The Untold Tale of Dugong & Seagrass in Con Dao Archipelago

Latest update December 20, 2018 Started on October 21, 2018
sea

Little is known about the charismatic dugong (Dugong dugon) in Con Dao Archipelago of Vietnam. Few available literatures confirmed the presence of dugongs in this national level protected area. But it is unclear if the observed dugongs were passing through the area, or if Con Dao Archipelago is an important habitat for the species’ life cycle. Such uncertainties expose potentially important habitat of dugong to anthropological activities and disturbances. This uncertainty motivated me and my colleagues to explore spatial and temporal distribution of dugong in this beautiful archipelago. We use multidisciplinary approach, which includes systematic land-based surveys, seagrass bed and dugong feeding trail monitoring and interviews with local communities to gather multi-dimensional information related to dugongs in the study area. Our project will provide holistic data on dugong distributional patterns in Con Dao, which helps shape recommendations for conservation management.

October 21, 2018
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Preparation

We are excited to prepare for our first field trip next January 2019. After couple decades, we will be the first team that conduct a systematic survey to study the Dugong in the infamous Con Dao archipelago, Vietnam. For those who are not familiar with this species, dugong (Dugong dugon) is an herbivorous marine mammal that live in tropical water of Pacific and Indian Oceans. You can image a bold, chubby mermaid with paddles instead arms, and you kind know how a dugong look like. As a mammals, they share many characteristics with human, like breathing air, warm blood, feeding milk to their children…


Because they feed on seagrass, they can only live in relatively undisturbed coastal water where seagrass meadows are still healthy. In Vietnam, the dugong can only be found in two places, which are Phu Quoc island and Con Dao archipelago. The off-shore location of Con Dao, in theory, is not great habitat for dugong. But in reality, much more opportunistic sightings of dugong have been made in this area than in Phu Quoc. There is something in Con Dao that attract the dugong, and we want to find out what is it. It is important tow know what factor driven the behavior of these dugong to protect them better, especially when we recently have several records of dugong dying in this area for un-identified reason.

Studying dugong is quite challenging, since this species are very cryptic. We will have to look for them from land (land-based survey), from boat (boat-based survey) and underwater. Will we able to find them?? Stay tune for our next update.

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Really looking forward to following along with this fieldwork!

Really cool project! Are you also using passive acoustics to find the dugongs? Looking forward to reading your updates!

Thank David. Our fieldwork will start at this January. Our team will keep you update.

Thank Xavier. Yes, we have a plan to do that. But for dugong it is very tricky, as the dugong will not vocalize the whole time (unlike dolphin and porpoise). They can go completely silence sometime, and render PAM (passive acoustic monitoring) device ineffective. We are finding a way to go around that. Our idea is we identify places where the probability of dugong vocalizing are high (e.g. sea grass bed??), then we set up our PAM equipment there… There are so many work ahead, but we will keep you updated. If you have any suggestion, please feel free to share :)

Nice ! I don't have experience with dugong vocalizations but have worked on several marine mammal detectors. If you ever need an automated detector, I'd be happy to help out if I can (or try anyway ;-). Good luck with your fieldwork !

Expedition Background

The dugong (Dugong dugon) is a conservation-dependent marine mammal inhabiting tropical and subtropical coastal waters. In Vietnam, dugong is extremely rare. Con Dao Archipelago (east coast) and Phu Quoc island (west coast of Vietnam) are only two places where dugong sightings were confirmed. For Con Dao area, which consist 120 square kilometer of sea area and 14 islands, a preliminary land-based survey in 2002 recorded 33 dugong sightings in near the biggest island of Con Dao archipelago.
Since 2002, no systematic survey has been done to access the abundance dugong in Con Dao archipelago, which results in enormous gaps of information on status and trend of dugong population in this area. From 2010 until now, several opportunistic sightings of dugong were made by the marine patrolling rangers of Con Dao National Park. However, without a systematic survey, there have been limited information on distribution patterns of dugong in this area, conservation actions to protecting important habitat for this species. The presence of seagrass beds around Con Dao NP has been frequently used to argue that dugong foraging in this area. But until now, it is unclear whether the dugong feeding in Con Dao sea or they utilize the area for other purpose (e.g. mating, resting or socializing). The gaps of information on dugong ecology in Con Dao NP create a complex conservation issue. Although the Con Dao archipelago is recognized as a national park (protected area at national level in Vietnam), most marine area of the park is still being opened for fishing. Illegal-unregistered-unmanaged fisheries, mainly long-line fishing and trawling, are still presented in known seagrass beds, which is also feeding ground of dugong. Beside the disturbances cause by fishing activities to the seagrass beds, abandoned fishing hooks, lines and nets pose a significant threat for the dugong.

In 2019, we will set out to fill the current gaps on dugong ecology in Con Dao Archipelago. We feel the urgent need to explore the how the dugongs utilize the sea area and identifying the hotspots for dugong conservation management in Con Dao NP. With multidisciplinary approaches, international collaboration and the love for these charismatic marine mammals, our team will look for dugong on land (systematic land-based surveys), on sea (boat-based survey) and under water (seagrass bed and dugong feeding trail monitoring). We also collect local-ecological knowledge on dugong through interviewing with local communities. Our hope is to deliver not only scientific evidences for conservation management, but also a holistic story of dugong, seagrass and fishery in this beautiful archipelago.

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