Australia How scientists and traditional owners are working to protect the wildlife of the NT's remote Wessel Islands

00:15  25 october  2021
00:15  25 october  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Scientists and Indigenous rangers are cooperating to work out how to better protect the wildlife on the Wessel Islands, including Marchinbar Island. (ABC News: Michael Franchi) © Provided by ABC NEWS Scientists and Indigenous rangers are cooperating to work out how to better protect the wildlife on the Wessel Islands, including Marchinbar Island. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

You wouldn't think shooting a dolphin could help to save it.

But marine scientist Carol Palmer is using a specially converted rifle to collect tiny DNA skin samples from rare snubfin and humpback dolphins and false killer whales off Arnhem Land's remote Wessel Islands.

"The Wessel Archipelago is probably one of the most unique places in the Northern Territory, because it's so remote, and because we're recording dolphins, whales, turtles and manta rays — we've recorded some amazing species here," said Dr Palmer, a Research Associate at Charles Darwin University.

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The university and Gumurr Marthakal Aboriginal rangers have teamed up to document the species and investigate why this is a biodiversity hotspot.

They expect to prove the marine megafauna around the Wessels are genetically separate populations to those on Australia's east and west coasts.

Dr Palmer said that would mean the Wessels and other similar hotspots along Australia's northern coastline would need to be protected individually if these species were to survive long-term.

"With a few more DNA skin samples I'm sure we'll find the false killer whale population here is a coastal population, and then we can upgrade its conservation status," she said.

"Also with the dolphins, we'll be able to confirm that we have discrete populations, and then that will mean we should have a really different management approach."

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At the moment, Australian false killer whales are officially listed as "data deficient", while snubfin dolphins are considered "vulnerable".

The partners are also attaching satellite tags to track the movement of large male green turtles, which they think are declining around the islands.

Marine life facing growing threats

To Marthakal ranger Marcus Mungal Lacey and the Wessels' Yolngu traditional owners, the marine animals aren't just important creatures in their homelands, but also as ancestor spirits.

"This place is a centre point for the clans on the mainland, because of the important totemic animals that created this area and play a major part in all the cultural creation stories," he said.

At the moment the rangers have just two vessels to cover a 15,000 square kilometre area.

The Wessels are a three- to five-hour boat ride from their base on Elcho Island, 530 kilometres east of Darwin.

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Mr Lacey said the rangers were extremely worried by increasing threats from overfishing, marine rubbish and abandoned fishing nets.

"The main threat is from ghost nets torn from fishing boats left drifting by the current — it's pretty dangerous for the animals," he said.

The rangers and scientists are also worried about the growing threat from climate change.

"The weather is heating up and the sea is heating up, but there's nothing we can do except turn away from all the things that are causing climate change," Dr Palmer said.

Future funding hopes

The research partners are being helped by ranger groups from Kakadu, Cobourg, Darwin and the Tiwi Islands, and several other Australian universities.

They are hoping the information they collect will help convince governments to allocate more resources to protecting northern waters.

"The work that will come out from this will hopefully bring in more funding for more further work that needs to be done," Mr Lacey said.

"It's one of the last frontiers in our country and it needs to be well looked after, but we need to be able to get the work done to look after it properly."

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Dr Palmer said: "There has been so little work done across the Northern Territory in the marine world, so we are hoping that this kickstarts an ongoing program that would be equivalent to what's going on [at] Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, and the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland."

A refuge for endangered mammals

On the Wessel's rocky outcrops, the rangers and scientists are also tracking some of Australia's last populations of endangered animals, including the golden bandicoot and northern quoll.

"These places are really important refuges for our wildlife because they don't have a lot of the threats that we get on mainland Australia — cane toads, feral cats, pigs, horses and cattle," said Sam Banks, Charles Darwin University's Director of Environment Research.

"Seeing quolls, golden bandicoots and rock wallabies hopping around the beaches is just amazing.

"It's wildlife like you don't see any more in other parts of the country."

The partners are planning more bushfire prevention work after three-quarters of mammal habitat on Marchinbar, the largest of the Wessel islands, was destroyed last year.

To check whether the small size of the quoll and bandicoot populations are putting them at risk of diseases caused by inbreeding, the scientists are taking tiny DNA samples from their ears.

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They think some of them may benefit from being paired up with different mates.

"With small numbers of animals, you can lose genetic diversity or get patterns of inbreeding happening fairly quickly," Professor Banks said.

"The Marchinbar Island population in particular actually has a very low genetic diversity."

Professor Banks said the Tasmanian devil facial tumour was an example of a disease that could come out of left field, and "you just don't have that adaptability to deal with it".

"So what's tended to happen in other parts of the world has been translocating animals from other islands, just to reintroduce a little bit of new genetic material," he said.

Traditional owners want to return

No-one has lived on the Wessel islands since the 1960s, after smallpox brought by seafarers and cyclones destroyed the small communities.

But the traditional owners' rock art chronicles thousands of years of trading with Indonesian sea cucumber fishermen, sea hunting, passing sailing vessels, dolphins, fish and dugongs.

"This is our museum and a library where everything is stored," Mr Lacey said.

"The paintings tell volumes of in-depth knowledge but highly spiritual knowledge."

Traditional owner Frank Warrindjuna Gandangu said seeing the paintings, after many years away from the islands, had increased his desire for his people to be able to return to live there.

"The land is always waiting, the land is also calling," he said.

"There's a positive energy that flows from that painting, to give strength, to say: this is your home, this is where you belong."

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Plans for island ranger base

For that to happen, the Aboriginal clans would need infrastructure upgrades, including a new airstrip.

The Marthakal rangers hope to establish a permanent ranger base on Marchinbar as a first step towards being able to monitor the environment and cultural heritage there more closely.

"We have to come back home to take care of it and work together with the rangers and all the other teams that are working to save our country," Mr Gandangu said.

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