exit for large snakes (Courtney et al. 2010). Milton and colleagues (2009) found that the commonly used Fisheye BRD also had good exclusion (43% reduction in bycatch by weight) when placed at a distance of 66 meshes from the codend. Where sea snake mortality is high (eg area or sector related), more recent studies have suggested that the device should be placed closer to the codend, that is, 50 meshes (Courtney et al. 2010).
As part of the CMO program, tests undertaken on the Popeye Fishbox BRD, conducted by AFMA in the NPF in the Gulf of Carpentaria, reported an 87% reduction in the catch rate of sea snakes when the device was installed 70 meshes from the codend, with no significant effect on prawn catch rates (Raudzens 2007). However, repositioning the device to 100 meshes from the codend lowered the exclusion rate of bycatch of non-targeted species, thus making it less effective for sea snakes. Brewer and colleagues (2006) similarly found that there was no decrease in sea snake bycatch in the NPF when the BRD was placed at a distance of 120 meshes from the codend (i.e. maximum allowable distance under Australian law).
As shown from the above findings, the distance of the BRD from the codend significantly affects its ability to exclude bycatch of non-targeted species including sea snakes. Even if the most effective BRD is implemented, its performance will be greatly compromised unless an appropriate maximum distance from the drawstring of the codend is also specified (Courtney et al. 2010).
Additional factors that will reduce bycatch of sea snakes include the detection of reduced water flow and the length of hauls (Milton et al. 2009; Wassenberg et al. 2001). For a BRD to be effective, it must also enable the sea snakes to detect the reduced flow posterior to the device (Milton et al. 2009). When tested, the Fishbox BRD was found to have a relatively large region of reduced flow posterior to the device (Heales et al. 2008). The length of hauls has been found to also impact bycatch rates, with shorter hauls reducing the volume of bycatch which in turn increase the survival chances of sea snakes (Milton et al. 2009; Wassenberg et al. 2001).
Marine bioregional plans have been developed for four of Australia's marine regions - South-west, North-west, North and Temperate East. Marine Bioregional Plans will help improve the way decisions are made under the EPBC Act, particularly in relation to the protection of marine biodiversity and the sustainable use of our oceans and their resources by our marine-based industries. Marine Bioregional Plans improve our understanding of Australia's oceans by presenting a consolidated picture of the biophysical characteristics and diversity of marine life. They describe the marine environment and conservation values of each marine region, set out broad biodiversity objectives, identify regional priorities and outline strategies and actions to address these priorities. Click here for more information about marine bioregional plans.
The Elegant Seasnake has been identified as a conservation value in the North-west (DSEWPaC 2012y), North (DSEWPaC 2012x) and Temperate East (DSEWPaC 2012aa) marine regions. The "species group report card - marine reptiles" for the North-west (DSEWPaC 2012y), North (DSEWPaC 2012x) and Temperate East (DSEWPaC 2012aa) marine regions provide additional information.
No threats data available.
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Brewer, D., N. Rawlinson, S. Eayres & C. Burridge (1998). An assessment of bycatch reduction devices in a tropical Australian prawn trawl fishery. Fisheries Research. 36:195-215.
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Cogger, H.G. (2000). Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia - 6th edition. Sydney, NSW: Reed New Holland.
Courtney, A., B. Schemel, R. Wallace, M. Campbell, D. Mayer & B. Young (2010). Reducing the impact of Queensland's trawl fisheries on protected sea snakes. Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, Queensland Government.
Dell, Q. & G. Fry (2003). Final Report on the collection of sea snakes (Family Hydrophiidae) from the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf. Department of the Environment and Heritage Permit No: M2003/0009. CSIRO.
Fry, G.C., A. Milton & T.J. Wassenberg (2001). The reproductive biology and diet of sea snake bycatch of prawn trawling in northern Australia: characteristics important for assessing the impacts on populations. Pacific Conservation Biology. 7:55-73.
Guinea, M.L (in press). A technique for catching and restraining sea snakes. Herpetological Review.
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Heatwole, H. (1999). Sea Snakes. In: Australian Natural History Series. Page(s) 148. Sydney, NSW: UNSW Press.
Limpus, C.J. (1975). Coastal sea snakes of subtropical Queensland waters (23° to 28° South Latitude). In: Dunson, W. A., ed. The Biology of Sea Snakes. Page(s) 173-182. Baltimore: University Park Press.
Marsh, H., P.J. Corkeron, C.J. Limpus, P.D. Shaughnessy & T.M. Ward (1993). Conserving marine mammals and reptiles in Australia and Oceania. In: C. Moritz & J. Kikkawa, eds. Conservation Biology in Australia and Oceania. Page(s) 225-44. Chipping Norton, NSW: Surrey Beatty & Sons.
McCosker, J.E. (1975). Feeding behaviour of Indo-Australian Hydrophiidae. In: Dunson, W. A., ed. The Biology of Sea Snakes. Page(s) 217-232. Baltimore: University Park Press.
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Milton, D., S. Zhou, G. Fry & Q. Dell (2008). Risk assessment and mitigation for sea snakes caught in the Northern Prawn Fishery. Fisheries Research and Development Conservation Corporation and CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, Cleveland.
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This database is designed to provide statutory, biological and ecological information on species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species, and species and species products subject to international trade and commercial use protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). It has been compiled from a range of sources including listing advice, recovery plans, published literature and individual experts. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no guarantee is given, nor responsibility taken, by the Commonwealth for its accuracy, currency or completeness. The Commonwealth does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this database. The information contained in this database does not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth. This database is not intended to be a complete source of information on the matters it deals with. Individuals and organisations should consider all the available information, including that available from other sources, in deciding whether there is a need to make a referral or apply for a permit or exemption under the EPBC Act.
Citation: Department of the Environment (2013). Hydrophis elegans in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: http://www.environment.gov.au/sprat. Accessed Sat, 7 Dec 2013 15:43:53 +1100.