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By Mike McRae 6 July 2017 5 min read

Surveying for dugong by air in the sea country of north Kimberley

Counting cows is relatively easy when they’re quietly grazing in a paddock. Keeping stock of sea cows, on the other hand, is a challenge. The coastal waters of northwest Western Australia, encompassing the Kimberley and Pilbara regions down to Shark Bay, is home to one of the largest remaining dugong populations in the world. To gather vital information on the status of these populations, researchers are teaming up with Indigenous Rangers to add a wealth of local and historical knowledge to the best available scientific methods.

As both a Bardi Jawi woman and a research technician with CSIRO’s Coastal Ecosystems team in Perth, Marlee Hutton knows how important it is for Indigenous communities to have access to good scientific information that’s relevant for the decisions they’re being confronted with. Growing up, she found there was a lack of people communicating with Indigenous communities in the Kimberley about the possible impacts of significant development proposals in the area.

“That’s when I realised I’d really like to get involved in studying something to do with environmental or marine science, and maybe in the future link that with community work somewhere,” says Hutton.

Woman at coastal location
Marlee Hutton at Roebuck Bay, WA.

Her research has ranged from starfish distributions to turtle diets, and more recently counting dugong.

“I was invited on a trip to Broome. They trained me up to do environmental observations via aerial surveys,” says Hutton.

“So we were there to observe dugongs in the Roebuck Bay and Eighty Mile Beach Marine Parks, and we were also able to observe a whole range of other species like dolphins, sharks, and sea snakes.”

Hutton brings more than just passion and scientific knowledge to her work on marine ecosystems; she is keenly aware of the importance for the scientific community and Indigenous culture to share each other’s knowledge.

“Most of the human contact with wildlife in that region is by Aboriginal people, so it makes sense to have an Indigenous involvement in these projects, as there really should be elsewhere,” Hutton explains.

“People still hunt up there, so figuring out ways to balance the hunting with conservation is important.”

Dugong remain culturally important and an important food source for many traditional owners around the top half of the country, which not only gives them experience most don’t have, it also demands a responsibility for applying sound scientific knowledge to make hunting sustainable.

A face only a mother could love

Head of dugong
Image: Flickr/Jason Tong

While not exactly beautiful, dugongs are an important marine species, serving as a powerful indicator of the health[Link will open in a new window] of shallow coastal ecosystems. The large mammals are now protected as a vulnerable species, no longer hunted commercially for their meat but still sensitive to the loss of the seagrasses they graze upon.

Add in the effects of climate change, increasing ocean traffic, poaching, and coastal development, and the dugong isn’t sailing in clear waters yet. That is why evidence based protection programs are so important.

Preserving numbers is hard to do when you don’t know exactly how many dugong there are or how they move around. Australia’s warm northern waters – from Shark Bay in the west to Moreton Bay in the east – are a safe home to at least 70,000 animals, based on aerial monitoring[Link will open in a new window].

But waters aren’t always crystal clear and the dugong only rises to poke its nostrils above the waterline for a sniff or two of air, making them hard to spot. Surveyors also find it hard to get out to the more remote sections of the northern coastline, especially around the Kimberley area.

That’s where a bit of local knowledge can go a long way, saving researchers precious time by pointing out where the seagrass beds are.

“The Indigenous Rangers know exactly where to go,” says Hutton.

Teaming up with history

A three year Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) project[Link will open in a new window] has seen CSIRO researchers form long term partnerships with Indigenous coastal communities to share knowledge and skills in the gathering of data on dugong densities and movements.

Training staff from the Kimberley TAFE and other specialist consultants have been working closely with CSIRO researchers and representatives from the Balanggarra, Uunguu, Dambimangari and Bardi Jawi ranger groups to develop the most effective practices for monitoring the dugong populations, using standardised aerial survey methods employed in northern Australia and Torres Strait.

Trained up on the new survey methods, rangers headed out with researchers to scope out the coastlines and determine a base-line for not only dugong numbers, but turtles, dolphins, and other marine life. In exchange, the rangers provide a history of knowledge on dugong feeding grounds and the seasonal effects on distribution and general numbers.

The ongoing exchange is more than just a two-way street, with collaborations extending through different communities of Traditional Owners. For the cultural groups of the Kimberley this sort of work forms part of their plans to keep Country and culture strong.

For example, the Uunguu (Wunambal Gaambera) Healthy Country Plan identifies mangguru (marine turtle) and balguja (dugong) as important indicator species of cultural health:

We need to know more about where they travel, their habitats in our country and how to look after them. Working together...using our traditional knowledge, doing surveys...will help us keep these animals healthy in our country as well as keeping our saltwater traditions strong.”

(Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation Healthy Country Plan: A plan for looking after Wunambal Gaambera Country 2010 – 2020. Page 27)

From a state and national perspective, the data collected will inform management planning for sea country and co-managed state marine parks in the Kimberley and help predict the impact of environmental changes on seagrass ecosystems and dugong numbers.

The need for good information is important for all parts of the Australian community in order for us to adapt to changing climate and economics, and culture as well.

“Where I come from the hunting and eating of dugongs is a very significant cultural practice. I think good relationships and continued monitoring will be really important to keep communities informed about any changes,” says Hutton.

“The need to change practices, if that time comes, will be a really delicate issue.”

The dugong study is part of the $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program[Link will open in a new window] funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian Government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy[Link will open in a new window] co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley.

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