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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 147

Senator BARTLETT (7:27 PM) —I would like to speak tonight about an activity I was involved in last week in my home state of Queensland. I was fortunate to be able to visit Mon Repos Beach at Bargara, near Bundaberg in Queensland. Bundaberg is probably best known for its sugar and for its rum, but Mon Repos is certainly becoming more widely known for its beach, a significant turtle nesting site. I was even more fortunate to be able to visit with the assistance and input of Dr Col Limpus. He is a local of the region and, over 30 years ago, he became slightly involved in what was then perceived to be a small conservation project involving turtles at the beach.

All this time later, Dr Limpus runs what I see as one of the most positive examples of a community based conservation program that you could possibly manage. It involves a lot of people locally and people who come year after year as volunteers. They stay on-site in tents for a week or two and go out at night during the breeding season to count all the turtles that come in to lay eggs. They count all the hatchlings that come out of those nests a month or two later. They have amassed an enormous amount of data over more than 30 years, which has absolutely enormous value and global implications. It is a wonderful example of a whole group of people working together. By virtue of the combination of the scientific benefit of what they are doing, the wonder of the experience and, I think, the community nature of it, it has kept going where many other environmental research projects have flourished for a few years and then fallen over. They did not succeed, but I think it is having that community base that has helped this one do so well. That is not to say that funding does not help along the way, and certainly more can be done in that area, which I will talk about in a minute. I was able to go with Dr Limpus and others out onto the beach—it is fairly late in the season now—to see some of the other volunteers who were walking along the beach checking out various nesting sites and seeing if eggs had hatched yet. We were able to see a group of hatchlings.

We also saw another benefit of the project, which is the tourists who go to the local interpretation centre to get an explanation of the ecological significance and situation facing turtle populations. A group was led down to the beach to witness groups of tiny green turtle hatchlings digging their way out of the sand into the open air and running down the beach into the ocean. Those tourists came down whilst I was on the beach and I was able to ask, through a quick show of hands, who was from overseas. There were probably about 60 people there and about 50 per cent of them had come from overseas. As part of their visit to Australia they had chosen to go to this part of Queensland near Bundaberg to see this unique experience.

Having spoken about the economic benefits that tourism has brought to the region, I should also say it is a perfect example of where the consumptive use of wildlife—a nice, easy, quick fix; grab it while it is there; hunt, kill, grab the eggs, use the shells and meat traditional approach—has been shown to be not only less sustainable environmentally but also nowhere near as profitable. The studies were done some time ago, before this tourist component really developed, and showed that the tourist value was over 10 times the value of even an unsustainable level of turtle and egg harvest, had that continued. That is just one example, but it is a good example of benefit to the community and an approach that is far better for the environment. There are still significant threats to the turtle population and they need to be acknowledged. It is not just a matter of protecting the turtle population because it gives us a nice warm feeling; it is of economic benefit as well.

In this program that I mentioned, run by Dr Colin Limpus, 20 or 30 years ago they used to tag those hatchlings before they got to the beach. I understand around 250,000 hatchlings were tagged 25 or so years ago over a period of a few years. So far, four tagged and identified adults have returned. There are plenty of other things that can happen: tags can fall off and there can be predation and death in the meantime. It is also a very slow breeding species that takes a while to mature. But they do return, if not necessarily to the same beach then to the same region. It is certainly a worrying statistic that may be sending some early warning signs.

In addition, Dr Limpus spoke about a site that he has been visiting for a long time at Raine Island—I have not heard of it, but that is probably because it is uninhabited. It lies right up in the northern reaches of the outer Barrier Reef Marine Park, off the edge of the main reef. It is also the largest green turtle nesting site in Australia. It was discovered almost by accident nine years ago. Despite turtles still going there and laying in huge numbers—almost a carpet of mature turtles nesting and laying eggs at the right time of year—the number of hatchlings from that site has been virtually nothing for nine years because of a change to the water table on the island, or a drop in the sand level, whichever way you want to talk about it. The sand depth has decreased so that now the turtles lay their eggs in water and they do not mature and hatch. When you think of the massive loss of juvenile turtles that that represents, it is certainly of great concern as to what it might mean to the overall viability of the population 10 or 20 years down the track. Of course by that time it may be too late. There are a few theories about why the sand level has dropped. It is possibly because a jetty was built on the island by guano miners decades ago, changing the flow of the water and eventually causing the sand level to drop. The cause is not clear.

The problem is that the funding used to pay for research on the island has wound up. It actually wound up the day after I was at Mon Repos. That clearly presents a problem as to whether that research will continue to happen as thoroughly as possible and whether the resources will be there to enable rehabilitation for an island in a very remote area. It should also be mentioned that those turtles are not just there for tourists to come and look at when they lay their eggs; they are a significant species for Indigenous people in Far North Queensland and in the Torres Strait, and for people in parts of Papua New Guinea. The biggest component of the death rate of turtles is Indigenous harvesting and harvesting by people in Papua New Guinea, followed by commercial fishing.

Over a number of years, we have seen through the benefits of research a significant drop in the by-catch of turtles in many trawlers. That is very positive. We are seeing more attempts to work with the fishing industry. While I was there, I saw a turtle that had been killed by long-line fishing and that had been brought in. That might sound bad, but what it shows is that the industry no longer just throws it overboard and hopes nobody notices; they are bringing it in to get the data and find out what killed it so they can continue to minimise the catch. That is certainly a positive sign, amongst others, of recognition of the importance of trying to minimise the impact.

There are plenty of challenges and I hope this government does more to fund the recovery plan. It is one thing to develop a recovery plan but, unless you fund it, it is just a nice piece of paper. To protect the critical habitats that are still not listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the federal government can do more to save the environment and to generate further economic benefits to those regions of Queensland such as Mon Repos Beach and the areas near Bundaberg. It is a win-win situation but it has to have the commitment of government at state and federal level, including the financial investment to make it worth while. (Time expired)