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Loggerhead sea turtles return to Mon Repo -

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Loggerhead sea turtles return to Mon Repo

Reporter: Genevieve Hussey

HEATHER EWART: Five years ago, the future for Australia's loggerhead sea turtle population looked
grim. Numbers had plumbed to record low levels, and the Queensland and Federal governments had to
force drastic changes on the fishing industry to keep them from dying in trawlers' nets. This year,
scientific teams are monitoring turtle numbers to see if the tide has turned. A huge effort over
the past 30 years to identify, mark and tag baby turtles is finally showing results as the
long-lived ocean giants return to the Queensland beaches where they were born to lay their own
eggs. Genevieve Hussey reports.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: These baby loggerhead turtles struggling from the sand at Mon Repo Beach in
south-east Queensland are some of the first to hatch at the nesting site this summer.

COL LIMPUS (QUEENSLAND PARKS AND WILDLIFE SERVICE): These little hatchlings have got a sharp little
spike on the tip of the snout to cut their way out of the eggshell. They've got sharp claws on
their front flippers to help tear their way out.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Scientist and turtle researcher Col Limpus is watching these hatchlings begin a
journey that will take them thousands of kilometres across the Pacific Ocean. In 30 years' time,
with luck, just one of these animals will be back as an adult to lay its eggs on this beach.

COL LIMPUS: Can you give me a tag history on K65315?

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Col Limpus grew up in Bundaberg near the Mon Repo nesting beach. He has spent his
life recording the habits and biology of these amazing creatures.

COL LIMPUS: When we started, we thought that loggerhead turtles would nest on every beach in
Queensland - they nest on all our beaches; why wouldn't they nest everywhere else? And we were
quite surprised to find that they're only concentrated here in south-east Queensland, and in fact,
this beach is the most important nesting beach for the south Pacific.

NEWSFILE: For the past five years, the research team has identified, tagged and recorded the
turtles as they come ashore for the annual breeding season.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: In the 1970s, Col Limpus began a quest to find out where loggerhead turtles go
and what they do during their lifetime. Over almost a decade, a group of volunteers helped him clip
small marks on the shells of 130,000 baby loggerhead turtles to identify them throughout their
lives. Last year, the first of those babies came back to Mon Repo Beach to breed. This year, two
more have returned.

COL LIMPUS: We know that they were born on this beach, we know which year they were born because we
tagged them, and now they're coming back as breeding adults for their first breeding season, and
we're solving a question that has been talked about for hundreds of years: does a turtle come back
to where it's born? How old are they when they start breeding? Those sorts of questions, no-one had
ever been able to categorically answer; it was all guesses, and our turtles are teaching us the
answers to that.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: In the early 1970s, Barbara Matthews volunteered to help with the baby turtles.
She became so involved in the research, coming to the nesting site every Christmas became a way of
life for her family. 30 years later, they're still helping out.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Is it amazing to have clipped those hatchlings about 30 years ago and to see them
back again? What's it like to see that happen?

BARBARA MATTHEWS (VOLUNTEER): As I said, it's just the sort of cream on the cake. When we sat there
hours after hours collecting them and then clipping them and having to be so careful with them, but
to now see them coming back, to have known that they've been able to record some of them in the
feeding grounds as well, but to actually see them coming back is just fantastic.

GLEN MATTHEWS (VOLUNTEER): With the hatchlings coming back after 27, 28 years, it was really good.
All those years running up and down the beach with buckets of hatchlings have paid off after all.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: And it's not just new generations of turtles coming to this beach. Barbara and
Glen Matthews' son Beren is also continuing the family tradition.

BEREN MATTHEWS (VOLUNTEER): I've got a passion for research; sort of growing up with it, it's one
of those things that I just enjoy it. There's a few families that are the same as us, so we're sort
of the kids of the turtle research.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: But just five years ago, the prospect for Australian loggerhead turtles looked
grim. Their numbers had plummeted from thousands of nesting females to just 500 a year.

COL LIMPUS: If we didn't do something about it, we could see the demise of our turtle population.
The term "critically endangered" could be applied to it; that's how serious the rate of decline
was.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Scientists believe the prawn-trawling industry was responsible, with turtles
drowning after being caught in trawl nets. In 2001, the Federal and Queensland governments
introduced compulsory turtle exclusion devices called TEDs on trawling nets in northern and east
coast fisheries. TEDs leave a gap in the net through which turtles can escape. Scientists
monitoring turtle numbers say using TEDs has made a difference.

COL LIMPUS: Four years into it, it's looking very encouraging, and we're fairly comfortable that
we've slowed, if not halted, the rate of decline of our eastern Australian loggerhead population.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: The fishing industry says it's paid a price, but the benefits are undeniable.

JOHN OLSEN (SEAFOOD INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION): In some fisheries in particular - for example, scallops
and catching Moreton Bay bugs - the losses of product are very considerable, very considerable, and
in some areas, in fact, it's almost impossible to work with them. So there's no question there's
been a very significant price paid by industry for the introduction of TEDs.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: While some fishermen have been hard hit, ecotourism is taking off. A carefully
controlled program allows tourists to see the turtles laying their eggs.

BOY: It was champion.

MAN: We're locals and it was fantastic - it was worth it. It was great.

GIRL: Yeah. We always wanted to see one.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Despite the successes, loggerhead turtles face an uphill battle for survival. A
growing long-line fishing industry overseas has the potential to kill loggerheads, and their
ability to breed may be under threat from toxins in the marine environment. A study with the
University of Queensland is finding surprisingly high dioxin levels in some turtles.

COL LIMPUS: By sampling the turtles in Moreton Bay, we've got a measure of how much they
accumulate, and then by sampling the eggs coming from those females up here at the nesting beach,
we can look at the extent of the passage of the toxins from mum into the next generation.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: Despite the problems, Col Limpus remains confident the loggerhead turtle will
survive, and he believes his lifelong quest to protect them has been worth every moment.

COL LIMPUS: I grew up in the area, and the turtles were something that we all enjoyed. They were
just part of the landscape around us. I'd like to think that my grandkids and their grandkids in
turn would be able to enjoy the same sorts of things that I've enjoyed.

HEATHER EWART: Genevieve Hussey reporting.