Weather Causes Death In Sea Turtles

The coastline of north Queensland is usually picture perfect in winter, but there is a problem in the shallows.
Over the past few months sick, lethargic and sometimes dead sea turtles have been washing up onto the region’s beaches.

Experts are trying to find out what is killing off the animals, but they suspect years of extreme weather may be playing a role and events like Cyclone Yasi have destroyed large tracts of essential seagrass.

Dead and dying turtles washing up on shore is becoming a regular sight for Barbara Gibbs, who lives on Magnetic Island off the coast of Townsville.

“My daughter and I were so excited seeing this large number of turtles in close, but they just kept hanging in close,” she said.

“When we were over our first initial excitement, my daughter remembered that a marine biologist had told her the night before about this problem and them hanging in close like that, because they were right up to our feet, that that meant that they were dying.”

They’ve lived on this earth for so long, they’re such old creatures and here the poor things are being killed off.

Magnetic Island local Barbara Gibbs
Ms Gibbs says she has come across 20 turtles suffering in the same way over the past two months.

“It’s extremely disturbing, I mean this is their home, this is where they lay, it’s one of their laying places every year and the thing is that they’ve lived on this earth for so long, they’re such old creatures and here the poor things are being killed off,” she said.

The state’s marine and environment authorities say there has been a 700 per cent increase in the number of turtle strandings in north Queensland compared with last year.

Scientists say this year’s cyclones and floods have lead to the loss of seagrass habitats, one of the main food sources for turtles.

James Cook University virologist Dr Ellen Ariel says no-one knows just how widespread the problem is.

“I guess what we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. Those turtles that actually float up on beaches where people can find them, there’ll be other turtles out there that die or sink to the bottom or get taken up by predators. So we’re seeing just a snapshot of what’s really going on,” she said.

Dr Ariel says the university set up a rehabilitation centre after Townsville’s turtle hospital reached capacity.

“The last couple of weeks unfortunately all the turtles that have stranded have been dead so at the moment we’ve got one turtle and I don’t know what the future will bring,” she said.

“Maybe we’ll see fluctuations in how many are actually alive when they strand but so far we’ve got one turtle.”

Conservationists and scientists are coming together to find the best way forward for the turtles which are found alive.

Julie Traweek is a project manager with the Sea Turtle Foundation, one of the groups that helped to organise Australia’s first turtle health and rehabilitation forum being hosted in Townsville.

Ms Traweek says one of the objectives is to come up with a turtle triage system.

“We hope to kind of get a consensus on assessment and maybe even produce a sort of a flow diagram of how you would assess a turtle on the beach,” she said.

“That’d be really useful for community groups and for the rangers that are kind of dealing with these front line situations.”

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says dugongs are also dying in record numbers in north Queensland waters.

The authority’s chairman, Dr Russell Reichelt, says the animals’ main food source has been decimated.

“Dugong and green turtles are doing it tough at the moment and we’re asking all reef users to take extra care,” he said.

“We’re going to see more dugongs and green turtles straying from their regular foraging areas in search of food. This makes them more vulnerable to disease and injury or death from other threats that may exist in these unfamiliar territories.”