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Girringun lead drone-based dugong surveys with JCU scientists

Updated: May 22

Hinchinbrook Island historically boasts extensive seagrass meadows and a thriving dugong population, but the region is still recovering from the devastating impacts of Cyclone Yasi more than a decade ago.

In a new program, Girringun Traditional Owners are leading a new high-tech seagrass and dugong monitoring program around Hinchinbrook Island – focusing on fine-scale monitoring to map the elusive dugongs in connection to their seagrass habitats.

The program has TropWATER scientists equipping Indigenous rangers with the skills to utilise small drones for dugong surveys, while undertaking helicopter and boat-based surveys to generate “digital maps” of seagrass habitats.

Funded by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Healing Country Grant, the initiative is driving strong Sea Country management while enriching scientific knowledge. The program is in partnership with JCU, Charles Darwin University, and the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation.

Empowering Indigenous-led sea country management

Girringun Aboriginal Corporation represents the interests of nine tribal groups and six saltwater Traditional Owner groups in the Cardwell and Hinchinbrook region, in North Queensland, with groups holding profound cultural ties and a wealth of ancestral wisdom that spans their respective traditional areas.

Girringun has worked closely with TropWATER scientists for decades in connecting western science and Indigenous knowledge to better manage and protect these habitats.

Jade Pryor, coordinator of Girringun Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement (TUMRA), said there had been a growing focus on gathering data on the dugongs and seagrass habitats in the region.

“This program has provided a new generation of Indigenous rangers and Traditional Owners with an opportunity to connect and look after their Sea Country, while actively contributing to building the scientific data required for managing dugong and seagrass,” she said.

Jade said the program has allowed for the continuing growth of employment opportunities for Traditional Owners and given elders the opportunity to connect with Country and share knowledge with younger generations.

“This has immense value in supporting our People spiritually and emotionally,” she said.

“Our vision is for our People to be self-sufficient in sea country monitoring.”

Hinchinbrook: An important dugong hotspot in the Great Barrier Reef

Dugongs’ main food source is seagrass – making the health of the seagrass meadows crucial for the survival of the local dugong population.

While seagrass surveys have shown large meadows in the northern Hinchinbrook region, these habitats are vulnerable to the impacts of cyclones and floods and are still recovering from seagrass loss caused by Cyclone Yasi in 2011.

TropWATER’s seagrass ecologist Dr. Alex Carter said despite Hinchinbrook’s reputation as a dugong hotspot, there was limited data on seagrass in the area.

“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.”

Alex said the Indigenous-led monitoring was also zooming in to understand the important relationship between seagrass and dugong health in the region.

“That’s the exciting part of this project. We’re gaining a unique insight into how and when dugongs use seagrass habitats, and that’s never been done in this region before.”

To allow the recovery of seagrass habitats and dugongs, Girringun has also banned traditional hunting of dugongs, with regular patrols undertaken by Girringun Rangers in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Compliance Team and Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Drones, AI, and genetics: The emerging technologies

Drones, genetic analysis, artificial intelligence, and animal-borne tracking tags are emerging technologies that can drive robust community monitoring programs – and enable fast collection of scientific data.

TropWATER dugong expert Dr. Chris Cleguer said the high-tech program gives Traditional Owners the opportunity to monitor both ecologically and culturally important habitats.

“Girringun's monitoring program has set an incredible benchmark for future Indigenous-led monitoring programs,” he said.

“We finally have tools that enable rangers and members of the wider community to be a lot more involved and lead their monitoring programs with remote support from scientists."

“We’re seeing new generations reconnect and care for the country, while providing unique data and information that scientists just can’t collect on a frequent basis like sea rangers can.”

The team hopes to expand the seagrass and dugong project across northern Australia.


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