Marine turtles in Moreton BayColin J. Limpus1, Owen I. Coffee2
A custodial ethic: Indigenous values towards water in Moreton Bay and CatchmentsBreanna Pinner1, Helen Ross2, Natalie Jones2, Sally Babidge3, Sylvie Shaw1,Katherine Witt 2,and David Rissik 4, 5,
Marine turtles in Moreton Bay
AuthorsColin J. Limpus1, Owen I. Coffee2
- Queensland Government, Department of Environment and Science, Ecosciences Precinct Dutton Park Qld, 4102;
- School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St Lucia Qld, 4072.
Moreton Bay Quandamooka & Catchment: Past, present, and future
Chapter 5 Habitats, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function
Research Paper Title
Marine turtles in Moreton Bay
Cite this paper as:
Limpus CJ, Coffee OI. 2019. Marine turtles in Moreton Bay. In Tibbetts, I.R., Rothlisberg, P.C., Neil, D.T., Homburg, T.A., Brewer, D.T., & Arthington, A.H. (Editors). Moreton Bay Quandamooka & Catchment: Past, present, and future. The Moreton Bay Foundation. Brisbane, Australia. Available from: https://moretonbayfoundation.org/
Six species of marine turtle from two families have been recorded foraging within the waters of Moreton Bay. Of those species, two (green turtle, Chelonia mydas and loggerhead turtle, Caretta caretta) are resident in substantial foraging populations that contribute annually to nesting populations of their southern Great Barrier Reef and South Pacific Ocean genetic stocks, respectively. Capture-mark-recapture studies of resident foraging populations in Moreton Bay commenced in 1990, serving as a platform supporting a wide range of additional studies of turtles in Moreton Bay that have garnered valuable insights into the diet, habitat use, physiology, toxicology, genetics and population dynamics of the resident turtle populations. This paper provides a summary of the research completed over the past few decades on turtle biology within Moreton Bay and highlights areas of future research.
Keywords: capture-mark-recapture, diet, health, physiology, toxicology, population dynamics
The shallow coastal waters of Moreton Bay have supported marine turtle populations since sea levels rose following the last ice age. They were hunted for food by the local Indigenous people and, following the arrival of European settlers, hunted commercially from 1824 to 1950 (Fig. 1)(1, 2).
In recent times, six species of marine turtle from two families have been recorded foraging in the waters of Moreton Bay. Five species of the family Cheloniidae are year-round foraging residents: loggerhead turtle, Caretta caretta, (3); green turtle, Chelonia mydas (4); hawksbill turtle, Eretmochelys imbricate (5); olive ridley turtle, Lepidochelys olivacea (6); flatback turtle, Natator depressus (6). Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), from the family Dermochelyidae, are migratory visitors (6, 7). Marine turtles within Australian waters are afforded protected under the Australian Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and by state and territory legislations. Two species (green and loggerhead) migrate into the Moreton Bay waters and nest annually at low density on the ocean beaches of the Bay islands (6). Small post-hatchling loggerhead and green turtles travelling south with the East Australian Current from the nesting beaches of the southern Great Barrier Reef (GBR) region pass through the waters offshore Moreton Bay on their way south and east into the South Pacific Ocean (8). This review does not address biological data associated with debilitated or dead marine turtles that have washed in from the pelagic waters of the Coral or Tasman seas.
Immature marine turtles recruit from a pelagic foraging life-history phase in the open ocean to benthic foraging in coastal waters at different sizes: loggerhead turtles recruit to benthic feeding in Moreton Bay at a mean curved carapace length (CCL) of 78.2 cm (SD=3.75, n=52) at approximately 16 years of age (9); green turtles similarly recruit to benthic feeding in Moreton Bay at CCL = 44.2 cm (SD=3.97, n=98) and CCL = 45.1 cm (SD=3.24, n=54.0) for females and males respectively. Hawksbill turtles are believed to recruit to Moreton Bay benthic foraging areas at approximately CCL = 36.0 cm (10).
