Reef Traditional Owners invited to help count Far North Qld’s dolphins

Humpback dolphins in clear watersHumpback dolphins.

Marine biologists from Southern Cross University and Flinders University are working with Traditional Owner groups to conduct a census of the Great Barrier Reef’s unique dolphin species.

In a scientific first, the researchers are collaborating with Indigenous communities about their sea country to conduct the extensive study of threatened inshore dolphins in the wild: the Australian humpback dolphin and the snubfin dolphin.

The aim is to better understand the dolphins’ distribution and numbers, as well as to assess threats they’re facing to better inform conservation efforts, filling a key data gap for iconic species on the Reef. Data will also be collected on any whale and dolphin species found during the survey.

The study area between Cairns and the tip of Cape York Peninsula is regarded as some of the most pristine and unexplored sections of the Reef due to low population and coastal development.

The Great Barrier Reef Dolphin Project is a collaboration between the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, Southern Cross University and Flinders University and is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

“In this remote and unexplored region, we need to understand the number, distribution and threats to inshore dolphins from the coast to the outer reef,” said project lead Dr Daniele Cagnazzi, from Southern Cross University.

“Traditional Owner and Indigenous ranger groups will be key to this new study of their sea countries, as they provide consent for the study and access to their distinct sea country regions.”

Traditional Owners also have opportunities to get involved in all aspects of the project, starting from the survey design alongside the research team.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is visited by more than 30 species of cetaceans. Yet very little is known about two in particular that are regarded as vulnerable and highly charismatic: the Australian humpback dolphin and the snubfin dolphin.

“Both species are vulnerable because they live in small numbers, have a low reproduction rate and are dependent on the quality of coastal habitat,” said Dr Cagnazzi.

Co-lead research partner Associate Professor Guido Parra, from the Flinders University’s Cetacean Ecology Behaviour and Evolution Lab (CEBEL), said the field work will involve extensive consultation, engagement and use of technology including AI (artificial intelligence) and drones.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity for scientists and traditional owners to work together and fill in important gaps of knowledge concerning inshore dolphins in sea countries and the Great Barrier Reef,” said Dr Parra.

“The public more generally can also play a big role in these complex environmental projects. People are invited to be our ‘eyes on the Reef’ and reporting sightings of dolphins to the Great Barrier Reef Dolphin Project.”

In addition to looking for and recording key animal and environmental indicators, the researchers will seek to uncover new insights and measures that take into account the diverse social, economic and cultural values the Reef brings to people and communities.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden said the Great Barrier Reef was an irreplaceable ecosystem, home to thousands of species of marine life.

“We are proud to support this project to gain critical knowledge about these iconic species. The condition and behaviour of individual marine species can tell us a lot about the health of the Reef,” Ms Marden said.

“We will expand our knowledge of the early warning signs of ecological change so that Reef managers and researchers can proactively manage and support these three key species of inshore dolphins.”

Snubfin dolphins

Snubfin dolphins; the species’ characteristic small dorsal fins sit far back on their bodies.

Great Barrier Reef Dolphin Project

Phase 1: Engagement

The Engagement Project team, led by Dr Helen Penrose, has just wrapped up a series of meetings with representatives from more than 15 Registered Aboriginal Corporations along the Far North Queensland coastline, between Bloomfield and Bamaga, to gain their consent and support following the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

The scope of the engagement meetings was to present the project; to seek consent to survey within sea country regions; and discuss survey design, project logistics, survey protocols and methods, the research Partnership agreement, and cultural protocols.

Phase 2: Survey

The dolphin survey will be conducted between September and November 2023.


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