Guidelines for commercial dugong watching
Australia has international, national, and state obligations to conserve dugongs. Dugongs are listed as 'vulnerable to extinction' at a global scale by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List Categories (IUCN 2003).
In Australia, dugongs are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) as both a listed 'migratory species' and a listed 'marine species' and ‘vulnerable’ under schedule three of Queensland’s Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006. Dugongs are also listed as a 'protected species' in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Regulations 1983.
Commercial tour operations will require a permit from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) before carrying out the activity of dugong-watching if:
- dugong-watching is advertised
- a spotter aircraft is used to locate dugongs for the purpose of watching the animals
- vessels are operated in a manner to actively search for and observe dugongs.
Commercial dugong-watching involves tourist vessel operations specifically targeting areas where dugongs are commonly found in order to show these animals to paying passengers. To date there has been limited interest in commercial dugong-watching in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, no doubt due to the evasiveness of the animals, weather conditions and the turbid nature of inshore waters all of which make it hard to guarantee a successful dugong encounter.
To manage future interest in this activity a limit of only five permissions are available for commercial dugong-watching in the Marine Park. Once this limit is reached the activity will be reviewed in close consultation with the Queensland Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing.
GBRMPA manages human activities that impact on dugongs in the Marine Park, including both current activities and predicted future activities. To the extent that it is consistent with protecting the natural values of the Great Barrier Reef, including dugongs, GBRMPA provides for ecologically sustainable use of the Marine Park. Management agencies including GBRMPA are attempting to address all known human-related pressures on dugongs. Relevant management actions have included:
- development of a Turtle and Dugong Conservation Strategy for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
- establishment of 16 Dugong Protection Areas along the urban coast of the Great Barrier Reef and Hervey Bay
- review of the Queensland Shark Control Program
- a substantial increase in protection for key dugong habitats in the Marine Park resulting from rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2004
- efforts to improve water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon through the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan 2009
- a national partnership approach to assist Indigenous communities to achieve sustainable harvests of turtles and dugongs being developed by the Marine and Coastal Committee Taskforce
- developing relationships and management arrangements with Traditional Owners (for example, Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements)
- promotion of community understanding and awareness of the conservation needs of dugongs through an ongoing education program
- a policy for the direct take of protected species (including dugong) in the Marine Park
- input into the development of a national tourism code of conduct for dugong-watching
- a prioritised set of dugong research information needs
- phasing out the use of high explosives for Defence training in most of the Marine Park
- monitoring of dugong mortality along the Queensland coast via the Marine Wildlife Stranding Program
- implementing voluntary vessel transit lanes in important dugong habitat (for example, Missionary Bay)
- increased surveillance and enforcement.
GBRMPA will manage dugong-watching through a range of measures including targeted consultation and public education, and specific permit conditions for tourism operators (see below) that govern the conduct of vessels around dugongs and adherence to best environmental practices.
These measures will be developed and implemented in close consultation with the Queensland Government, as well as Traditional Owner groups, especially where the area of operation would coincide where a TUMRA is in place. GBRMPA also recognises that key conservation messages delivered through interpretive programs provided by tourist operators are crucial in educating visitors and highlighting the need to conserve and manage dugongs in the Marine Park.
A Code of Practice for the Sustainable Management of Dugong and Marine Turtle Tourism in Australia (Code of Practice) has been developed by James Cook University, with input from relevant government agencies and conservation groups. This document, as well as other relevant legislation and policy, will be considered when making assessments on any applications to conduct commercial dugong-watching in the Marine Park. These guidelines endeavour to be in line with the Code of Practice as well as other existing regulations.
Permit conditions of commercial dugong-watching include, but are not limited to:
- not more than three vessels (recreational or commercial) should be within a 150 m radius of a dugong at any one time
- the Permittee must not approach a dugong closer than 50 m while the vessel is underway or closer than 150 m to a dugong if the vessel is moving faster than planing speed
- the Permittee must maintain a distance of 50 m between the vessel and a dugong. If a dugong approaches the vessel closer than 50 m, the operator must ensure their gears are in neutral and, when safe to do so, move away from the dugong at a speed of no more than four knots or ‘no wake speed’ to a distance of 50 m
- the Permittee must not cause, or act in a manner to cause an adult dugong and calf to become separated, or individuals to become separated from a herd
- the Permittee must not herd or intercept, or attempt to herd or intercept, the direction of travel of a dugong
- the Permittee must abandon contact at signs that a dugong may be distressed or alarmed (for example: swimming at maximum speed to the point of exhaustion, dives with violent fluke slaps)
- the Permittee must ensure that any participant in the dugong-watching program or person aboard the vessel does not feed, touch or alarm a dugong during any interaction or likely potential interaction with a dugong
- if the Permittee accidentally harms, injures, or kills a dugong while conducting dugong-watching, the Permittee must report it immediately, that is whilst on site, to the GBRMPA Ecosystem Conservation and Sustainable Use Group or the Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing's stranding coordinator or conservation officer, and suspend all operations under the permit until the permit conditions have been reviewed. Operators should have an emergency contingency/action plan in place should an incident occur including but not limited to: identifying the extent of injury, the exact location of the incident/animal, and where safe and practical, staying with the animal until advised by GBRMPA or the Department of National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing's stranding coordinator or conservation officer.
For more information please contact the GBRMPA Permits section on telephone (07) 4750 0700.
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