Bellinger River Emydura (Emydura macquarii) Recovery Plan

NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, July 2001
ISBN 0 731 36367 1

1.0 Introduction

The Bellinger River Emydura is a rare form of the freshwater turtle Emydura macquarii (Gray, 1830) and is restricted in distribution to the Bellinger River on the NSW mid north coast. It is listed as a vulnerable species on Schedule 2 of the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (TSC Act) and also as a vulnerable species in the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The aim of this recovery plan is to identify the full range of the taxon, identify and control threats and encourage protection and management of habitat in cooperation with the community.

2.0 Description and distribution

The genus Emydura (Family Chelidae) is a group of short-necked turtle species inhabiting rivers, streams, billabongs and lagoons in eastern and northern Australia and southern New Guinea (Cogger 1996). The most recent taxonomic treatment of freshwater turtles in NSW regards Emydura macquarii as a widespread species occurring in the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin as well as coastal rivers of northern NSW and south-eastern Queensland (Cann 1998). Populations of Emydura macquarii from the coastal rivers of northern NSW and south-eastern Queensland were previously considered a separate species, Emydura signata (Cogger 1996). Cann (1998) formally recognised different subspecies of Emydura macquarii for the Brisbane River, Clarence River, Macleay and Hastings Rivers, and Hunter River, but did not formally describe the Bellinger River Emydura as a distinct subspecies, presumably because of a lack of comparative material. Only two specimens are held in the Australian Museum.

Cann (1998) reported that the Bellinger River Emydura was a morphologically distinct form of Emydura macquarii, with the carapace (or upper shell) considerably more flared towards the rear than subspecies of Emydura macquarii from other rivers, a shell length of up to 25 cm and a golden-yellow iris with a yellowish inner ring. Spencer and Thompson (2000), however, noted that there was much morphological variation within Emydura macquarii and that the flared carapace and iris colour may not be diagnostic characteristics of the Bellinger River population. Further work is needed to determine any genetic or morphological distinctiveness of the Bellinger River Emydura.

The Bellinger River Emydura may be confused with the two other species of turtle which occur in the Bellinger River, the Eastern Snake-necked Turtle (Chelodina longicollis) and the Bellinger River Elseya (Elseya georgesi). It can be distinguished from these species by the combination of short neck (extended head and neck shorter than shell), golden yellow iris, and lighter coloured shell without a serrated rear margin and without black-edged seams on the underside.

The Bellinger River Emydura is known from two sites along a single stretch of the Bellinger River upstream from Thora (Cann 1993a; Cogger et al. 1993; Spencer and Thompson 2000) (Figure 1). It has also been recorded at one site in the vicinity of Bellingen township (Cann pers. comm. 1999), although occurrence at this location may be the result of accidental or intentional release of pet animals (Spencer and Thompson 2000).

Given that the Bellinger River Emydura has an apparently restricted distribution and a small total population, exact locations are not provided to protect the taxon from illegal collection.

3.0 Current conservation status

While at the species level Emydura macquarii is widespread in NSW with a current status of common and secure, the Bellinger River population is rare and at risk. The Bellinger River Emydura is possibly one of the rarest turtles in Australia (Cann 1998). The number of animals within the population is unknown but is thought to be small. At the location near Thora a total of only eight individuals have been recorded (Spencer and Thompson 2000). There is no evidence to suggest that the Bellinger River Emydura's population has declined or its range contracted; however, given its restricted range and the evidence of threats, it is likely to become endangered unless the factors threatening its survival cease to operate (NSW Scientific Committee 1997).

4.0 Habitat and ecology

Cann (1993a) reported that the Bellinger River Emydura is omnivorous with a diet including small crustaceans, aquatic insects, filamentous algae and possibly aquatic weed. Spencer and Thompson (2000), however, reported that it is primarily insectivorous, leading to considerable dietary overlap with the Bellinger River Elseya. The animals recorded near Thora on the upper Bellinger River occupy several long, deep pools in moderately broad reaches along a one kilometre section of the river (Cogger et al. 1993; Spencer and Thompson 2000).

