14 September 2021
Saving endangered green turtles on the Great Barrier Reef
In 2015, we began collaborating on a major project to protect and restore critical green turtle and seabird habitat in the Great Barrier Reef. Since its inception, the Raine Island Recovery Project has been responsible for an estimated extra 640,000 turtle hatchlings, with millions more expected to hatch over the next decade.
Raine Island – an irreplaceable ecosystem
This small 27-hectare island on the northern edge of the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest remaining green turtle nesting site. More than 60,000 green turtles lay their eggs at Raine Island in peak nesting seasons, with as many as 20,000 inching their way onto the beach in a single night. It’s also one of the most important seabird rookeries in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
A significant cultural and story place
The eastern Cape York Peninsula’s Wuthathi People and the Meriam Nation People from the eastern Torres Strait islands Ugar, Mer, Erub have enduring links to Raine Island and its marine life.
Their cultural connections began with First Nations People in Australia over 60,000 years ago, at a time when global sea levels were much lower than today, with Raine Island being located close to the mainland and accessed easily. Since then, regardless of sea level changes and the varying distances of Raine Island from the coast, the Wuthathi People and the Meriam Nation (Ugar, Mer, Erub) People have always maintained (and continue to maintain) a strong and enduring physical, cultural and spiritual connection to the island and its surrounding waters.
Both groups continue to hold strong traditional knowledge and connections to Raine Island and the surrounding area, which they have passed on through the generations since their ancestors. The island continues to be a significant cultural and story place with many of the species inhabiting the island – an important part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and lifestyles.
An island under threat
For the last 30 years, Raine Island’s green turtle hatchling numbers have been in decline. Low lying areas of the nesting beach were being flooded by high tides, with eggs drowning and fewer hatchlings emerging from nests. Adult female turtles returned to the sea exhausted, unable to find a safe nesting place, and thousands perished – falling victim to treacherous cliff falls, being trapped in rocks or expiring from heat exhaustion on the sand.
An integrated conservation program
In 2015, Wuthathi and Meriam Nation (Ugar, Mer, Erub) Traditional Owners, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, BHP, the Queensland Government and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority formed an innovative partnership to implement practical solutions at Raine Island. Together, this partnership pioneered the Raine Island Recovery Project, an ambitious conservation program to reverse the fate of this critical nesting area.
The Project led interventions and research aimed to protect and restore the island’s critical habitat to ensure the future of key marine species, including green turtles and seabirds.
Key project activities included:
- installation of 1,750 metres of protective fencing, preventing turtle deaths from cliff falls
- moving 40,000 cubic metres ( equivalent to 16 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of sand by machinery to raise the nesting beaches above tidal inundation
- rescuing fallen and trapped turtles, preventing deaths from heat exhaustion
- monitoring and tracking key island species
- research focused on factors contributing to hatching success/failure and broader turtle connectivity
The Wuthathi People and Meriam Nation (Ugar, Mer, Erub) People have been involved in caring for Raine Island and its animals, participating in every research trip to the island, sharing Traditional Knowledge and taking part in the on-ground work and monitoring activities. Cultural Heritage Advisors supervised the large-scale sand reprofiling works on the island and Wuthathi People and Meriam Nation (Ugar, Mer, Erub) People contributed to island management decisions as members of the Project Reference Group, which brings together all partners.
Today, an estimated extra 640,000 turtle hatchings have begun life on the Reef because of the partnership. The re-profiled beach remains stable and the nesting area above tidal inundation has doubled.
As well as saving turtles, the fencing helps to protect seabirds and their nests and chicks from being disturbed by the turtles.
We believe the collaboration has not only positively changed the nature of the habitat on the island, it has also changed the partnerships between people. The effect of placing people at the heart of our interventions is enduring and the project has established a framework for First Nations People to take a leading role in the long-term management of Raine Island.
In doing so, the project supports key aspirations for Wuthathi People and Meriam Nation People, recognising and respecting culture, using traditional knowledge in partnership with science, supporting Indigenous people to benefit from the sustainable use of country and enabling Indigenous governance and management of country.