Tracking turtles from space

Researchers at James Cook University will be tracking turtles from space to better manage their environment around a busy port.

JCU PhD student Emily Webster will be using satellite tags to track green turtles at the Port of Gladstone so scientists can log their movement patterns.

“The satellite trackers receive radio signals from GPS satellites when the turtles surface to breathe. They give highly accurate locations for the turtles so we can look at their fine-scale movement patterns and draw connections between turtle behaviour and features of their habitat. This includes their foraging resources, but also how they interact with port infrastructure and vessel traffic,” said Ms Webster.

She said the study is being conducted as part of the Ecosystem Research and Monitoring Program which was established by the Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC ERMP) in 2011 to monitor the marine environment in the port and mitigate the impacts of current and future developments on threatened and migratory species.

The Gladstone port is home to LNG and coal terminals and saw more than 1900 vessels visit it in the 2018/19 financial year. The telemetry research is a collaborative study between JCU and the Queensland Department of Environment and Science with funding support from a range of industry groups.

“I’ll be using the satellite telemetry to evaluate habitat use by the turtles. There are 73 already fitted with GPS tags and we will be catching 10 more and fitting tags to those too.

“I will analyse the data, looking at how closely the turtles stick to feeding areas and how they use habitats around the port. I’ll also be examining what the drivers of this are – why they do what they do,” said Ms Webster.

She said the green turtle is globally endangered and listed as vulnerable in Australia.

“Green turtle populations declined because they were hunted for hundreds of years. In Queensland the species is now protected under state and federal legislation, and is recovering, but it remains susceptible to threats such as fisheries bycatch, boat strike, pollution and direct take, particularly when turtles move outside of protected areas,” said Ms Webster.

She said there is also little information about interactions between turtles and industry.

“In a high-traffic port environment, lighting, changes to water quality and contamination, high vessel traffic and infrastructural development operations may influence turtle behaviour, and the availability and quality of resources for feeding and resting,” she said.

Ms Webster said the study will contribute to understanding relationships between habitat, including port infrastructure and resource availability, and marine turtle behaviour.

“With the new information in hand we can make better decisions regarding conservation planning and inform management of the port about risks and benefits of current operations and future developments,” she said.

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