Belbendimin Wulgun Djau (Caring for Sea Country)

Latest update September 11, 2019 Started on May 29, 2019
sea

Join a team of Indigenous Sea Rangers as they take to the water to monitor seagrass meadows and incredibly unique and diverse in-shore coral reefs in Port Curtis Coral Coast traditional sea country.

May 29, 2019
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In The Field
Gidarjil approached our saltwater neighbours to the south, the Butchulla people, to ask if they would like our sea rangers, along with Dr Andrew Olds and his team from USC, to assist them to monitor 2 sites in their own sea country - Pialba reef and Pt Vernon West. Our sea rangers were very excited at the opportunity, as they have a great deal of respect for the Butchulla people and the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation land and sea ranger teams. Pialba reef contained beautiful Turbinaria hard corals while at Pt Vernon the rangers saw many Goniopora corals. The rangers really enjoyed learning about Butchulla sea country and sharing knowledge both ways.
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Our inshore coral adventures have continued, with the sea rangers undertaking surveys at our remote northern sites, Pancake creek and Ethel Rocks. Dominated by hard coral Acropora species, Pancake creek is a truly unique reef in Australia, occurring within an estuarine area and protected from oceanic conditions. Each of the reefs the sea rangers have surveyed so far are proving quite distinct from each other with wide variability.
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Preparation
Earlier in September, both land and sea rangers from Gidarjil undertook formal Seagrass-Watch training. Seagrass-Watch is a community-based seagrass assessment and monitoring program; the training is rigorous, and participants are required to reach a high level of achievement in all units of competency to ensure that data collection is accurate. The rangers were joined by their Elder, Uncle Eugene Bargo, who has decades of personal experience combined with that of his ancestors about plants, marine environments, connectivity and ecological relationships. Dr Emma Jackson from Central Queensland University kindly assisted with all field-based activities. The sea rangers will shortly undertake consistent monitoring to assess the health and composition of seagrass communities in Baffle creek and Round Hill creek to identify trends over time. Monitoring of seagrass (abundance, reproduction and nutrient status) is a key component informing the development of the Great Barrier Reef report cards.
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During the week the rangers also had some informative lectures and workshops from USC staff. Dr Olds gave a fascinating presentation on the Great Barrier Reef, it’s ecological significance, values, threats and disturbances. Hayden gave a wonderful presentation on the ecology and identification of reef fish and Ash had the rangers fascinated with coral biology and ecology, different growth forms and how to identify them.


Stay tuned for our next adventure when the Gidarjil sea rangers survey the remote and unique estuarine reefs of Pancake creek.

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In The Field

The sea rangers have had an incredible week exploring and learning to survey in-shore coral sites in their sea country with help and guidance from University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) staff Dr Andrew Olds, PhD students Ash Rummell and Hayden Borland and 3rd year Undergrad Student Lukas Clay.


It was tiring work, with five 50m transects surveyed at each site for coral, fish and invertebrates, but the enthusiasm of the sea rangers and the USC crew never waned. The rangers were amazed at the differences between the sites; Barolin Rocks is dominated by soft coral Cladiella and Sarcophton species while at Fingers Reef, we saw more Psammocora and Bushy Gorgonia. Four Mile Reef contained mostly Pocillopora and Acropora species and quite a bit of encrusting Montipora species.

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“Our sea country looks like a beautiful garden” – Gidarjil sea ranger Kelvin Rowe

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The Gidarjil sea rangers have been in the field several times over the last few weeks to ground truth sea grass meadows. They joined Dr Emma Jackson from Central Queensland University (CQU) in Round Hill creek to identify whether the meadows recommended for monitoring in the Baseline report (Taylor et al 2010) are still suitable for training and monitoring. To be suitable, meadows need to be > 250m2. We were also attempting to identify sites that will be easy to access from the shore for our Elders, Junior rangers and interested community members, as well as the tide heights at which meadows were exposed.


The sea rangers discovered good sized meadows in Round Hill creek, unfortunately they were all on the northern side of the creek, so we needed our vessel the Miiba Gundal (Turtle canoe) to reach them. With access only by vessel the number of Elders and Junior rangers able to assist the sea rangers with monitoring will be limited. Dr Jackson was particularly excited to discover a species of seagrass, Halophila spinulosa, that is not usually found at this site.
Meadows of Zostera capricorni in Baffle creek were particularly lush and healthy, despite seagrass going through a natural senescent (slow growth) period from February to June in our region. Our sea rangers counted over 20 turtles foraging and swimming amongst the seagrass!

Over the coming weeks the sea rangers will continue to explore these creeks to identify suitable meadows for long term monitoring sites and areas where Elders, Junior rangers and community members can safely access intertidal seagrass from the shore.

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Preparation

Trident Underwater Drone
A Trident underwater drone will benefit our project in many ways. They are light and portable so we will be able to use them for shore accessible seagrass meadows and in-shore coral sites as well as on our vessel. They are rugged and can handle rough weather conditions so our sea rangers will be able to utilise them if the weather turns bad, or water currents increase, and it is unsafe for them to be physically in the water.
Another wonderful advantage of the Trident underwater drones is that our Elders, who are very interested in the project but are of mature age and unable to get into the water, will be able to see the live video stream on the surface. This will make them feel like they are there, underwater with the rangers, exploring their sea country together.
A Trident underwater drone would also allow us to extend our monitoring sites and perhaps include subtidal seagrass meadows and in-shore corals in deeper environments as the Trident drone is able to descend to an amazing 100m! We will be monitoring our inshore corals at 5 sites in our Sea Country every winter for the next 3 years and our seagrass meadows 4 times per year for the next 3 years and will be looking for funding to continue this work into the future.

