For the first time, a new study has found that hawksbill turtles tagged in Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Conflict Islands undertake long-distance journeys of over 1,000 km to reach the Great Barrier Reef to forage. This journey typically takes them more than a month. In contrast, hawksbill turtles tagged in northeast Queensland’s Milman Island stay within Australian waters, mainly swimming north to forage in Torres Strait and around western Cape York.
The research underscores the importance of protecting hawksbill migratory routes and foraging habitats in northeast Australia. Lead author Christine Madden Hof, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sunshine Coast and leader of WWF’s Global Marine Turtle Conservation program, emphasizes the need for improved protection in Queensland and the reefs surrounding Cape York to save the critically endangered species.
The study also reveals that hawksbill turtles face significant threats during their migration and foraging. These threats include fishing nets and ghost gear, direct harvest, and rising sand temperatures due to climate change. To address these issues, the Queensland and Australian governments have committed to phasing out commercial gill nets in the Great Barrier Reef, a move applauded conservationists. However, more measures, such as implementing net-free areas and supporting marine protected areas in western Cape York, are still needed to protect the turtles.
Furthermore, the research highlights the need for genetic management of hawksbill turtle populations. Sampling of nesting female turtles in both the Conflict Islands and Kavieng in PNG revealed the existence of nine genetically distinct populations in the Asia-Pacific region. Each population will require separate management strategies to ensure their recovery and survival.
In summary, the study emphasizes the importance of protecting hawksbill turtle migratory routes and foraging habitats in northeast Australia. It calls for strengthened conservation efforts, including the phasing out of gill nets, the establishment of net-free areas, and the support of marine protected areas. These measures are crucial not only for the hawksbill turtle population in northeast Queensland but also for the species across the entire western Pacific.
– Christine A. Madden Hof et al, From rookeries to foraging grounds: understanding regional connectivity and genetic diversity in hawksbill turtles, Frontiers in Marine Science (2023).
– Christine A. Madden Hof et al, Delineating spatial use combined with threat assessment to aid critical recovery of northeast Australia’s endangered hawksbill turtle, one of western Pacific’s last strongholds, Frontiers in Marine Science (2023).