Little information is available concerning the ecology of the Bellinger River Emydura. Nesting occurs from October to early January and multiple clutches may be laid (Cann 1998). Elsewhere, populations of Emydura macquarii utilise fallen timber (snags) in rivers as basking sites and lay their eggs in nests excavated in the river banks. Riparian vegetation is a significant component of aquatic ecosystems (Koehn 1993), and is likely to be important for the Bellinger River Emydura. The values of riparian vegetation include the following:

  • providing a major energy and nutrient input to ecosystem functioning in the form of organic matter such as leaves, bark and twigs;
  • buffering against high water temperatures by providing shade;
  • providing a source of river snags for basking;
  • providing nesting sites;
  • preventing streambank erosion;
  • providing habitat for aquatic species with a terrestrial component to their lifecycles; and
Figure 1. Bellinger River and associated tributaries.
Figure 1. Bellinger River and associated tributaries.

5.0 Relevant legislation

The Bellinger River Emydura is listed as a vulnerable species on Schedule 2 of the TSC Act. The taxon (identified as Emydura signata (Bellinger River)) is also listed as a vulnerable species in the Commonwealth EPBC Act.

6.0 Recovery plan implementation

The TSC Act requires that a government agency must not undertake actions inconsistent with a recovery plan. The authorities responsible for the actions identified in this Plan are listed in Table 1.

The EPBC Act specifies that a Commonwealth agency must not take any action that contravenes a recovery plan.

6.1 Critical habitat

The TSC Act makes provision for the identification and declaration of critical habitat for species, populations and ecological communities listed as endangered. Once declared, it becomes an offence to damage critical habitat (unless the action is specifically exempted by the TSC Act) and a species impact statement is mandatory for all developments and activities proposed within critical habitat.

The Bellinger River Emydura is not currently eligible for declaration of critical habitat because it is not listed as endangered under Schedule 1 of the TSC Act.

Under the EPBC Act, critical habitat may be registered for any nationally listed threatened species or ecological community. When adopting a recovery plan the Federal Minister for the Environment must consider whether to list habitat identified in the recovery plan as being critical to the survival of the species or ecological community. It is an offence under the EPBC Act for a person to knowingly take an action that will significantly damage critical habitat (unless the EPBC Act specifically exempts the action). This offence only applies to Commonwealth areas. However an action which is likely to have a significant impact on a listed species is still subject to referral and approval under the EPBC Act.

This Recovery Plan (section 4.0) identifies those habitat features currently known to be critical to the survival of the Bellinger River Emydura as required by the EPBC Act.

6.2 Environmental assessment

The TSC Act amendments to the environmental assessment provisions of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP& Act) require that consent and determining authorities consider relevant recovery plans when exercising a decision-making function under Parts 4 & 5 of the EP& Act. Consent and determining authorities must consider the conservation strategy outlined in this plan when considering a proposed development or activity that may affect the Bellinger River Emydura.

Any other action not requiring approval under the EP& Act, and which is likely to adversely affect the Bellinger River Emydura may be licensed under Part 6 of the TSC Act.

As the Bellinger River Emydura is listed nationally under the EPBC Act, any person proposing to undertake actions likely to have a significant impact on The Bellinger River Emydura should refer the action to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment for consideration. The Minister will then decide whether the action requires EPBC Act approval. This is in addition to any State or Local Government approval requirement specified above for the NSW EP&Act.

Administrative guidelines are available, from Environment Australia, to assist proponents in determining whether their action is likely to have a significant impact. In cases where the action does not require EPBC Act approval, but will result in the death or injury of a member of the Bellinger River Emydura and the member is in, or on a Commonwealth area, a permit issued by the Commonwealth Minister under the EPBC Act, will be required.