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Collaboration is an important part of our project, there are many partners working together to achieve positive outcomes for our sea country.


Our project is inclusive of the broader community with expected participation from community volunteer groups, junior and cadet rangers, QPWS rangers and PCCC Elders. Our project will receive input and advice from PCCC Traditional Elders through the TUMRA Steering Committee and our Elders are keen to participate in project activities. University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) Dr Andrew Olds is an experienced marine ecologist with expertise in the fields of marine conservation, fisheries, spatial ecology and the impacts of global change on marine ecosystems. He has on-the-ground experience with conservation, fisheries and environmental management projects in tropical and subtropical estuaries and coastal waters and has led multidisciplinary research teams in Australia and across the western Pacific. Andrew's projects focus on three broad areas: seascape ecology and connectivity, marine conservation planning and assessment, disturbance ecology and the functioning of coastal ecosystems. Dr Olds will provide workshops and training in the field for our Indigenous sea rangers in coral, oyster and fish identification, data collection and monitoring techniques, data analysis, and report writing. Department of Environment and Science (DES) A marine biologist, Mike Ronan takes a whole-of-landscape approach to wetlands classification, mapping, processes and management that incorporates estuarine and marine seascapes. Maria Zann is a marine spatial ecologist specialising in benthic marine habitat classification, mapping and inventory. DES will provide expert technical advice and mentoring to various aspects of our project. Central Queensland University (CQU): Dr Emma Jackson is a seagrass landscape and restoration ecologist at CQU and is currently researching the construction of a science-based framework for seagrass restoration in Central Queensland. Her other areas of expertise include seagrass dynamics, marine conservation management, ecosystem services, marine protected areas and reserves, marine community ecology and marine angiosperm, invertebrate and vertebrate taxonomy. CQU will contribute to the project through site inspections for hardness of the substratum, suitable placement of permanent transects and expert advice on seagrass biology, ecology and taxonomy. CQU will mentor Gidarjil Indigenous sea rangers and assist with access to current/ up to date research and comparisons between baseline surveys and our project data.

Our in-shore coral and oyster reefs have a history spanning over 6500 years, the full term of the Holocene (Butler et al 2015); they are unique communities, with diverse coral assemblages and species not seen elsewhere in the Great Barrier Reef (DeVantier 2010). These high-latitude reefs are near the southern margin of in-shore coral reef formation along the Queensland coast and form a natural continuation of the Capricornia section of the GBR to the north.

There is currently a major knowledge gap about these marine habitats and a sparsity of information available to understand the impact of water quality on these communities. More detailed work is required to spatially identify reef extent, species and condition over time - our project will build on a preliminary, foundational study undertaken by Dr Ian Butler between 2015-2017 and will establish a robust baseline of coral and oyster reefs in the region. Gidarjil Indigenous sea rangers will undertake water quality sampling, establish permanent transects to monitor in-shore corals and locate and monitor remnant oyster reefs. Our project will increase the understanding of sediment and pollutant impacts and supplement the overall understanding of water quality impacts on coral and oyster communities.

Butler, IR, Sommer, B, Zann, M, Zhao, JX & Pandolfi, JM 2013 ‘The impacts of flooding on the high-latitude, terrigenoclastic influenced coral reefs of Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia’, Coral Reefs, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 1149-1163.

DeVantier, L 2010, Reef-building corals of Hervey Bay, South-East Queensland Baseline Survey, Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, Fraser Coast.

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Seagrass communities are highly productive habitats for many species, including commercial species, and important food resources for turtles and dugong. They also deliver ecosystem services such as improving water quality, sequestering carbon and nutrient cycling. Much of the connectivity in reef ecosystems depends on intact and healthy non-reef habitats.

The Bustard Bay Seagrass Baseline Assessment (2009) describes a significant knowledge gap regarding seagrass health and condition in our region and recommends the establishment of two permanent monitoring sites. These sites include seagrass that are preferred as food by dugong and are likely to support high fisheries productivity. Not only are seagrasses ecologically important, they sequester and store large quantities of blue carbon. Healthy seagrass meadows and keystone species such as marine turtles will play an important role in building resilience in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
Assessments will be conducted every quarter to allow detailed tracking of seagrass change and will enable direct comparisons with the baseline survey as well as capturing seagrass at peak density.

Taylor, HA, McKenna, SA, & Rasheed, MA 2010, Bustard Bay Seagrass Baseline Assessment November 2009, Fisheries Queensland, Cairns.

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Expedition Background

Gidarjil are a not-for-profit Aboriginal organisation based in Bundaberg and Gladstone who support the Port Curtis Coral Coast (PCCC) Native Title Claimant group to deliver sea country outcomes on behalf of the Traditional Owners. PCCC country extends over 26,000 km2 of sea country in both the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Great Sandy Marine Park. Our Elders have strong and enduring connections to sea country; coral reefs and seagrass in our region are part of a spiritual seascape where connection is vitally important.


In-shore coral reefs of our region are incredibly unique and include rare estuarine reefs and very diverse coral assemblages. We also have seagrass meadows that are vitally important for commercial fisheries and include species that are the preferred food for marine turtles and dugong. Unfortunately, there is currently a major knowledge gap about these marine habitats. The Belbendimin Wulgun Djau (Caring for Sea Country) project is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. This funding is allowing Indigenous rangers to address knowledge gaps and develop foundational ecological information upon which management, decision-making and research can be built.

Our expedition will follow a team of Indigenous sea rangers as they venture underwater to monitor our in-shore coral reefs and join with community groups and Elders to monitor seagrass meadows, to spatially identify reef and meadow extent, species and condition over time. (Photo courtesy of Kirsten Wortel)

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