Artificial island idea to help save endangered Murray River turtles


August 12, 2018 05:30:00

Turtle researchers say that putting artificial islands in the Murray River is one way to save dwindling turtle populations.

The man-made island strategy is one of a handful of ideas recently put forward by a team at Western Sydney University led by Dr Ricky Spencer and the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife.

The university has been working with the not-for-profit foundation for the last few years to research why turtle species in the Murray River, including the Murray short-necked turtle, eastern long-necked turtle and broad-shelled turtle, are on the decline.

They have recently come up with a number of proposals including fox management techniques, community programs and man-made islands to help save various species of turtles in the Murray River before they become extinct.

The foundation works with the university to help raise funds to trial and implement these strategies.

A species in decline

The foundation’s CEO Ian Darbyshire said that the Murray River Long-necked turtle population had declined by 90 per cent in the last 40 years and was heading to extinction in some parts of Australia.

The Murray River short-necked turtle had declined by more than 70 per cent in the last 40 years.

Dr Ricky Spencer said the problem is getting worse.

“Every few years we survey 50-100 sites throughout the Murray River to check on the turtle population and track the numbers … We have worked out that in some areas we are not finding any turtles in an area where they should be or have been previously,” he said.

“In South Australia, we are seeing locally extinct populations and we are starting to see it further up the river into New South Wales and Victoria — something needs to be done now.

“Unfortunately, in Australia we usually have to wait for animals to become endangered before any action is taken and by then it is too late.”

Dr Spencer said that turtles are an essential part of a river’s eco-system and keep rivers clean.

“We call them the vacuums of the river because they eat a lot of dead things like fish — so they are real scavengers of the river,” he said.

“Depending on the species they eat a lot of algae and plants and that sort of stuff as well.

“So they are the main vertebrate scavengers in the river systems.”

Foxes main threat to nests

Mr Darbyshire said there was a number of reasons for turtle population decline including car accidents and lack of food sources, but that foxes destroying turtle nests were the main threat.

“Foxes are damaging and destroying about 95 per cent of the turtles nests and the problem with that is you have to get rid of all the foxes in an area to actually protect the nests,” he said.

Dr Spencer agreed.

“Standard fox control hasn’t worked because the main problem is you really have to get rid of all foxes in an area,” he said.

“Even if you reduce them by 70 per cent or 90 per cent or more, the one or two foxes that are left in the area can still destroy all the nests.

“The idea is to say, ‘okay, we need to look at techniques that are going to work,’ — in some cases fox control will be OK, but in some cases in we need to look for alternatives.

“So we are working with the foundation to bypass the fox.”

An island home

Dr Spencer said that he had been discussing the artificial island idea with companies who already create modular islands to see if they could be used for nesting turtles.

“Some have already been created for water quality — so they are foamy islands that you put plants in that absorb nutrients and that sort of thing,” he said.

He said the islands tend to be five by five metre modules that click together so could vary in size.

“We know the modular islands work and float but we don’t know if we can create a modular where turtles can get onto them and we need to trial that.”

“Within these large islands, we could create areas of turf or sand where the turtles and even birds could come up and nest.”











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