Tim Harvey: Talking Turtles

The Great Barrier Reef is a huge, complex ecosystem and climate change is a complex geopolitical problem. As individuals, we play a role in doing our bit to live sustainably but we can’t expect to solve all the world’s problems.

So the question is, how do we make a difference? 

It comes down to what we each have the time, interest and inclination to do.

At home we can use eco-friendly cleaning products, buy renewable power, use reef-safe sunscreen, minimise air travel, car pool, reduce standby power usage at home, install LED lighting, adequately recycle and minimise plastic use. There are so many ways we can contribute.  

Then there are a range of things we can do indirectly. 

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s (GBRMPA) latest Outlook Report unsurprisingly identifies the byproducts of climate change as one of many ‘very high’ risks to the reef. However, these also include outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, nutrient run-off and sediment run-off. 

In fact, GBRMPA identifies land-based run-off and crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, along with climate change, as among the most complex issues affecting the reef’s integrity and major contributors to decline in reef condition. 

While the risk of increased surface temperature on the reef is unquestionably real, the situation is more complex than just this one issue. Rebuilding the reef’s resilience to a range of effects requires a broad-front approach to management.       

This is where community groups and you come in. 

There are things you can support that are making a difference. There are groups right now working to shore up erosion along the banks of major rivers. There are tourism and events operators supporting progress in the battle against crown-of-thorns starfish and there are conservation organisations managing wildlife populations (also a necessary part of the ecosystem’s ability to regenerate).

For Tim Harvey, the bit of the puzzle he has chosen to be part of, is protecting sea turtles, which is why he founded the Sea Turtle Foundation

We interviewed Tim and asked him his views on turtles, the reef and the role of communities in its protection.  

1. How have you seen the reef change over the years?

I’ve been looking at the reef for about 12 years and to be honest, I haven’t seen an absolutely huge change that’s obvious to the eye … yet. In recent years however, two cyclone events and bleaching have had serious impacts but in terms of turtles, run-off from floodwaters down the Burdekin and other big rivers, can be a concern. 

2. What is the significance of these effects on turtles?

The two huge cyclone events created a massive input of freshwater, loaded with sediment, that washed into the near-shore areas of the Great Barrier Reef. It killed a lot of seagrass. This in turn affected the turtles and dugongs that feed in these places and we saw an increase in strandings of these animals. 

3. Isn’t nutrient and sediment input natural?

Yes, but remember, the Great Barrier Reef as we know it, is only about 10,000 years old. And up to about 150 years ago the whole length of this coastline used to be covered in trees and swampland, which filtered a lot of the freshwater and sediment. 

Because of the way currents work along this coastline, sediment generally comes out of the river mouths and travels north and in north facing embayments, where countercurrents occur, sediment drops out and this is where mangroves occur and seagrass beds.They’re important as nurseries for many reef and commercial fish that subsequently redistribute out to sea. You can’t really understate their value. They are also nursery grounds for sea turtles, that will one day grace the oceans off Australia, as well as Dugongs. Places like the embayments south of Townsville, behind Curtis Island off Gladstone and Princess Charlotte Bay are good examples. 

After we cleared and drained our coastline for agriculture, there was a massive change in terms of freshwater coming off the land. A lot of corals close to the coast withstand a certain amount of sediment but the sheer volume now is too high for their survival and their condition has declined, especially near large river mouths. 

Princess Charlotte Bay is distant enough from these effects that you can see an example of a place that is still in fairly good condition, compared to some of the other sites further south. 

4. What type of work is the community doing? 

In term of seagrass beds, there is probably not a lot that local communities can do, although there are some attempts at replanting in some places. It’s difficult as once the grass is gone, the sand becomes loose and prone to erosion at every tide. 

During the cyclone events, we increased the turtle stranding network in terms of responding to turtles on beaches. Sea Turtle Foundation coordinates stranding response for large parts of the coastline and in partnership with the Queensland Government helps to train people from Cairns to Bundaberg in action to take to get a stranded sea turtle to a rehabilitation or triage centre. 

This is a valuable contribution to monitoring the health of our ecosystems and engaging with local communities. 

But there is a lot more work to do. At the habitat level, there are numerous government initiatives being done with cane and banana farmers to look at the way that they can redress impacts of run off, which causes many of these problems. 

5. What hope does this work give you? 

My hope is that if we can reduce or contain the run-off, chemicals and sediments reaching the big rivers, then we may be able to get a better balance on what’s happening on the inner reef - and this is where a lot of juvenile turtles are spending their time. It’s all part of the bigger picture and a very important contribution. 

6. What are the things that people can do at home to help protect turtles?

Supporting groups like the Sea Turtle Foundation with donations helps - because even if you don’t have the time to help, there are people out there constantly working on these matters and lobbying on your behalf. The Sea Turtle Foundation can’t do it alone, we need your support, which helps us work with all the local groups on the ground, as together, this is where the real work is taking place. 

That said, we’d like people to keep pressure on their local representatives and our national leaders, to take sea turtle conservation seriously, implement real measures to protect them and continue to support and fund real on-the-ground work. 

Of course the other thing you can do to support is come and see sea turtles yourself … the trips we run inspire others by spreading the word and directly raise money for the organisations we support. 

7. Why is it important for communities to take their own action?

Governments can’t do this by themselves - governments can only support the community and will respond when there is enough concern and commitment.

Communities are traditionally very good at leading in terms of what they do hands on but perhaps not so good at letting people know about the valuable contribution they make. 

Linking communities together means they carry greater weight. It’s important that they remain vibrant, active and continuously promote what they do … and carry the support of others with them.

The Sea Turtle Foundation’s biggest contribution is in supporting these groups, in the hope the sum total of their efforts creates a critical mass to inspire funding and further work along Australia’s east coast. 

8. In your experience, how do people react to the reef when they see it for the first time?

Honestly … a lot of people are quite disappointed when they first see the Great Barrier Reef. Brochures that promote the reef tend to show photographs that are almost Carribean-esque. Here there are few palm trees and the really brightly coloured corals are often only in isolated spots (and sometimes a bit deeper).

The key is in getting people to slow down, stop and look, spend the time … then they are totally blown away. You need to actually guide people and give them a helping hand to understand the narrative behind the reef. 

Once they get used to that, they think it’s amazing. 

9. Have you ever failed to convince someone of the value of the reef experience?

Never! Ever! Once you’ve explained how it functions, the story behind the reef unfolds. It’s no different to any experience. A classic example of knowing the story behind the experience is the Parthenon. It’s a pale ruin and if you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t realise it used to be coloured and painted. Once you’ve built the stories, it comes alive. You’re staring at a really complex thing that you will never fully appreciate, so just scratch the surface and it opens up a mystery as significant as the planets and solar system. It’s truly inspiring and overwhelming.  

10. What do people gain personally from seeing sea turtles in the wild for the first time … or any time?

They truly gain a strong emotional link to something in nature, perhaps for the first time. They are awe-inspired. The reaction is normally “bloody ‘ell, they are bigger than we thought they were!” A mental shift occurs in people’s preconceived ideas of turtles. They are enormous! 

They get this massive emotional attachment, because they’re looking at something quite prehistoric. Sea turtles aren’t cuddly … not the most attractive animal in the world … but totally harmless - turtles do their thing and we get to stand around and watch. 

They are mysterious animals with an undeviating reliability for existence that’s lasted millennia. They herald from a time without humans. They’ve ruled the oceans for millions of years yet they are benign, peaceful and graceful. You can’t help feeling a certain sense of responsibility to look after them.   

Wildiaries • April 2016