Threatened species of the North West


Researchers are investigating the impact of petroleum exploration and development on threatened species, including green turtles (pictured).

Australia’s North West is home to some of our most iconic marine animals; however, a large number of whales, dugongs, sea turtles and sharks are listed as threatened or endangered.

To manage potential threats from industrial activities on these animals, we need to understand where the populations are, where they move and the key areas they use to breed and feed. We can then better understand where they overlap with human activities and manage accordingly.

Whales

Pygmy blue whales, a subspecies of the blue whale, are listed nationally as endangered. We know little about their distribution and important areas, as their secretive behaviour has made them difficult to study with traditional techniques.

Researchers are using three innovative methods to understand pygmy blue whale movement and distribution:

  • attaching satellite tracking devices to individuals,
  • recording their vocalisations using underwater microphones on the seafloor and on ocean gliders and,
  • analysing water samples for their DNA.

This information will help us map their distribution and important areas of use. We can then use it to locate high-risk areas for pygmy blue whales on the North West Shelf.

For example, ship strike is a threat for these large whales, especially where there are higher numbers of vessels in the same vicinity. By using information on vessel activity with information on whale movement and distribution and identifying the overlap between the animals and vessels we can identify ‘hotspots’ of risk.

Turtles

Green turtles and hawksbill turtles face a number of threats, including getting tangled in fishing gear, habitat loss and light pollution, e.g. turtle hatchlings being confused by light. In this project, researchers are studying the risks posed to turtles from industrial activities (such as seismic surveys) and infrastructure (such as oil and gas platforms, shipping channels and pipelines). 

To understand where these wide-ranging turtles roam and the areas they use the most, researchers are tracking them by attaching satellite tags to individual turtles. These tracks identify the areas they use over time and will be compared to areas of human activities, highlighting where both overlap.

AIMS theme leader Dr Michele Thums explains how her team is tracking turtles in Australia's North West.