Critically endangered hawksbill turtles that nest on islands east of Papua New Guinea have been tracked moving across parts of the Coral Sea marine park where the Australian government wants to allow commercial fishing, conservationists have found.
Ten of the turtles were tagged at the privately owned Conflict Islands in early January, with seven swimming across the Coral Sea to the Great Barrier Reef to feed.
WWF Australia, a partner in the satellite-tracking project, said the data confirmed for the first time that hawksbill turtles use the Coral Sea as a highway between their nesting beaches and their feeding grounds.
The Coral Sea marine park covers 1 million sq km but also includes different zones, including so-called “no-take” areas where activities such as commercial fishing are banned.
Under the former Labor government, large areas of the Coral Sea were designated “no-take” – including the areas where the hawksbill turtles were tracked. But those zones were suspended in 2013 by the incoming Abbott government – before they were ever in force.
Now the government has rezoned the Coral Sea marine park, removing large areas of “no-take” that include the areas the hawksbill turtles used to migrate, and replacing them with areas that only protect the seafloor and allows some commercial fishing.
The rezoning plans are before parliament but are facing a disallowance motion.
The environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, has defended his government’s changes, saying they offered “significant improvement” for the turtles, which now had no protection through the Coral Sea.
Globally, hawksbill turtles are listed as critically endangered – a category that comes before extinction in the wild.
In May the Queensland government changed the hawksbill turtles’ status from vulnerable to endangered. Nationally, hawksbills are listed as vulnerable.
Six of the world’s seven marine turtles live on the Great Barrier Reef.
Christine Hof, a researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast and WWF-Australia’s marine scientist, who helped to tag the turtles, said: “With the rezoning of the Coral Sea marine park, the turtles will traverse through areas that are now proposed to be open to fishing – recreational and commercial. As a conservation scientist looking to get hawksbill turtles off the critically endangered list, we need to protect them at their nesting grounds, their feeding grounds and along their migratory routes.”
Between early January and early May the satellite data showed the turtles travelled about 1,000km.
Hof said it was likely the turtles would remain around the Great Barrier Reef for about five years before returning to the same nesting sites to lay eggs, before again returning to the reef. This cycle would likely continue throughout their lives. It is not known how long hawksbill turtles live for but they do not start breeding until about 30 years of age.
Marine turtles in the region are threatened by the illicit tortoiseshell trade but are also taken for food.
They are threatened by marine debris through ingestion and entanglement and they are often “bycatch” in the fishing industry. Hof said human-caused climate change could also push up temperatures, causing more turtle embryos to develop into females. Sea-level rise and debris were also threatening nesting sites.
Richard Leck, WWF-Australia’s head of oceans, said: “This tracking shows the migratory routes of these turtles and this really is the point of having large areas of marine sanctuary where there is no fishing activity. We need to protect all their habitat.
“We don’t think the plans for the Coral Sea should pass parliament. The government should go back to its own expert review that was completed in 2015, when the experts recommended a much higher level of protection than the plans now before parliament.”
The Labor senator Louise Pratt and the Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson have moved to disallow the Coral Sea plans and, separately, the plans for four other marine park zones. A vote has been requested for 16 August but the government could attempt to bring on a vote earlier.
In a statement, Frydenberg said the six marine turtles present in Australia were all protected under the international convention for the conservation of migratory species, to which Australia was a signatory.
Frydenberg added: “The Coral Sea marine park management plan 2018 will significantly improve protection of marine habitats and species compared to current arrangements, under which the park is not subject to a management plan.
“Increased protection for nesting and foraging turtles is provided under the plan, with closures to commercial longlining around all Coral Sea islands and reefs where turtles nest and forage. In particular, the area close to the Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery is now protected from longlining and incorporates the largest nesting and breeding sites for turtles in the marine park.”
The research trip to the Conflict Islands, which are owned by the Australian business entrepreneur and conservationist Ian Gowrie-Smith, was a partnership between WWF-Australia, the University of the Sunshine Coast, local community turtle monitors and the Conflict Island Conservation Initiative. The Reef HQ Aquarium Turtle Hospital and Isaacson Davis Foundation helped fund the satellite trackers.
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