UniSC Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Helen Bartlett says unprecedented marine turtle strandings and deaths since the start of last year highlights their desperate plight – and the need for action.
The closest specialist treatment facility for sick and injured sea turtles is on the Sunshine Coast, 300km from Hervey Bay, stretching the capacity of Fraser Coast rescue volunteers and researchers to provide much needed care.
Marine rescuers are often forced to make heartbreaking triage decisions, leaving sick and stranded turtles on the beach.
"To rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles is vitally important, as is research to better understand the cause of strandings and deaths.”
“This exciting collaboration draws on UniSC’s global marine research expertise," she said.
"The data gathered will allow our researchers to expand vital research with local and global impact on the general health of turtle populations and the threats they face, including this terrible new shell-wasting disorder.”
The centre will be established with key partners Fraser Coast Regional Council, Turtles in Trouble Rescue and the Butchulla Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (BNTAC) and become a regional hub for turtle research, education and training.
Queensland Environment Minister Leanne Linard says it will bridge a gap between much-needed turtle care and rehabilitation and ongoing turtle health research, improving the chances of survival for individual turtles and turtle conservation as a whole.
“Once complete and operating, the facility will allow for the improved protection of marine turtles and improved recovery rates of sick and injured marine turtles."
"It will provide research opportunities into marine turtle diseases, emerging threats to marine turtles and other marine life," she said.
“It will also improve community awareness of the plight of marine turtles and the need to maximise biodiversity in the region through education led by UniSC.”
The additional $1 million investment in the 2023/2024 state budget was on top of an earlier commitment of $230,000 to purchase specialist turtle life support equipment for the region. [read full Media statement here]
The numbers are staggering.
Six of the world’s seven marine turtle species – including the endangered loggerhead, the vulnerable green, hawksbill and flatback turtles – visit the Great Sandy Strait adjacent to the Fraser Coast.
Last year 135 of these marine reptiles were found deceased. Turtles in Trouble volunteers rescued 130 more – ten times more than in 2019.
Alarmingly, that trend is continuing this year, with 75 sick and injured turtles taken to Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital on the Sunshine Coast for urgent rehabilitation in the past six months.
University of the Sunshine Coast Associate Professor and marine biologist Kathy Townsend, who leads global research into marine conservation, says the region’s sea turtles are fighting for survival.
"Many turtles are starving. In some areas, only one percent of seagrass beds – the main food source for turtles and dugongs – remains after being smothered by sediment from heavy rain and flooding from extreme weather events last year."
Other turtles are being impacted by pollutants that come with flood waters, including the large amounts of plastic and rubbish that gets swept out of storm drains.
A soft shell mystery
A new disorder among the sea turtles visiting the region is alarming UniSC researchers and rescuers.
“We are continuing to find turtles with sections of skin and scales shedding from their carapaces, making parts of their shells soft and sponge-like and sometimes exposing bare bone,” Dr Townsend said.
“We started noticing it following flooding last year. This is the first time this ‘soft shell’ syndrome has been identified in sea turtles, and so far, we believe it is isolated to the Fraser coast region.
“We need to determine how turtles are being exposed, and whether it is viral, bacterial, parasitic or caused by pollutants. Data gathered as part of centre activities will help us gain a greater understanding of the extent of the problem.”
Dr Townsend said she was excited to continue the collaboration between BNTAC and Turtles in Trouble Rescue through the new centre.
“Together we will be sharing knowledge, all with the collective aim of conserving our endangered sea turtles.”
Turtles in Trouble Rescue Vice-President Holly West says the capacity to provide prompt medical treatment locally will also reduce the transport stress on the turtles and increase research efforts.
"The large number of turtles needing rescue and transport has been a huge undertaking for our volunteers and we thank all those that have helped to save these threatened animals.”
The importance of caring on country
Butchulla Native Title Aboriginal Corporation General Manager Veronica Bird says the centre is a fantastic initiative.
“We want to be able to take care of all of our animals on country so this will go a long way towards ensuring that this happens,” she said.
“One of the most important aspects of having this research and rehabilitation centre on country is that we can combine science with traditional knowledge, and that will provide a wonderful way forward in relation to protecting our turtles and other marine life.”
“BNTAC welcomes the opportunity to work collaboratively with the University of Sunshine Coast and Turtles in Trouble and the inclusion of BNTAC’s Land and Sea Ranger program.”
Fraser Coast Mayor George Seymour has welcomed the funding.
“I have been with the local rescue group, Turtles in Trouble, on a number of their rescues,” he said.
“We are seeing a high number of strandings and floaters: there is something very detrimentally affecting the health of our turtle population and it is good to see that the marine scientists at UniSC will be able to further their studies and help find a solution to save these endangered animals.
“We are very grateful for the State Government’s support on this issue.”