Large immature and adult leatherback turtles are not permanent residents of Moreton Bay; they are transient visitors to Moreton Bay during the autumn and winter months. The frequency of encounters with leatherback turtles in the Moreton Bay region has substantially declined in recent decades (11).
Most green turtles foraging in Moreton Bay are from the southern GBR genetic stock as defined by FitzSimmons and Limpus (12): > 90% of adult females based on flipper tag recoveries (13), 95% of adults and 85% of immature green turtles based on population genetics analysis (14). A small proportion of the foraging green turtles in Moreton Bay originate from the northern GBR, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, French Polynesia and the eastern Pacific (14). Only loggerhead turtles from the south-west Pacific genetic stock that breed in eastern Australia and New Caledonia have been recorded in eastern Australia, including Moreton Bay (12). There is no clear definition of the genetic stock of origin for hawksbills that forage in Moreton Bay.
Systematic Department of Environment and Science (DES) capture-mark-recapture (CMR) studies of foraging marine turtles in Moreton Bay commenced in 1990 and identified that the most abundant species in the Bay were green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles (3 – 6). These studies contributed to the development and implementation of the Moreton Bay Marine Park, with the identified high use areas for foraging turtles designated within Marine national park green zones and mandatory go slow areas for recreational and commercial vessels. Turtles are most commonly encountered on the shallow seagrass-dominated Eastern Banks adjacent to Dunwich on North Stradbroke Island northwards along the western face of Moreton Island. Turtles are also encountered along the fringing mangroves and shallow muddy flats at the southern extent of the Bay and throughout Deception Bay in the north-west.
The green turtle population in the Moreton Banks has approximately tripled during the 25 years of the CMR study from 1990–2014 (15). Satellite telemetry studies have demonstrated that green turtles maintain long-term fidelity to their respective foraging sites in Moreton Bay (16). Based on satellite telemetry, the home range of green turtles foraging in eastern Moreton Bay was 128.8 km2, 23.7 km2 in southern Moreton Bay and 121.8 km2 in north-western Moreton Bay (17). Adult female green turtles resident in Moreton Bay commenced breeding during 1990–2007 at a mean CCL = 108.7 cm (SD=4.56, n=32) (13). The green turtles in Moreton Bay are on average amongst the largest and fastest growing in eastern Australia (18).
Once recruited to benthic foraging residency, the loggerhead turtles show high fidelity to their respective foraging areas across decades (19, 20). These recruited turtles retain fidelity to their foraging areas following displacement (21). Based on satellite telemetry, the home range of loggerhead turtles foraging in eastern Moreton Bay was 155.8 km2, 32.7 km2 in southern Moreton Bay and 15.6 km2 in western Moreton Bay (17). Adult female loggerhead turtles of the south-west Pacific breeding stock nesting at Mon Repos commence breeding at a mean CCL = 93.65 cm (SD=4.25, n=69) (9).
Marine turtles that forage in Moreton Bay migrate to breed at widely dispersed and usually distant nesting beaches, with most green turtles that forage in Moreton Bay migrating to breed on the islands of the Capricorn-Bunker Group in the southern GBR between North West Island and Lady Elliot Island. Small numbers of the Moreton Bay green turtles have been recorded nesting at Raine Island in the northern GBR, on islands within the Recifs d’Entrecasteaux in north-western New Caledonia and Vanuatu (Fig. 2a). Most loggerhead turtles that forage in Moreton Bay migrate to breeding grounds on the mainland beaches between Bundaberg and Agnes Water (Woongarra coast being the major breeding site). Smaller numbers of Moreton Bay loggerhead turtles have been recorded on the islands of the southern GBR between the Swain reefs and Lady Elliot Island; isolated nesting records have occurred in northern New South Wales and eastern New Caledonia (Fig. 2b).
