Girringun Dugong & Seagrass Project Monitors Recovery
They were mistaken for mermaids by early explorers and they’ve been part of traditional owner culture for tens of thousands of years. Dugongs have always turned heads and now they’re the focus of an exciting new project.
New generations reconnecting and caring for country
Dugongs are also known as ‘sea cows’ because they graze on seagrass. So when severe tropical cyclone Yasi crossed the coast near Mission Beach in 2011 and extensively damaged seagrass habitat, dugongs took a big hit as well. Locals reported seeing far fewer of the already ‘vulnerable’ creatures and concerns were held for both species.
More than a decade later, a new project is shedding light on their recoveries. Led by Girringun traditional owners, it’s also combining western science and indigenous knowledge for better management of dugongs and their habitat in the future.
The project is in the Hinchinbrook Island region, off Cardwell and Ingham in the south of the Wet Tropics, and it’s homing in on the important relationship between seagrass and dugong health.
Dr Alex Carter, seagrass ecologist at James Cook University, says there is limited data on seagrass in the area despite Hinchinbrook’s reputation as a dugong hotspot.
“Historical seagrass surveys show large meadows in the northern Hinchinbrook region, but these habitats are vulnerable to the impacts of cyclones and floods. We hope this ranger-led monitoring program can track the condition of key meadows over time, especially in the face of growing climate-related pressures.”
James Cook University scientists are helping Girringun Rangers to build skills in using drones and underwater cameras for dugong surveys, in generating digital maps of seagrass habitat after helicopter and boat-based surveys, and in sampling seagrass for scientific analysis.
Jade Pryor, coordinator of Girringun’s TUMRA (Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement), says the project is creating a new generation of indigenous rangers to care for sea country, with two new full-time positions and two school-based traineeships.
To help with ecosystem recovery efforts, Girringun currently has a ban in place for traditional hunting of dugongs.
“It has been really exciting to see the drone and helicopter footage of dugongs swimming around, of sea turtles and dolphins, and of seagrass taken from helicopters on low tide,” Jade says.
“In September, we’ll be going out and getting seagrass samples in another stage of the project.
“Our vision is for our people to be self-sufficient in sea country monitoring.”
School-based trainee Shantaishe Congoo says three days of data analysis and digital mapping raining at James Cook University had been an eye-opener, as had training in camera survey work.
“It’s really cool. It means a lot to us. It’s important that organisations like Tropwater are keeping records of populations and sharing their knowledge. Elders are loving to see the data that’s coming in. It’s also important for our elders to pass down their knowledge, to keep the culture strong.”
Dr Chris Cleguer, a James Cook University dugong expert, says Girringun’s project is setting a benchmark for future indigenous-led monitoring programs.
“We finally have tools that enable rangers and members of the wider community to be a lot more involved and to lead their own monitoring programs with remote support from scientists.
“We are seeing new generations reconnect and care for country, while providing unique data and information that scientists can’t collect on a frequent basis like sea rangers can.”
This project is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. It is being delivered by JCU, Charles Darwin University and the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation.
- They’re largely vegetarians – the only marine mammals in Australia that live mainly on plants.
- Dugong populations are an indicator of general ecosystem health.
- Australia is the largest, and globally most important, refuge for dugongs.
- Their slow breeding rate and long lifespan make them particularly susceptible to factors that threaten their survival.