Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Marine Wildlife Australia and marine mammals of Ella Bay

Gifted marine biologist, Blanche Danastas from Marine Wildlife Australia has frequently expressed her grave concern for the marine life at Ella Bay. Not just the turtles but also dugong and dolphin species. She has recently been awarded sponsorship by Vodafone to support her work to protect Australia’s threatened marine mammals especially our only native dolphin the snubfin dolphin whose territory includes Ella bay.
Snubfin dolphin (Photo by Dr Guido Parra)

Marine Wildlife Australia has submitted comments appealing for urgent Federal Government action regarding the proposed urban development/resorts at Ella Bay. Here are some extracts from a recent comments by Marine Wildlife Australia to our Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett AM MP.
The proposed development Ella Bay Integrated Resort Development is likely to have significant, negative impacts on listed marine species and on a Commonwealth Marine Area. Marine Wildlife Australia believes these matters of national environmental significance must be considered as controlling provisions in order to appropriately assess the impacts of this destructive development proposal.

As the proposed development site occurs in both a cyclone prone zone and in an exceptionally environmentally sensitive area, right where Cyclone Larry crossed the coast, it is critical to take into account the impacts that a cyclone would have on the development itself and how this would impact on the surrounding sensitive terrestrial and marine environments. Had a development of this scale been located in the area at the time that Cyclone Larry crossed the coast in 2006, the impacts on the environment and 5000 or more people would have been devastating.

Significant Impacts on Listed Migratory and listed Marine Species

Marine Mammals
Dugongs (Dugong dugon) are listed as both migratory species are well documented to occur at Ella Bay (Society for Marine Mammalogy, 2000). The development site occurs within less than 6km of a major estuary system, the Johnstone River, which is likely to support native Australian Snubfin (Orcaella heinsohni) and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) which are both listed migratory species.

I have a reported verbal confirmation of the presence of Snubfin dolphins at Ella Bay from a commercial fisherman; and the area is firmly within the distribution and habitat range of both species of dolphin. It is important to note both species of dolphin exhibit high site fidelity and usually occur within 20km of the same estuary mouth for extended periods of time, therefore it is critical that habitat in their home range is protected as habitat loss or degradation will lead to declines of these species (Parra et.al. 2006a).

The presence of domestic cats associated with the residential component of the development will introduce Toxoplasmosis gondii into the marine environment, which is a bacteria known to be lethal to coastal dolphins.

Marine Turtles
Marine Turtles are known to occur within the development footprint. The proponent’s EIS makes the assertion that “use of the beach by Green Turtles is possible, [but] it is unlikely, and the numbers of individuals potentially present would not constitute a significant proportion of the nesting population of this species on the North Queensland coast” (p. 51. Boosamra, et.al. 2007). The proponent has provided no credible science to substantiate this. In contrast, Constable (2009) has provided clear evidence of the presence of marine turtles in the area of the proposed development.

It is likely that the resulting light pollution from the development will impact on both nesting and hatching turtles. Nesting female turtles can be deterred from laying on beaches due to light pollution, and hatchlings can be drawn considerable distances, away from the sea by lights. Nesting and hatching turtles are also put at risk from increased human disturbance and increased presence of dogs that would be associated with the development.

As it is confirmed that green and potentially flatback turtles (Chelonia mydas and Natator depressus respectively) are present at the proposed development site, it is ‘possible’ that an ecologically significant proportion of an important population of one or both species is utilising the area. We demand that the proponent is required to scientifically substantiate their claims in relation to internationally threatened species.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In summary, it is reasonable to expect that this proposed development will have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance, including, but not limited to listed migratory species and a commonwealth marine area.

Recommendation 1:
Marine Wildlife Australia wishes to advise you of our support for the urgent inclusion of the additional controlling conditions, including Listed Migratory Species and the Marine Environment as outlined in the Environmental Defenders Office of North Queensland (EDONQ) Inc.’s correspondence to you dated 18 February 2009. The relevant sections pursuant to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the ‘EPBC Act’) are s.20 and s.20A (Listed migratory species) and s.23 and s.24A (Marine environment).

Recommendation 2:
It is Marine Wildlife Australia’s view that this proposed development can only be considered as too environmentally damaging to Listed threatened species and ecological communities, to Listed Migratory and Listed Marine Species and to two World Heritage Properties and a Commonwealth Marine Area, especially given that the development is in a cyclone prone area.

Accordingly, we strongly recommend that when considering whether this development is too environmentally damaging to be allowed to proceed, that you use the powers available to you to not approve this development.

Recommendation 3:
Marine Wildlife Australia recommends that in the event that the minister cannot outright rule this development as too environmentally damaging and not approve it, that further, extensive scientific research surveys and field studies be required from the development proponents

I look forward to your response on this matter.
Yours sincerely,

Blanche Danastas
Program manager
Marine Wildlife Australia

Well Marine Wildlife Australia has made their thoughts regarding Ella Bay pretty clear!

The North Queensland Conservation Council has supported Marine Wildlife Australia’s comments to the minister and recently made the following comments to Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett AM MP.

No consideration has been given to the impact this development will have on inshore dolphins. There is little data available regarding the locations and population levels of both the snubfin dolphin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin in the far northern region of Queensland.
Snubfin dolphin

Humpback dolphin

It has been speculated that the lack of reports of snubfin by-catch in commercial nets and the shark control program in the Cairns region over the past several years could indicate that they have become ecologically and possibly locally extinct in Cairns.

As far as we are aware there have been no studies or surveys of inshore dolphins conducted in the area surrounding the mouth of the Johnson River. This area contains all the attributes considered necessary as habitat for these dolphin species. In my dealings with commercial fishermen as the Coordinator of NQCC, I have received one report of a snubfin dolphin sighting at Flying fish Point near the mouth of the Johnson River. In light of the possible local extinction of snubfin dolphins in Cairns, the possibility of a population of snubfin dolphins being present at the mouth of the Johnson River less than five kilometres from the proposed Ella Bay development site becomes highly significant. It is the view of NQCC that the assessment of any development in this area which is likely to impact on inshore dolphins must include detailed population surveys of both the above mentioned dolphin species.

Summation and Recommendations

It is our hope that this is taken into consideration by the department during deliberation on the rejection of this application.
Well let’s go back to the original story!

Marine Wildlife Australia will be at the Bluesfest in Byron Bay from the 9th of April. So if you’re down that way get your butt into gear and say hi to Blanche and her Associates! She is an animated and interesting speaker and if I was there I would zoom in on her like a bloody exocet missile to pick her brains and learn a bit more about our fascinating marine mammals and turtles.

If you get there tell them Russ sent you!

Cheers RussJ

Humpback dolphin (Photo by Daniele Cagnazzi)

Dugong (Photo by Dr Guido Parra)

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