The CMR studies have been a platform to support a wide range of additional studies of turtles in Moreton Bay, including but not limited to diet, habitat use, physiology, toxicology, genetics and population dynamics. DES CMR studies from the early 1990s to the present demonstrated a robustly increasing green turtle foraging population on the eastern banks of Moreton Bay but a declining population of loggerhead turtles for the same area. The successes for green turtles are attributable to a consistently increasing green turtle nesting population in the southern GBR since strong protection of the species and their habitats commenced in 1950. Recruitment of new immature green turtles taking up residency is a regularly observed feature.
The problem for the declining loggerhead population originates from excessive mortality of small post-hatchlings ingesting plastic debris as they travel in the East Australian Current and additional mortality from fisheries bycatch in the eastern Pacific. These post-hatchling mortalities have resulted in a severely depleted recruitment of young loggerheads into residency in Moreton Bay since the early 1990s.
Diet and habitat use
Marine turtles undergo a number of distinct life stages accentuated by changes in foraging habitat and diet (22). For most marine turtle species this begins with a protracted open-ocean foraging period post hatching. Marine turtles exhibiting this oceanic-neritic development pattern subsist on a predominantly carnivorous diet borne of pelagic macro-zooplankton; they then shift foraging strategy and diet composition upon recruitment to neritic foraging habitats (23). Boyle and Limpus (8) have documented the diet, including ingested plastic, of the small post-hatchling green and loggerhead turtles passing Moreton Bay on the East Australian Current.
Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta)
Following recruitment to benthic foraging in Moreton Bay, loggerhead individuals occupy a range of habitats including intertidal and subtidal seagrass meadows, coral and rocky reefs, and the soft-bottom, deeper, subtidal habitats. While foraging loggerheads in South East Queensland have been reported feeding on over 100 taxa, in Moreton Bay they are most commonly found to forage on species of portunid crabs and a range of benthic gastropod and bivalve molluscs (Table 1). While loggerheads feed extensively on epifaunal species they will also mine the substrate to obtain infauna prey items (24, 25) and take prey items from the mid-water column and at the surface (26).
Table 1. Summary of findings from dietary studies on the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) in the Moreton Bay region
|Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta)|
|(26) Limpus et al.||2001||
|(8) Boyle & Limpus||2008||
|(51) Limpus & Limpus||2008||
|(52) Coffee||Unpubl. data||
Green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Within the Moreton Bay area, foraging populations of green turtle have been observed to feed within tidal and subtidal habitats, grazing primarily on algae (Gracilaria sp. and Hypnea sp.) and seagrass (Zostera capricorni and Halophila ovalis) and opportunistically on mangrove (Avicennia marina) leaves and propagules (Table 1). At higher trophic levels, observations of opportunistic foraging on gelatinous animal material in Moreton Bay (27–29) are consistent with findings from other foraging populations (Fig. 3) (30–33).
Table 2. Summary of findings from dietary studies on the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) in the Moreton Bay region
|Green turtle (Chelonia mydas)|
|(53) Brand, Lanyon & Limpus||1999||
|(54) Brand-Gardner, Limpus & Lanyon||1999||
|(55) Read & Limpus||2002||
|(27) Arthur et al.||2007||
|(28) Arthur, Boyle & Limpus||2008||
|(8) Boyle & Limpus||2008||
|(56) Townsend et al.||2012||
Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
While there are no studies on the foraging ecology of the resident hawksbill turtles of Moreton Bay, individuals foraging off the coast in the Northern Territory and the northern GBR have been recorded foraging on algae (Rhodophytes, Chlorophytes and Phaeophytes), with a significant contribution of sponges and soft corals to their diet (34, 35). These observations are consistent with those from foraging individuals sampled in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean (36, 37). There have been observations of individual adult size hawksbills selectively feeding on large sea anemones on the subtidal rocky reef on the seaward side of North Stradbroke Island (6).
Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
Unlike cheloniid marine turtles, the leatherback turtle does not recruit to a benthic, life-history phase. Instead they retain a surface-water foraging habitat whether they are in oceanic or neritic waters throughout their life. In the north-west Pacific and the Atlantic their diet is primarily large, gelatinous, macro-zooplankton (cnidarians, ctenophores and colonial tunicates such as Pyrosoma sp.) (38–41). While limited data exist on their foraging ecology in the south-west Pacific, they have been regularly reported to feed on the blue blubber jellyfish (Catostylus mosaicus) in Moreton Bay (11).
Olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea)
Following an oceanic developmental period, olive ridley turtles in Australia have been reported recruiting to neritic foraging environments (42). While there is a paucity of data on the foraging ecology of recruited immature and adult olive ridleys, they are thought to subsist on a carnivorous diet composed primarily of gastropods, cnidarians and benthic crustaceans (42, 43), consistent with observations on the diet of adult olive ridley sampled off the coast of Mexico (44).
Flatback turtle (Natator depressus)
Forgoing a pelagic developmental period, flatback turtles spend their post-hatchling through to their adult life stages in neritic foraging environments (22). While limited observations exist on the foraging ecology of flatback turtles, it is posited that foraging individuals in the Moreton Bay region have diets consistent with those reported in individuals throughout the east and west coasts of Australia. They subsist on carnivorous diets, composed primarily of soft-bodied invertebrates such as sea pens, soft corals, holothurians and jellyfish (43–46).
Health, physiology and toxicology
A substantial marine turtle population lives within the semi-enclosed waters of Moreton Bay, which receives the outflow of five rivers (Albert, Logan, Brisbane, Pine and Caboolture). These rivers receive the chemical discharge associated with more than two million human inhabitants and their urban development, agricultural and pastoral activities, and industry. As such, the turtles of Moreton Bay are more likely to be impacted by river outflow than any other population of marine turtles in Queensland. Elevated levels of heavy metals and organo-halide compounds have been detected in marine turtles resident in Moreton Bay; to date no studies have demonstrated a detrimental impact of these substances on turtle biology (Table 3). The associated health, toxicology and physiology related studies on marine turtles within Moreton Bay are summarised in Table 3.
Table 3. Summary of findings from health, physiology and toxicology studies on marine turtles in the Moreton Bay region
|(57) Gordon, Kelly & Lester||1993||
|(58) Gordon Kelly & Cribb||1998||
|(59) Gordon, Pople & Ng||1998||
|(60) Hermanussen et al.||2004||
|(61) Hamann et al.||2005||
|(62) Hermanussen et al.||2006||
|(63, 64) Muusse; Muusse et al.||2006||
|(65) Hermanussen et al.||2006||
|(66) Flint et al.||2010||
|(67) Flint et al.||2010||
|(68) Flint et al.||2010||
|(69) Flint et al.||2010||
|(70) Schuyler et al.||2012||
|(47) Meager & Limpus||2012||
|(15) Limpus, Jones & Chaloupka||2016||
|(71) Flint et al.||2017||
Note: PCDD/F – polychlorinated dibenzo(p)dioxins and furans (‘dioxins’), TEQ – toxic equivalent, PCB – polychlorinated biphenyl, POP – persistent organic pollutant, pg/g – pictogram/gram, PCDD – polychlorinated dibenzodioxins
Boat strike, entanglement in crab pots and fishing gear and to a lesser extent, the ingestion of synthetic debris, were the primary sources of anthropogenic mortality for turtles within Moreton Bay (9, 13, 47, 48). Indigenous harvest of marine turtles in Moreton Bay is not quantified.
Since the start of capture-mark-recapture studies in 1990, research, in tandem with the state’s tertiary institutes, has determined which species inhabit the Bay, their genetic stocks and population dynamics, and has worked toward the conservation and management of the resident populations. This paper has outlined some of the research achievements of the past few decades, however, as identified, many questions remain. The large numbers of resident foraging turtles within Moreton Bay are ideally situated for ongoing studies by research institutes in the vicinity of the Bay, allowing new research techniques to be developed and the anthropogenic impacts on these species to be quantified into the future.
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