Multiple threats to endangered wildlife off Australia's coast identified by satellites

Ship strikes, noise, light bycatch, oil spills, fishing bycatch are all threats to marine life. Researchers are setting out to map the problem spots.

Australia’s coastline is riddled with threats to endangered marine life. Ship strikes, noise, light bycatch, oil spills, fishing bycatch have all been identified as problems, particularly around the nation’s northwest waters.

To help predict where multiple threats could overlap, researchers used data from 484 satellite tracks to map where turtles, whales and sharks could cross paths with heavy industry.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science’s (AIMS) Dr Luciana Ferreira was the study’s lead author. She told Yahoo News the region provides key habitat for the survival of several species, but it’s also “very important” to the resources sector, and the two are “overlapping”.

“What our study can provide is information on areas where further mitigation efforts could take place to help protect, manage and conserve these threatened species,” she said.

A turtle on a Western Australia beach with a ship in the background.
Ship strikes have been identified as a threat to species like hawksbill turtles. Source: AIMS/Michele Thums

The study concluded Western Australia’s iconic Ningaloo Reef as well as certain parts of the Pilbara and Kimberley coast had “low exposure” to threats. While it found some turtle nesting areas in these regions were threatened, researchers believe “mitigations” are in place to avoid impact from industry.

The Pilbara region in particular is a hotbed of contention. Earlier in January, billionaire turned green-energy evangelist Andrew Forrest warned resources company Woodside’s offshore seismic testing could be harming endangered pygmy whales — an accusation the corporation rejects.

North of Darwin, Tiwi islanders lost a battle in the Federal Court to stop energy giant Santos building an offshore gas pipeline through areas some witnesses said were culturally important.

Duty of industry to protect sensitive marine animals

Focusing only on whale sharks, pygmy blue whales and hawksbill, green, and flatback turtles, the Australian Institute of Marine Science study concluded 14 per cent of species' distributions occurred in areas of high exposure to human activities, a number it characterised as “relatively low”.

Now Ferreira hopes the research can continue to inform future decision making. “Our research gives a better understanding of overlapping challenges that marine megafauna can encounter, and this can help government regulators and industry ensure their activities and decision making are guided by our information,” she said.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers and Evolution, lists an extraordinary 18 authors, with most from universities and environmental research organisations, and it even lists a researcher from Rio Tinto Iron Ore. The study also received funding from Santos which has been responsible for leaking oil on the Pilbara coast.

Ferreira argues it’s “important” that along with government, the resources industry also funds science so that data can be provided to help manage the environment it operates in. “The important thing is that we provide science that is high quality and impartial, and independent from where the funding comes from,” she said.

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